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The Challenge of Replacing “User” with More Precise Terms

In a piece for the MIT Technology Review, Taylor Majewski writes:

People have been called “users” for a long time; it’s a practical shorthand enforced by executives, founders, operators, engineers, and investors ad infinitum. Often, it is the right word to describe people who use software: a user is more than just a customer or a consumer. … But “users” is also unspecific enough to refer to just about everyone. It can accommodate almost any big idea or long-term vision. We use—and are used by—computers and platforms and companies. Though “user” seems to describe a relationship that is deeply transactional, many of the technological relationships in which a person would be considered a user are actually quite personal.

I confess to occasional pangs of editorial guilt when using the term “user” in TidBITS. As Majewski points out, it’s both generic and suffers from connotations of addiction (which aren’t always inappropriate with regard to technology). Yet, I’ve always rebelled against other common terms. Unless I’m talking about a transaction process, I’m uncomfortable with “customer” because it reduces a person to a mere conduit for money. “Consumer” also troubles me because of its implied passivity—it makes me think of the people in Wall-E. Describing people by what they do or the role they play is the solution, and I encourage everyone to join me in working to craft more precise descriptions of those who interact with the software that fills our everyday lives. We’re more than just users.

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Comments About The Challenge of Replacing “User” with More Precise Terms

Notable Replies

  1. Some serious and not-so-serious words:

    • Wearing, Modelling, Rockin’ (because Apple’s current brand positioning is more fashion than technology)
    • Writer, Coder, Scientist, Musician, Filmmaker, Banker… (go more specific than user)
    • Product, Target, Recurring Revenue Source (because of Apple’s focus on services and how the Surveillance Economy is embedded into daily life)
    • Victim, Survivor, Test Subject (just kidding)

    In any case, I don’t think “user” is so bad because no matter what someone is doing with their computer, phone, tablet, and other tech products, actively or passively, they are using them.

  2. Whenever I unthinkingly type “user” I take a hard look at it and usually wind up replacing it with “person.”

  3. There is a plethora of English terms with multiple meanings even contradictory ones, e.g., cleave. There’s a web page for this (of course): 75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings) - DAILY WRITING TIPS

    Yes, ‘user’ has a derogatory sense but it has many others. It works for the purpose of designating the person using a computer system or application etc. and I for one have given up trying to find an alternative that is as widely understood.

  4. No useful contribution to the question at hand here.

    Thank you for that acknowledgement.

    The term “user” offends me much less than the use of “guest” to refer to customers of hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, or pretty much any other business that takes my money.

  5. As a big fan of Tron, “user” means a super hero who defeated the evil MCP software. :smiley:

  6. I don’t think that MIT history of the word ‘user’ is very well researched. Early computer systems were always designed to be shared. Certain systems could only accommodate a single user at a time, others were multi-user. The word ‘user’ was heavily used before anyone ever imagined a device or piece of software that was only for one person. The negative connotation of user comes from the contraction of the word ‘abuser’. Personally, I would not hold that against the word ‘user’.
    For you who are guests - remember that your hosts probably call you temporary residents or even better ‘transients’.

    For services and software that require a signon - the word ‘account’ would be best. People have more than one account, some accounts are shared and other accounts aren’t even owned by people. Use any word that you want for the entity using a device or piece of software that is meant for one human.

  7. it’s both generic and suffers from connotations of addiction (which aren’t always inappropriate with regard to technology).

    Addicts? Inmates? POWs?

    Seriously, though, it’s hard to come up with a term that’s generic enough but still actually applies to your audience. People aren’t necessarily the users.

    It’s not like replacing manned and manning with staffed and staffing.

  8. That’s what I feel like a lot of the time!

    “Paying Guest”

  9. A bit like the more recent change:

    Blacklist => Denylist
    Whitelist => Allowlist

  10. “Purveyor” somehow fits the bill as a replacement. Yes, we are users, but we are also purveyors of the info we obtain.

  11. It is a long standing joke that the only two industries that use the term “user” are software and drugs.

    It is problematic though, there isn’t a particularly great replacement. For some cases I use “customer”, but that does not really include all the people using Keyboard Maestro.

    In theory, there is nothing really wrong with “user” as meaning “a person who uses …”, any negative connotations are presumably cultural.

  12. Eh?

    Purveyor, n: a person who sells or deals in particular goods.

    This navel-gazing thread is, I must confess, awfully entertaining.

  13. Internally, companies that make the best products refer to “customers,” not “users,” as it keeps the focus on who it is they are really serving.

  14. I’m ok with being called either a customer or a user. I’m not a fan of straining for alternatives or euphemisms.

    I’m immediately skeptical and a little bit repelled when a large organization calls me a “partner” or a member of their “family” or a part of their “community.”

    That said, I do agree that word choice can have an important psychological impact on how organizations engage with people.

    For example, I strongly dislike Apple’s decision to switch from “Preferences” to “Settings” in recent versions of macOS. People have preferences, while apps have settings. I think the change nudges designers and developers to focus on the technology, not on the person.

  15. The term user when I’m coding makes sense. Someplace like in these forums “member” sounds nicer.

  16. We should tackle the propaganda that has made it so.

  17. I quite liked the way the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) defined both “customer” and “user” in version 3 of the framework.

    A “customer” is the person or entity who pays for the product or service.

    A “user” is the person who uses the product / service purchased by a customer on a day-to-day basis.

    It is possible for the user and the customer to be the same person.

    Perhaps replacing “user” with “consumer” is the way to go @ace ?

  18. Human, which is apropos now that it’s possible that the “user” of the computer is an AI instead.

  19. That is an important and useful point. For many products and services, the customer is the ad buyer, not the user.

    Few concepts about the modern technology landscape have more explanatory power.

  20. I am a user of tools. A computer is a tool. Therefore I am a computer user. It’s a very basic, and very old, English word that describes a relationship to the computer or software running on it.

    If we want to get picky, the word “customer” is used extensively within large corporations in the context of “internal customers”… which does not involve money changing hands at all.

    There are “connotations” to lots of words and many of those connotations are context-sensitive. Unless we are discriminating against groups of people, I say we should move on.

  21. There is a saying among sys admins that the initial “l” in “user” is silent.

  22. Obviously we should adopt MIT’s jargon for ITS and call them “lusers”.

  23. How about a new but existing word: tekun (tek’-un). Copilot says it’s a word with a positive meaning.

    “tekun” is a valid word in the Indonesian language. It translates into English as “industrious”, “persevere”, “diligent”, “zealous”, among others¹²³. The context in which it’s used can influence its exact meaning. For example, it can refer to someone who is hard-working and diligent, or it can refer to the act of persevering¹²³.

    Source: Conversation with Bing, 5/6/2024
    (1) tekun in English - Malay-English Dictionary | Glosbe. tekun in English - Malay-English Dictionary | Glosbe.
    (2) TEKUN - Translation in English -
    (3) tekun in English - Indonesian-English Dictionary | Glosbe. tekun in English - Indonesian-English Dictionary | Glosbe.
    (4) What does tekun mean? - What does tekun mean?.

  24. I worked at a place where the standard was to call them clients.

    Everywhere else I’ve worked over 30+ years it’s been users. I prefer users. :man_shrugging:t3:

  25. Exactly my thinking. I often recall the vaunted way they refer to “Users.”

  26. A client is a piece of software :smile:

  27. I have been thinking about the use of such general terms as “user” and “consumer” for some time. On one hand, I am inclined to think that “user” is not a problem - since it accurately describes my role as someone using the product. However, it will be helpful and more precise to append a modifier to “user” - as well as some explicit description of personas if such a schema is used in UX or software development. It may also reduce chances of confusion since sometimes “users” are used to refer to both the human user and their representation (as user account, etc.).

    On the other hand, I detest being called a “consumer” - since it implies that I consume for the sake of consuming, and that I am supposed to or driven by an imperative to do so. If I am wearing the economist hat, I might find this generalisation helpful - otherwise no useful model can be constructed.

    This begs the question whether arguments for the two cases are interchangeable - of course they are. One can always say that “users” are supposed to behave in a certain way, and if they behave differently, it is a matter of holding the phone wrong. Equally, one can say the same about us as “consumers” having certain basic consumption needs as human beings, and that we need to fulfil basic consumption to realise human potential.

    I guess the difference is the underlying context surrounding the use of such general terms to refer to groups of people with certain characteristics. If we start from a position of respect and consideration - that there are people with certain problems to solve and our tools can help them - the harmful effects of dehumanisation through the choice of words can be minimised. If we start from a position of institutionalisation for extraction and rent seeking, then the choice of words is just a matter of virtue signalling.

    The mention of virtue signalling reminds me of Goodhart’s Law, i.e. “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. We can call users “people” or such other words, but the substitutes will not miraculously solve the attitude of indifference or other underlying issues on everyone involved (I believe that includes “users” themselves - I like to think of “using” as an active act of participation, not of passive acceptance and learned helplessness).

    For example, the use of the term “sustainable” nowadays is ubiquitous and in many cases, unthinking. Labelling something “sustainable” does not make something better, in fact it is more likely to lull us into thinking that all is good and not examine the supply chain, company philosophy and practice, etc. It will be more helpful to examine how the goods and services are being produced and how the people involved actually behave - instead of relying on labels and slogans.

    I believe the same applies to “users” - I am all for great app creators referring to me as “users”, and not for a non-responsive monopoly that creates horrible apps to refer to me as “partner” or “member” in the hope of inducing fuzzy warm feelings.

  28. “A user is also, of course, someone who struggles with addiction.” [bold added]
    A user is simply a person using some thing (physical or virtual). Why the term ‘user’ would imply addiction is beyond my comprehension. Everyone knows what someone means when we talk about a ‘user’ in relation to computing devices (including it’s applications), why complicate things? Let users be users and be happy :blush:

  29. User is a simple, straightforward and accurate description for us using our computers. Someone with an addiction problem is an addict, including those who obsessively look at their iPhone every few seconds.

  30. WIELDER!

    “By Jobs’ Hammer, I…”

  31. Well, it doesn’t involve money entering or leaving the corporation, but it often involves money moving between various groups’ budgets within the corporation.

  32. I don’t disagree, tbh. I thought it was more than a bit pretentious, but given that it was a university and the IT boss wanted to project a “collaborative” vibe (despite being less than intuitive wrt relationships/relationship management) it’s what we were stuck with.

  33. With regards to ‘user’ and drug users, isn’t that a slang or jargon term anyway (especially in the US); surely the actual literal term is ‘drug addict’?

    It’s just the term user has been co-opted by certain dependency agencies to refer to their ‘clients’ who are the ‘consumers’ of drugs, sold to them as ‘customers’ of drug dealers and/or stores.

    A person in this predicament may be one ‘partner’ in a relationship, as part of a ‘family’ group, then a ‘member’ of certain other groups in the ‘community’.

  34. And there’s a reason we call it “funny money”. It does not always have the connotations suggested.

    Some companies treat the word “customer” as a hallowed term because they believe they owe their customers something.

    We do we sit on programmer/developer/analyst or tester/test analyst/QA engineer or operator/sysadmin/engineer? And lest anyone be thinking “those are just roles”… so is “user”.

    If we think “user” is denigrating, please don’t let me explain other terms that have been, and are still, used for the ones we don’t like.

  35. We are creators. We use our technology to create.

    From the Thesaurus in the Dictionary application:
    “He is the creator of several hit musicals. writer, author, composer, designer, deviser, maker, inventor, producer, developer; originator, initiator, instigator, generator, engineer, architect, mastermind, prime mover, father, mother; literary begetter.”

  36. I have been using computers all my adult life. I spent much of my life treating people who had substance use disorders. In each context, the term “user” can have positive or negative connotations or none. I have never noticed the one sense of the term bleeding into the other context.

    FWIW, I am a big believer in the notion that our vocabulary choices, both as individuals and as a society, can have a profound effect on how we think about the world. For me, however, I just haven’t observed any problems with the word “user.”

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