Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Is "user" the best word?

One day when I was head of the User Research & Experience Strategy discipline at Studio Archetype and Sapient, a marketing strategist burst into my office eager to share an idea. "Your people shouldn't do only 'user' research," he exclaimed, "You should also do 'non-user' research! You should be investigating why people aren't users. And even for those who are users, you should be exploring what they do when they aren't users that has an impact on what they do as users."

"We already do all that -- and more," I responded, rather surprised to hear that he thought we didn't.

"But then why do you call it, 'User' Research?" he asked.

Wow -- the power of words. Even though he had been involved in some of our work prior to this conversation, the label of the discipline excessively constrained what he thought we did.

Hence, I'm sure my use of the word "user" in my tag line of "Changing the Role 'User Experience' Plays in Your Business" also excessively constrains what some people think I mean. Aware of that, I do place the words "user experience" in quotes; however, I doubt that does much to eliminate misunderstanding.

When I was at Viant, another marketing person argued that I should use the words "customer experience" instead of "user experience" when I talked about this stuff. Indeed, it was the "Experience Center" I started at Viant, shedding both of the problematic first words. (I'm sure you know the arguments against the use of "customer" in this context, though a great many use that term instead.)

The word "user" has taken abit of a beating over the years in the context of the label "user-centered design." "Usage," "experience," "performance," "human," "customer," "activity," and "value" have been among the words advocated as replacements (resulting in "usage-centered design," "experience-centered design," etc.), with "-centered" also being tossed by some in favor of "scenario-based," "contextual," "task-oriented," "goal-directed," "culture-based," or "experience" (resulting in "scenario-based design," "contextual design," etc.), among others.

The alleged value of these alternatives varies. For example, in the Winter 2002 issue of "User Experience," a former student of mine, Hunter Whitney, and a co-author bemoan how "user-centered design" is nothing but "usability-centered design" to many people; that is, design is often inappropriately framed in terms of efficiency and ease-of-use rather than the total experience. So, they advocate the following:
"...begin to think of and talk about our customers and users as people who have needs for status, esteem, a sense of belonging, love and, of course, usability. Users need to complete tasks. People need to feel needed. Approach what you do from a person-centered perspective. Replace user with person in your research and design vocabulary and you'll be amazed at the change in your and your team's thinking. Yes, it is just a change of a word, but it can have an immediate impact on your team and the groups they influence."
Don Norman more recently joined the fray by advocating for "activity-centered design" in the July+August 2005 issue of interactions.

Yet, the word "user" hangs on strongly. Hence, we continue to use it in the title of the conference I co-chair: Designing for User eXperience (DUX) 2005. And it remains a part of the label of UXnet (the User eXperience network), for which I am an Executive Council member.

In the UXnet website FAQ, we include the following:
"Why use the label User Experience?
We know that some people object to 'user experience' because:
  • they don't like the word 'user,'
  • or they don't like the word 'experience,'
  • or they don't think you can design an experience.
Despite all this, we chose it for our umbrella term because:
  • it's in common usage and reasonably well understood
  • it is neutral - and used by all the communities in one form or another, and
  • we had to call it something!"
So, is "user" the best word? Is "user experience" the best label? Well...