What’s in a word? A lot according to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of mobile-payments company Square. Dorsey, who also help create Twitter, believes that the technology industry needs to reconsider the word user and find something less “derogatory” to refer to people that use its products and services.
As he points out, the word user in the context of software has mainly negative origins, often being used to refer to “a person who wasn’t technical or creative, someone who just used resources.”
That’s hardly how most of see ourselves when we log in to Twitter, Gmail or Facebook.
“It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word ‘user,’” writes Dorsey on his Tumblr blog. “We speak about ‘user-centric design,’ ‘user benefit,’ ‘user experience,’ ‘active users,’ and even ‘usernames’…. While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis.”
It’s easy to sympathize with Dorsey’s argument; after all, who wants to be referred to by a word otherwise mainly associated with drug use? Indeed I try to keep the word user out of Webmonkey articles for just that reason, but sometimes writing around user is more awkward than just, er, using it. That combined with the fact that the best alternative Dorsey can come up with the is the word customer, which is better but can still be equally dehumanizing in some contexts.
As with most debates about word choice and language it comes down to the intent the word is being used to convey. As RSS founder and longtime software developer Dave Winer points out:
Every decade or so this question comes up. Why do we use that awful U-word to describe our users? It’s hard to even formulate the question without sounding stupid. And every time the discussion comes up, it lasts a while before everyone gives up because there really aren’t any better words, and this is the word everyone uses so what are you going to do.
What Dorsey is doing is eliminating the word from Square’s vocabulary, telling employees that customer will replace user. He goes on to add that “we have two types of customers: sellers and buyers. So when we need to be more specific, we’ll use one of those two words.”
Dorsey also says he’ll pay out $140 if he ever uses the word again.
Winer believes in a different approach: embracing the word user. Winer even went so far as to name his second company UserLand Software.
In the end what matters is not so much what you call your users, but how you treat them. “The answer” writes Winer, “is to love those users so much that they don’t mind being called users. That’s an art a lot of tech companies have yet to master.”