My friend Jerry Michalski has long held that businesses that think about "consumers" are setting themselves up for failure from the start. In what will stand the test of time as a brilliant quote, he stated that companies who thought about the "consumer" reduced him to "a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash." Now Josh Bernoff from Forrester is arguing that the term "user" has been equally debased and that we should all just stop using it.
The term "user" in the "consumer Internet" space has taken on special importance as a measure of value. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are all measured in terms of "unique users," and every little company looking to make a similar run has a board full of investors asking the same question every month: "how many users have you got?" We certainly did.
The bummer about it is not the use of the term— but rather how much the constant focus on growing the pool of users quickly distorts any connection that the word user actually has to a real breathing person, even in startups that claim to be "user-centric." You stop focusing on the individual people coming through the site and start abstracting away to the clickstream, the userflow, or the suite of A-B tests. All of these tools have their place to be sure— but they tend to further exacerbate the problem brought on by the constant question at all of the board meetings: "how many users?"
In his post, Bernoff cites an essay by Don Norman (a personal hero) who argues that it is really important to focus on the language used to refer to the users of a product or service during the design process. The piece is required reading for anyone who works on anything meant to be used by anyone else, as it will begin to make you aware of all of the in-built biases that the all of the associated practices around user experience have.
If you like the piece, I'd go out and get his book, Emotional Design, which rocked my world when I read it with the seemingly trite starting premise that each of us in just a big bag of emotions and that the sooner we design products that accept and leverage this, the better off everyone will be. For the past year now I've been grinding through cellphones wondering how it is possible that the folks at Motorola, Palm, Nokia, and now Apple, haven't all inhaled and internalized the messages in this book. After all, what is more emotional than the way in which we communicate with the folks we care about the most?
I'm all for dumping user but I'm sure that it won't be long before some other term comes to replace it— author, owner, creator, or perhaps some Sterling-esque made up word. To get rid of the problem of abstracting away the person behind the wallet, the human behind the eyeballs, it takes making their own experience using your product or service the end goal and not just the means to something other goal. And recognizing us as the emotion bags that we are might be a good place to start.