• Hey Jack Dorsey: You’re Wrong About “Customers” Versus “Users”

    Hi Jack.

    First of all, I'm a big fan of both your companies, Twitter and Square, and I've always admired what you've had to say in the press about the philosophies and principles underlying those products. That's why I was disappointed to read that you were renouncing the word “user” in favor of “customer” at Square.

    You started your post with a dictionary definition of the word “user”. I'd like to start by turning your attention to its root:

    use /yo͞oz/
    [verb] take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result

    You describe “user” as a “passive and abstract word”. But there is nothing passive and abstract about the notion of use. It's about as active and concrete as a concept can get. Look at the words in that definition—solid, tactile words like take, hold, purpose, result.

    They're there for good reason. The experience of use is powerful, intimate, primal. For a long time, use was considered to be the defining trait that makes us human. We now know that not to be the case—check out this crow—but use is still absolutely central and fundamental to human experience.

    “Customer” is a status someone receives by virtue of having conducted a transaction with you. “User” means something more—a direct engagement with your product or service in a concrete and meaningful way. If anything, “customer” is the abstraction here.

    If, as you say, “the word 'user' abstracts the actual individual” in conversations in your organization, the problem isn't with the word. The problem is with how you're using it. If you elevate and honor the experience of use—and the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and sensations that make up that experience—the notion of a “user” never turns into “a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis”. It gets you closer to the people you seek to serve, not farther away.

    You say that you don't want to be thought of as a user. But you should. Because a user is the person to whom value must be delivered. A customer is simply the person from whom money must be acquired. Which one is more dehumanizing? Besides, we already had an era in which organizations focused on their customers—it was called the 20th Century. Look where that got us: a world full of products and services that collectively grind at us in order to shape our behavior to their requirements.

    Now, a lot of people see this the same way you do, concluding that they should focus on “customers” and not “users”. And to be fair, they come to this conclusion with all the best intentions to get their organizations talking about people, so that they might treat those people in a more human (and humane) way. They say it's too late to save “user” from its roots in technology, and that any term with roots in technology must by definition be dehumanizing.

    I don't buy that. There are many more organizations far beyond the technology industry that could benefit by shifting away from “customers” and toward “users” —and by doing so, reframe their products and services away from transactions and toward engagement through use. Elevate the user, and you change the way you think about the value you create in the world.

    You say the word “customer” “immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on”. And that's true. But do you really want to frame your business in terms of a set of transactional obligations? Aren't you going for something more?

    Square is a disruptive business, there's no denying it. But think about the businesses you're disrupting. Don't you think their conversations revolve around “customers” and not “users”? Has that language really served them all that well? Moreover, the nature of Square's disruption in the marketplace is not simply that you're doing things differently—it's that you're doing things differently with the experience of your users in mind.

    You see Jack, your focus on “users” over “customers” is not your weakness. It's your strength. Don't leave it behind.

    There are 12 thoughts on this idea

    1. Amos

      A few years back during a usability audit an outside company provided for our website, the expert (who used the word stellar every few minutes) made an elaborate point that we should not use the word Users and rather stick to ‘visitors’ or ‘customers.’ She felt that culturally the word Users was reserved for the realm of substance abuse and was too negative a term. On a certain level she was arguing that the word is politically incorrect.

      At the time I struggled with the fact that Users is a very appropriate term for those using our website, especially in the context of a usability audit.

      In any event, I couldn’t agree with you more. As I was reading your article I was expecting the addiction-sensitive reason people avoid the word to come up, and am glad to see some consensus that going back to a classic term makes a lot of sense.

    2. Evan Wiener

      “Customer” makes more sense to you than “user” if your goals for the creation are strictly business transactions. Aren’t we trying to create something more than just a thing to be used?

      Game designers call their customers “players”. Show producers refer to their viewers as “the audience”.

      I’ve heard about an interactive stage shows in New York that create rich, interactive experiences that make our software attempts look feeble.

      Why not just call them “people” and call it “personal experience design”? Does that imply an intimate relationship, one based on trust and privacy? That would do wonders for the biggest concern of 21st century: web-connected, share-obsessed, data-collecting experiences.

      Interactive software experiences are more personal these days, with large, remote companies asking to access our personal information or location on mobile devices, the most “personal” form of personal computers ever made.

      Maybe that’s part of the problem and should be addressed with “personal experience management”.

    3. Dan

      I’ve never minded the word ‘user’ for software…it seems like a more natural fit in that environment but that’s not to say I prefer the word ‘customer’ for sites. Would ‘person’ (as I think we’re fairly safe to assume site visitors are people) not work, prevent any abstraction and keep the fundamental notion i mind that users are people very much in mind?

    4. Kevin Makice

      This is an old discussion for most graduate design programs, including ours at Indiana University. The point made here about the semantic shift from ‘user’ to ‘customer’ — as well as the philosophy toward service design that follows — is an excellent one, but it only addresses that particular choice. There is still a long-standing question about whether ‘user’ is too impersonal a description of someone dependent on a service.

      One of the terms that resonated most was ‘participant’ because it implies that the person consuming the service and the designer/developer/business have some active obligation to communicate. I use that term intentionally whenever we conduct any design research (as opposed to ‘subject’) to make it more of a partnership than the traditional word choices imply.

      There are decades of terminology and professional disciplines invested in the legacy of the ‘user’ that makes it difficult to imagine design widespread change in terminology. While I more often refer to myself as an Experience Designer than a User Experience Designer, there is a lot of comprehension of what UI or UX means. My language may change for my personal communication, but we’re stuck with the branding.

    5. Marty Vian

      Well said. “User” is the right word. Just like “viewer” is more accurate than “moviegoer”. Contrary to our process for solving an interaction problem, we in the UX field often question language that has emerged naturally to describe what we do and, in this case, who we do it for. Sometimes in our quest to find the right solution we might arrive back at the one staring us in the face. Ask this question: “what do I use this thing to accomplish?” and the perfect utility of the word is clear. If we have to prove we’re doing something humanizing by changing a word that works, then we might be spending our “insight” capital in the wrong place.

      I actually propose that the folks who design for “hardware” products move to the the word to describe their customers. i.e. users of vacuum cleaners, cars, razors, or the Cham Wow.

    6. Dennis

      In Square’s case, the terms ‘user’ and ‘customer’ may actually be interchangeable – since they are making money from each and every one of their users, I think that it’s also fair to call them customers. While some may semantically prefer one term over the other, for practical purposes, they are the same.

      In the broader web and software industry that isn’t always the case. For example, when I’m at work, I have no choice but to use Lotus Notes – not a product I would ever buy (as a customer) – but one that I have to use on a daily basis.

      Beyond that, the software that my company develops is sold to customers (people with money), and then is ultimately used by different people (people that work for those customers). Predictably, as a company, we spend a lot of time trying to better understand customer needs, without necessarily paying enough attention to user needs. Here, customers and users are both very real, but different people, with different roles and needs. We, the UX team, spend a lot of time trying to educate the rest of the company on the significance of this difference.

    7. Alex O'Neal

      I think user is entirely appropriate. Both “customer” and “user” have mental models attached to them that affect how we think, but “user” has a more generic model, allowing for more flexibility of thought. This can open up new space for how we as designers think about UX.

      For example, in attempting to establish a shared taxonomy and compatible experience between user personas who were in seeming conflict, the flexibility of the word “user” allowed me to find a common ground. The work was for medical SaaS, and the differences between personas were profound. The common ground appeared when I realized there was a hidden user who never touched the software, but nonetheless “used” it constantly from one degree of separation: the patient. This hidden user provided the hook that tied all the different persona experiences and flows together.

      Had I been limiting my thoughts to visitors, or customers, I don’t think the thought would have ever occurred to me.

    8. Jamin Hegeman

      Treat people like people. Address them for who they are.

    9. Tingz Abraham

      I agree. The word ‘User’ cannot be replaced with ‘Customer’ because they mean different things to different industries. While a customer relates to someone who would provide you monetary benefits, a user is not. Nevertheless, users are just as important as you need to gain their trust, confidence and your applications should cater to their needs.

      All customers are users, but not all users are customers.

    10. Jay Selway

      Tingz hit the nail on the hail.

      The argument you guys are having is analogous to saying apples and fruit are different things. Customers are users, but not all users are customers. Employees are users as well.

      This semantic discussion is pretty tired in my opinion. Let’s just call em’ people and put it to bed..

    11. Dave

      It’s the difference between focusing on money (“customer”) and focusing on experience (“user”). In a vacuum, it’s of course better to focus on the experience, but the reality is that there has to be some focus on money to keep the business running. Where to strike that balance is a major part of a business’s identity.

      Therefore, the sad thing about a move from “user” to “customer” is that it marks a shift in a business’s identity, from prioritizing experience to prioritizing money. It’s hard to fault what is essentially a financial services company for switching to prioritizing money…but it’s still sad.

    12. Vijaylaxmi Sharma

      We admire the work done by Adaptive Path and constantly look for inspiration. We recently wrote an article on “why choose User Experience Design over Fluff Advertising” and have quoted Peter Merholz and provided a link to the article.

      Thanks Again!!

    Add a Thought

    Slide to Submit

  • Close
    Team Profile