On Users, Customers, Interactors, Participants and Roles

by Andy Polaine on October 18, 2012

in General

Jack Dorsey’s post about reconsidering the word users and preferring the word customers has been doing the rounds of various popular tech blogs. John Gruber, naturally makes the case for Apple “always [having] human interface guidelines, not user interface guidelines”. Marco Arment goes into more detail with the linguistic problems this creates:

My challenge in this linguistic battle, though, is that not every Instapaper account is a customer, traditionally, in that not all of them give Instapaper money directly. People who buy the app are customers. People who subscribe for $1 per month are subscribers. (People who do both are awesome.) But is there a non-insulting term for everyone else who uses the service subsidized by the customers, subscribers, and Deck advertisers?

And Instapaper’s lucky enough to have directly paying customers. What about “free” or mostly-free services that are predominantly funded by ads — the most popular, growth-inducing, and profitable business model on the web by far? “Users” are deeply entrenched in our entire industry’s culture. We can’t move past that attitude without moving past that business model, too.

I discussed the “user” issue in my PhD about interactivity and playfulness in detail. The word is a hangover from the history of computers as calculators, from engineers and HCI folk (despite the H for human in that acronym) primarily seeing computers and applications as tools to be used to complete a task.

This falls apart in many situations. An interactive artwork, for example, does not really have users in the sense of the tool-goal dyadic. I prefer the term interactors because they are people — actors — who are interacting with something and sometimes each other. It also gives a sense of the action-reaction feedback loop, the kind of “conversation” an interactor has with an interface. I like it because conversations are two-way things – dialogues. Users suggest something much more isolated — a monologue at best.

I don’t think customers is the best alternative. At least not always. When we’re talking about paid services, there are usually customers, but, as Marco points out, there are a whole load of other participants in the service ecology who are neither users or customers. The example we often use in our book on service design is that of a nurse. A nurse is both a service provider (to patients and doctors) and a service user (of internal hospital services, health insurance databases, etc.).

This tendency towards words like user and customer also stems from us still thinking in product and industrial terms about things that are services. Square is a service, with an innovative product as a key part of it. Dropbox is a service, not a product, even though Dropbox has product managers (more on Dropbox’s problems at a later date). In Chapter 2 Understanding People and Relationships of our book, we discuss this difference:

“Use” and “consume” are product mindset words and we need to use different language for services. People don’t “use” a health care professional or a lawyer, and they don’t consume a train journey or a stay at a hotel. Instead, people enter into a relationship with professionals and service providers, and their interactions are an act of co-producing the service experience. Thus, we need to think in terms of designing for relationships and experiences that evolve and change over time, rather than just in terms of short moments of consumption or usage.

This is at the heart, I think, of what Square’s Director, Howard Schultz, was asking Jack Dorsey about. Dorsey’s summary is encouraging and correct:

First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.

Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.

But it’s not just about different words, or even being more customer-focused, although that is essential. The change is also about completing changing the industrial mindset we’ve got so used to in our culture that we hardly see it anymore. This goes for healthcare, education, politics, finance, energy, mobility and all the other lifelong services that we expect to always be there. It’s vitally important to remember there are people making them part of their lives and depending on them, as well as people behind the scenes at all levels working hard to make them happen. This is about building ongoing relationships not simply moments of selling and forgetting.

So, what do we call these people? As you’re so sharp, you will have noticed I called them participants above, but I still think interactor sounds better and has better connotations. But really they are people playing roles. Shakespeare nailed it in the famous monologue from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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