Why We Should Replace “User” With “Human”

The word “user” has some interesting roots. Until the mid 1930’s, it was mostly connected to narcotics and the use thereof. Even into the early 1980’s, a “user” was largely a derogatory term related to narcotics. It’s Latin roots are considered Vulgar Latin (as in not very well educated or sophisticated), where usare meant to ” make use of, profit by, take advantage of, enjoy, apply, consume.” In Old Latin it was “oeti” to use, employ, exercise, perform.” The Old English word it replaced was the 14 century word brucan which largely meant “take advantage of.” In more recent times, as in about 30 or so years, user has been correlated with one who uses a computer or a computing network. The pejorative use of the word is one who is an exploiter, an abusive user, as in someone who uses someone or something unfairly, selfishly and/or unethically. The synonym to user is parasite. The hypernym is human. In the majority of translations, user is also definitively considered masculine and there are very few considerations of the word as feminine or inclusive of the feminine.

Even when “user” is considered in the term of the “person” who uses a computer the common translation is always in the masculine…Scottish Gaelic is  “cleachdaiche”, Portuguese is “utilizator”, Malay is “pengguna”. Interestingly in Danish it is “bruger” which is neither feminine nor masculine, Swedish is the same at “användare while French has both the feminine (utilisatrice) and masculine (utliisateur) which is similar to the Dutch. But the majority of languages see a user as predominantly masculine. But let’s look beyond the simple male/female aspect of the word user. Check out these translations here.

The word user is a third party, non-human, abstract term. It describes nothing in particular and it’s actually hurting good software from becoming awesome software. And hardware. A user becomes a thing, no gender, no race. So no bias right? Nope. We know from research that coders unknowingly build bias into their code. Perhaps if they thought in more human-centric terms, it would help solve such biases? The word user affords a separation. In UX design, UI design and software engineering, they’re trained to think in non-specific terms that serve the business model of the digital product being designed. They are trained to think of the user, not the human. Yet we have UX research, cohorts and personas, psychographics and demographics. Through personas and quantitative data we describe these varying segments. None of which are human.

To be sure, money can be made from users, after all, they are humans. Facebook is a multibillion dollar company that thinks users, not humans, yet is profitable. Two other tech giants are worth more than Facebook and they stopped thinking in terms of “users” and started thinking in terms of humans; Apple and Microsoft. Another one is Basecamp. A billion dollar company that flies under the radar but thinks in more human terms.

One might argue that personas provide for more human-centric thinking. Not really. Personas themselves are an abstract. They help with the storytelling aspect of building use-case scenarios, but those too are suppositions built on indirect quantitative data, not qualitative insights.

Scale of course, is a challenge. One can’t possibly consider the quirks of every single user. It’s impossible and a digital product would never be built. So how do you think more “human” at scale? Culture. Culture is the knowledge people use to navigate their world. When you look at and understand cultures, you can reach scale in human-centric terms. But that’s for another post.

In the early days of PC’s and software development and still in academia, there is what is called HCI or Human Computer Interface. It’s interesting that somehow, the commercial side of software developed once unbounded from academic influences switched from human to user. Great advances were made when the human was put first. Maybe it’s time to do that again?

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