The way i see it

XIII.5 September + October 2006
Page: 49
Digital Citation

Words matter. talk about people

Donald Norman

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"Welcome back," the hotel clerk at the front desk said to me. "I see you will be staying with us for four nights this time?"

"Thank you," I replied, pleasantly surprised that their computer system recognized me as a frequent visitor to this hotel (I knew the clerk didn't recognize me). "Four nights? I don't know—I'm leaving Saturday."

Let us dissect the clerk's greeting. "Welcome back" is nice: It signals that I am recognized, possibly even valued. But what about "staying four nights?" That is a hotel-centered statement. The hotel, and the clerk at the front desk, are interested in how many nights I occupy a room; that is how they think about their business. But the average hotel guest thinks in terms of schedule.

Little clues can point to significant items. Hotels that are hotel-centered will not treat their guests as well as hotels that are guest-centered. Or, to generalize, companies that are company-centered still don't get it: They continue to lack empathy and understanding of their customers' point of view.

Words matter. Psychologists depersonalize the people they study by calling them "subjects." We depersonalize the people we study by calling them "users." Both terms are derogatory. They take us away from our primary mission: to help people. Power to the people, I say, to repurpose an old phrase. People. Human beings. That's what our discipline is really about.

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: "people," a "person," or perhaps "humans." But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as "customer," "consumer," or "user." Customer—you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer—one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user—the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused.

In his delightful book on design, Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling invents several new categories to describe the changes in designed objects over history. In the really old days, Sterling says, there were "artifacts." They were handmade, hand- or animal-powered devices made and used by people that Sterling labels "hunters and farmers." These were the days of artisans, where devices were handmade for specific uses, specific people.

After the age of artifacts came "machines," mechanical things that did stuff, powered by nonhuman, nonanimal sources, such as steam, combustion engines, and electricity. Machines were used by "customers," who were the companies and industries who bought the stuff. After the age of machines, we transitioned to the age of mass production, in which the careful products of the age of artifacts and machines were tossed aside in favor of large numbers of inexpensive, identical products. In earlier ages, items were designed to last a lifetime, whereas in the age of mass production, products were designed for obsolescence. People who use products are called "consumers," Sterling says, for products are meant to be consumed and replenished.

Today, Sterling says, we are in the age of "gizmos," often electronic, often networked. Gizmos have "users." In Sterling's book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, he describes the bondage that users have with their products: stuck in a never-ending cycle of care and concern, of upgrades and new models, of crashes and fixes, of continual maintenance. But there is even more: After gizmos come "spimes," where people are transformed into "wranglers." After spimes, we become one with our machines, so we no longer distinguish between the device and the person: Both are "biots."

Artisan? Customer? Consumer? User? Wrangler? Biot? Each of these words degrades the people for whom we design; they label people as objects instead of identifying them as real, living, breathing humans.

Years ago, in my research group at the University of California, San Diego, I remember Liam Bannon passionately arguing that the terms we used would control the way we thought, acted, behaved, and, ultimately, designed. Do not make your systems idiot- or foolproof, he convincingly preached, for why would you want to think of your constituency as idiots or fools? Yup. Bannon's teachings apply just as strongly today. We no longer talk of idiot-proofing, but why do we degrade people with the passive, inert term of "user?" People are rich, complex beings. They use our devices with specific goals, motives, and agendas. Often they work with-or against-others. A label such as "customer," "consumer" or "user" ignores this rich structure of abilities, motives, and social structures.

Time to admit that we are people, and that we design for people. Yes, I know, the various terms arose from the need to distinguish the many different roles people play in the world of artifacts, machines, and gizmos: those who specify, those who distribute, those who purchase (customers), those who actually use them (users). Those who stand by and watch. But that is still no excuse. All of them are people. All deserve their share of dignity. Their roles can be specified in other ways. It is time to wipe words such as "consumer," "customer," and "user" from our vocabulary. Time to speak of people. Power to the people.

back to top  References

Sterling, B. (2002). Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years. New York: Random House.

Sterling, B. (2005). Shaping things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Donald A. Norman

About the Author

Don Norman wears many hats, including cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being Emotional Design. He lives at

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