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A matter of semantics…


Authors: Richard Anderson
Posted: Tue, April 28, 2015 - 11:07:54

In 2005, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Is ‘user’ the best word?” followed a year later by “Words (and definitions) matter; however…” The debate about the words we use in our field and their meaning has continued since that time, with many of the old arguments being resurrected. For example, regarding the beleaguered term user:

  • Jack Dorsey dropped its use at Square, arguing that it is a rather passive word that “is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis. No one wants to be thought of as a “user.”

  • Margaret Gould Stewart revealed that Facebook sort of banished the term, saying it is “kind of arrogant to think the only reason people exist is to use what you built. They actually have lives, like, outside the experience they have using your product.”

  • Natalie Nixon argued “the next time you begin to ask about your users, stop. Reorient and remind yourself that you are solving problems for people. That subtle shift in language will do wonders for your sense making skills and build a different sensitivity to the challenge at hand.”

  • Eric Baumer et al., in Interactions, argued that studying non-users is as important as studying users and stated that “only two professions refer to their clients as users: designers and drug dealers.”

The preferred alternatives, as a decade ago, are usually person and people or human(s). Baumer et al. argued for consideration of “potentially more descriptive terms such as fan, player, client, audience, patient, customer, employee, hacker, prosumer, conscript, administrator, and so on.” But even such alternatives might have shortcomings. For example, regarding the word customer (also preferred by Dorsey):

I still can’t imagine the term user going away anytime soon. Indeed, some have defended it, as reflected in the following tweets:

Nevertheless, there has been an increase in the volume of objections to the term, reflecting, I think, a recognition of the need to think bigger—to consider and design experiences beyond the digital in order to design the best possible digital experience.

I address such issues beginning on the first day of my teaching of General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive course. Students need to know that the terms we use in our field matter and, though not spoken of much above, are sometimes defined differently by different people. This has included two of my instructor colleagues, one of whom called all paper prototype testing “Wizard of Oz” testing and the other who called all paper prototype testing “walkthroughs.” Say what?!? In my view, neither one of them are correct.

Some of the other areas of debate regarding terms we use include what UX design means and how it differs from UI design (see, for example, “The experience lingo”), what an MVP is (see, for example, “The MVP is NOT about the product”), and whether it is even an adequate concept (see, for example, “Minimum Compelling Product”).

Such debates seem destined to never end, which might possibly be a good thing. As Jared Spool recently tweeted:




Posted in: on Tue, April 28, 2015 - 11:07:54

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson is a consultant and instructor who can be followed on Twitter at @Riander.
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