Stop Treating People Like Users


Although the word slips from my tongue from time to time, I dislike thinking of existing fans of products and curious people on computers as mere users. I’ve said before that the title of “user” sounds more fitting for a drug addict than a prized participator. Obviously, humans are also thinkers, talkers, interpreters, dreamers, feelers, responders, and storytellers. They’re a whole lot more than users.

Usage isn’t everything.

Let’s say that your profession deals with digital or physical products, and they get used by people. You might classify those people as users, but is that all they are? Unless you’re an oxygen supplier helping others breathe, you probably shouldn’t expect people to be chronic users at all times. Even if it does fulfill a critical need 24 hours a day, it would be inconsiderate to monopolize people’s time in constantly reminding them of that fact.

Misuse is still use.

Imagine a pair of special eyeglasses that is worn by a “user.” The glasses could try to make people use them more often by sounding an alarm when they aren’t being worn. They could vibrate when the user’s eyes are closed. While hugging a family member, they could fly a digital banner along the glass that mentions how clear their vision is thanks to Intelliglasses™. That would be a terrible way to acquire and sustain users and their usage.

You can’t always make a guest appearance.

Other service industries view people as intermittent guests. This feels a bit more flattering–because I don’t want to live in a hotel, or stuff my face at an all-you-can’t-leave buffet. But it seems a little off to describe when it’s an app or digital experience. A guest implies they are going somewhere, and people don’t exactly think of an app as a virtual space they actually travel to.

Life’s not about just carrying out actions.

While usage is a fine to consider as a metric, taken alone, it fails to capture the humanity of the user. Don’t act like a drug pusher, knocking on the door to make your guest a mile-high, frequent-flying user. Treat users with respect. Be okay when they are not using it. After all, your brain benefits from a combination of mental exercise as well as downtime. It’s becoming easier than ever to expend people’s energy and time at the expense of consolidating those memories and winding down and enjoying life. For me, thinking back on a past vacation can yield more positive recollections than when I actually took the trip and had to deal with the now-forgotten stresses I had while traveling.

Let the story unfold.

Intrinsically desirable products can thrive on non-use and balance. There is confidence in an “off” button. Music is beautiful because of it’s wonderful sounds, but also for its silence between the notes. That silence completes the story. And humans love a good story, especially ones that they get to make.

Like a boss…

Instead of users, think of them more as Chief Executive Officers and Chief Operating Officers. They are the ones that are ultimately managing their own day-to-day activities and making the decisions whether or not to take advantage of your product. These CEOs and COOs are freely using and enjoying the services of companies or else abandoning them.

People are what give tools and ideas meaning. A cool product or startup idea isn’t all that cool without those people. So value them.

  • AR

    Aren’t you simply arguing semantics? “Treating people like users” is only a problem when you see “users” the way you describe in the first paragraph, which isn’t (shouldn’t be) a problem for any good designer.

  • ekloff

    While on the surface it addresses semantics, the reality is that there’s enough bad design out there that sees people as a commodity, and prioritizes their usage as an unrelenting business goal. That may in fact be lack of design, or what I might call abuser-centered design. Luckily for you and most other good designers, it’s obvious to consider the rest of the experience as well.

    So I’m arguing for considerate design, and suggesting that designers/companies allow some breathing room for the human condition. This is also a reminder for me as well, to avoid being disruptive in people’s lives, and to get out the way where it makes sense.