Thursday, October 26, 2006

Words (and definitions) matter; however...

In a blog entry I posted a bit more than a year ago, I asked, "Is 'user' the best word?", referring to a personal experience where use of that word led to confusion, and referring to multiple recommendations for alternatives to it.

One of those recommendations was a compelling 2002 appeal for use of the word "people," a recommendation echoed by Don Norman both when I interviewed him on stage two years ago and in an essay in the September+October 2006 issue of interactions magazine. The title of Don's essay: "Words matter. Talk about people -- not customers, not consumers, not users."

Other recent advocates for dropping the word "user" have included IDEO's Fred Dust on stage during DUX 2005 and Dan Saffer in his new book, "Designing for Interaction."

However, people have advocated for replacing the word "user" for a very long time. For example, in the April 1993 issue of Communications of the ACM, Jonathan Grudin argued that:
"the word 'user,' which was helpful in early engineering environments, is problematic in today's broader context. ... Computer users do not consider themselves 'users.' ... The term 'user' retains and reinforces an engineering perspective. (And) the term 'user' suggests that there exists a typical user or range of users."
I suspect the word "user" is here to stay. Indeed, Fred Dust used the word repeatedly in his remarks and Dan Saffer uses the term throughout his book.

Dan Saffer also presents an interesting definition of "user-centered design," as reflected in the following words:
"The philosophy behind user-centered design is simply this: users know best. The people who will be using a product or service know what their needs, goals, and preferences are, and it is up to the designer to find out those things and design for them. One shouldn’t design a service for selling coffee without first talking to coffee drinkers."
Compare those words with the following words of Richard Blitz in an announcement of a September 2006 presentation in Vancouver, British Columbia entitled, "User-centric Design Practices":
"User-centric design is all about observation. It's not what you think customers need or what they say they need; it's about closely watching real human beings solve problems, and understanding what will help them."
Interestingly, neither definition concurs with mine. Does either concur with yours?

"User experience" is also plagued by multiple definitions (see, for example, the three very different definitions I present in "Where should 'user experience' be positioned in your company?"). Recently, attempts have been made to once-and-for-all distinguish the meaning of this and related terms (see, for example, "What is User Experience Design?"), but keepers of the definitions in Wikipedia continue to struggle with attempts at editing those definitions, and lots of these terms continue to be used interchangeably (see, for example, Brandon Schauer's "What term do you use for 'user experience'?").

Words (and definitions) matter; however...

Brandon states that "What term we use seems to depend on what sells — within an organization, you use the terms that connect with the values and the understanding of the people you’re working with." I'm not convinced that even that is always the case.