When we say “human” instead of “user”

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

It is embedded in the very acronym itself, it is the parlance of the everyday in the world of digital products and services. The title of books, blog posts and industry articles. It’s there. It’s the “user”. This abstract that we design for, in which we strive to create an incredible experience for, that we painfully map out. We use stories to guide the interface and the experience, to set the sprints and the tasks, the iterations and the metrics. All for the users. It is, as many in the digital product world will say, all about the user. Except it isn’t. And it is.

Ironically when computer scientists began to create software in earnest, when they began to realize that computers were probably going to be used by a lot more people in a lot more ways, they needed to figure out what the human part of development was going to be called. They called it Human-Computer Interaction, later, Interface became more common (HCI). The first known use of which was many internet millennia ago in 1975. HCI came into more regular use in the 1980’s. Much of HCI was also around the physical elements; keyboard, mouse, touchscreen and then software itself. Today, UI or User Interface relates more to the software component, be that mobile apps, web or native apps. But the word “user” became the de facto term to mean the ways in which humans interact with digital products and information technologies.

In my work as a digital anthropologist, I work at the intersection of humans and digital. From product research and strategy to UX and UI design, helping startups and other businesses become more digitally mature, have better digital governance and truly connect with humans. Not users. While I’m not saying we should drop the word user (although that would be nice), whenever I’ve worked on digital product design and product management, there are a number of steps along the way where we drop the word user and instead use human. Interestingly, it shifts the mindset of the UX and UI designers, DevOps teams and even the product owner themselves and, most interestingly, engineering.

We use for example, the term Human Persona instead of User Persona. Sometimes use Human Experience instead of User Experience. Human analysis instead of user analysis. If you’re using a Design Thinking process at the start, thinking more in terms of humans can help change the perspective as well. After all, at the end of the day, you’re looking to solve a problem for humans. Not an abstract user. When we think in the abstract, it influences how we approach things, from solving a problem to designing a product. Sometimes, that isn’t helpful.

One value to the word user is that it does allow for separation of too much empathy when you’re deep into the development phase or just working towards an iteration or through sprints. But when you introduce human at the start, at places along the way and when designing the UX part of it all, it evokes empathy. It’s similar to our relationship “with animals” as if we aren’t animals, but we are animals. We like to separate ourselves to feel distinguished, but the brutal reality is, we are not. Even snakes and reptiles have brains, eyes and a heart.

Another aspect of using human in the design and development process is that it triggers more social thinking in our minds. A user is an individual. And that is extremely important when thinking about the specific way a human will use a product at a given time in the experience. But adding human gets us thinking in multiples, socially. We are, by our very nature, social animals. One goal of a product owner and marketing is to get as many people using the product as possible. A user doesn’t share, a human does.

So if you’re a product owner/manager or a UX/UI/CX person, as you go through your process, find places to replace user with human. We know words have power. They can change the way we think about and see the world. When you launch a product into the market, there are no users, only humans using it.



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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious