I just wrote a little piece about how to write software, and it contained a few references to the humans who carry the mobile devices on which the software runs, and who interact with it. I found myself referring to these individuals as “users” or “the user”. Gack; I hate that word.

In fact, I hate it almost as much as the word “content” which, in the Internet-biz context means “Words and pictures and sounds that you create and I monetize.” Anyone who uses the acronym UGC in my presence should prepare for a nasty reaction.

Adding to my discomfort with the term “user” is that I now work in the mobile space; mobile devices are extremely personal computers, and using faceless terms for the people we are trying to serve just feels all wrong.

I’m not sure what the options are, when talking with developers about software. How about saying “your person” or “our person” or maybe even “owner”? Hmm... anyhow, as of now I’m going to try really hard to avoid using That Word.


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From: Kent Brewster (Oct 30 2010, at 07:16)

I like to call them "customers," Tim.


From: Deirdré Straughan (Oct 30 2010, at 07:21)

I understand your gut reaction to the U word. On the other hand, when we're writing software, we are mostly concerned with, um, those people in the context of how they will... use it. To refer to them as "owners" is jarring: distracts us into thinking about economic and legal factors rather than the interactivity we are trying to focus on.

"Interacters"? Nah, unwieldy.

I don't like "users" either, but so far can't think of a good alternative.


From: Charles Wiltgen (Oct 30 2010, at 08:25)

Lately I've been using "the customer". That word does a good job of reminding me that they're a human who's honored me by giving me some of their attention, and maybe even some of their money.


From: James Storm (Oct 30 2010, at 08:25)

How about using the words I, me, mine, or my rather than conjugations of the anonymous "user". Get developers into thinking whether the software they are creating is something they would want to use themselves. If YOU were the user, is that the way you would want it to work.

Just spitballin'


From: Matt (Oct 30 2010, at 08:31)

Given that software isn't generally sold, "owner" is inaccurate — and "licensee" doesn't really have a good ring to it. :-)

I think the term that is used should depend on the purpose of the software. Spending some time finding a more accurate word than "user" for the people who work with your software should help focus your intent in creating it as well.


From: Nick Bradbury (Oct 30 2010, at 08:37)

I also prefer "customers" - see http://nick.typepad.com/blog/2007/07/users-customers.html


From: Pat Patterson (Oct 30 2010, at 08:51)

Use personas - this is well-established in the crypto world, where multiple actors are the norm - Alice sends a message to Bob, which Eve tries to intercept and read.

Wikipedia has the whole cast of characters - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_and_Bob


From: Garry Shutler (Oct 30 2010, at 08:54)

I try to use client over user. It conveys that your working on their behalf, in service to them. All your decisions should be to their benefit, not yours or even your business. The business will benefit as a side effect of happy clients.

No client would ask for a flashing banner but we would not worry about forcing it on our users. We might only hesitate to force it on our customers, depending on whether we think they pay enough.


From: Dorian Taylor (Oct 30 2010, at 09:09)

Don Norman suggested calling them people. Alan Cooper of course has written extensively about personas which are meant to gel the goals and capabilities of an otherwise elastic user.


From: Tomas Kohl (Oct 30 2010, at 09:15)

I hate the term as well but it's damn difficult to find a substitute. 'Actor', which is used in UML, sounds best to me. Technical, too, but at least without the scent of condescension.


From: Baba Buehler (Oct 30 2010, at 09:41)

"User" obviously came from the cathedral-era of mainframes and operators and whatnot and is probably loaded with a lot of baggage from that time, but I'm also having difficulty coming up with any other appropriate term.

I'd suggest "person," except that there are many cases (and probably lots more coming) where the "user" of your software is another program.

One of the things that I always liked about the original Tron movie was how the "programs" spoke about their users with such reverence. It got at the core of why we write software - to make our lives easier.

There was an article recently by Ram Rachum recently on "Thinking of your software as a butler" that I think dovetails into this issue. http://blog.garlicsim.org/post/1388741380/thinking-of-your-software-as-a-butler-is-difficult-but


From: Jacek Fedoryński (Oct 30 2010, at 10:11)



From: Eric (Oct 30 2010, at 11:37)



From: Jon Whipple (Oct 30 2010, at 12:09)

Human. Person. Patron. Client. Customer. Individual.

I don't think "user" is particularly offensive, but considering McDonald's calls their customers "users" I think looking for an alternative is a good idea.


From: Mike Carroll (Oct 30 2010, at 12:14)

Some twenty+ years ago, at one of the SHARE meetings, a presenter touched on this when discussing vendor-customer relationships. His take was that the word "users" had a drug addict connotation, and was perhaps not the relationship you wanted to subconsciously be creating ("words have power"). He preferred "customers".


From: - (Oct 30 2010, at 12:48)



From: Parveen Kaler (Oct 30 2010, at 13:17)

I use the term Audience.

This comes from my game development days. I hate the term gamer.

But it's important to realize that products are created for not just the primary user. For example, I'm sitting at my MacBook at a cafe. The other people in the cafe see the glowing Apple logo right side up on the device. The hardware is designed for them just as much as it is designed for me.

This can be seen with party games on the Wii.

It can also be seen with pass-and-play games on the iPad.

There is a much larger audience for a product than just the primary user.


From: Bob Aman (Oct 30 2010, at 13:56)

It's a little bit easier to find the analog for a website: visitor.

I do hope that we don't get terribly pedantic about this though. Visitors may, for example, still have 'usernames'. Excising 'username' from the vocabulary along with 'user' is only going to cause confusion. And even if you eliminate the password anti-pattern from the equation, the visitor still has to enter a username and password somewhere.

Not entirely unrelated:


Let's not reach the point where someone does something creative and original and interesting, but then finds themselves criticized for using That Word.


From: hunter walk (Oct 30 2010, at 15:43)

people. i try to just say people.


From: Patlaj (Oct 30 2010, at 16:06)

I've never really understood the issue with "user." Aren't we basically looking for a short version of: "The person who is using the [function, software or system]"? Is saying all that less impersonal than saying "the user," just because we called them a person?

Here's something that might be a good substitute though - begin your specification or article by briefly describing a persona (in the Cooper sense) that would be using the functionality described. Give them a name. Then, refer to them by that name throughout.


From: Jamie (Oct 30 2010, at 17:06)

I've tried using "people", but that doesn't work. You end up distinguishing between the person who is using it and other people. (See what I did there?)

I'm experimenting with "resident". Thinking about it as me being the contractor that makes, say, a new kitchen happen, and the folks who actually have to live with it as the residents, seems to work better than I expected. Not perfect, but... well.


From: Anon (Oct 30 2010, at 18:19)

Please explain clearly your issues with the word "user".


From: Daniel (Oct 30 2010, at 22:06)

In this context, I think 'client' might be an appropriate word because it conveys a) a sense of a person existing at the other end, and b) a sense of respect for the person who is (usually) paying for your software/hardware and from whom you want their respect & business (and a sort of relationship) in return. Kind of a nicer version of 'patron'...


From: Chuck Davis (Oct 31 2010, at 09:16)

I've found that when most tech people say user, they mean "victim."


From: Spar Hawk (Oct 31 2010, at 14:16)



From: len (Oct 31 2010, at 16:47)

consumer, addict

User is as context free as one gets without going to 'person'. Meta madness.

Eliminating working words from a working vocabulary has the tinge of self-annointed elitism or pre-emptive marketing. Caveat vendor.


From: Paul Robinson (Nov 01 2010, at 04:06)

It used to be said that the only two businesses that referred to their customers as users were the software industry and drug dealers.

I prefer "customer" or "subscriber" when they are paying for the value they receive in the product. I prefer "people" when somebody else is paying for that value (e.g. advertisers).


From: Yong Bakos (Nov 01 2010, at 07:25)

I thought of this for a while and my personal preference is "operator." Which in many ways takes us back to the good old days.


From: Gary Edwards (Nov 01 2010, at 14:00)

I hear you. Especially after hearing Apache Community founder Brian Behlendorf's comment, which i'll try to re-phrase here. "There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users'. One deals with the extremely profitable distribution of highly addictive drugs. And the other is software; where we find that the dominant distributor demonstrates similar profitability."

Since the reality of the SmartPhone is that it's a WebPhone, i'm thinking of referring to a WebPhone owner as a "webi" - short for Web individual.

Webi's have the Internet in their pocket; the Web in the palm of their hand. The Internet is a platform of universal access, exchange and collaborative computing. A platform of platforms as well as a network of networks. And the Web is the single most important application on that platform. The thing is, no one owns it. No one controls it. To poach from OSS, "Owned by none, used by all".

A webi might be totally hooked and dependent on the Web, a "user" in the traditional sense of the word. But unlike previous waves of computing and communications, no single pusher or pusher consortia is in control or otherwise driving the dependence. In fact, a webi is as much or more dependent on other webis than the pushers would ever want to admit.

Meaning, in many ways a pusher on the Web is simply pushing the connectivity and participation of other webis.

I don't go to Facebook for Facebook. I go to meet with fellow webis. If Facebook charged for access, or compromised the meeting place (corner in pusher parlance), webis would go elsewhere.

Whatever the case, fight the "u" word. Don't surrender your weberty in language or deed :)



From: Micah Dubinko (Nov 02 2010, at 22:26)

Hi Tim,

You never mentioned why you feel so strongly about the word "user". I'm curious.

Does it help to think of it as a Term of Art, divorced from the natural language connotations thereof? -m


From: Mike (Nov 03 2010, at 01:18)

"User" is universally understood and standardized, like "shopping cart" (no, it's not a shopping bag or swag bag or something clever). Complaining about an established convention like this is nutty and in the same vein as using words like "thru" and promoting Esperanto.

By the way, blog comments are comments, not contributions.


From: John (Nov 26 2010, at 17:21)

I too dislike the terms "user" and "content," and also fairly dislke "developer" too. Conjures up images of those who aim to build yet another shopping mall or tract of McMansions. "Programmer" seems fine to me.


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