Users don’t exist in a context, and therefore they don’t exist

As advertisers and marketers we are constantly referencing our targets by their target group distinction. So why is the interaction design community sticking to the generic word “user” – and getting away with it? Is it a perceived lack of alternatives?

Being Peter Kim wrote an excellent post referencing dealers and users in order to explain why he finds the term “user” being very appropriate. I’m not sure I completely agree with him, and here is why:

Read: Being Peter Kim: Why social media sites want “users,” not just “customers”

If I reference Robert Hoekmann on this:
“The application itself is not a goal at all, it’s an obstacle between the user and their goal”

So we are not creating applications just because people want to spend time on applications, we are designing them in order to fulfill a goal, to support an activity.

If people where to use solutions just for the sake of using solutions I would agree with the term “user”, but they don’t, and we have to stop talking about them as if they do. “Users” strip our discussion concerning target groups of content and context by removing an understanding of the target group’s values, by giving them a generic meaningless name

We have to start talking about “users” as what they are, by implementing their ROLE and motivations into our discussions, every discussion. And by that having a conscious and subconscious understanding of the motivation, needs and desires of the end-users when defining and designing the application itself

– hypertension little blue pill – vascular bypass surgery.


I’m sure it’s absolutely possible to build a community site for dog lovers by constantly referencing them as “users”, but I find the conversation enriched by a long stretch by calling them by their roles: veterinarian, teenager, dog trainer, dog lover, dog etc

The biggest problem concerning discussions around “users” is that they are void of context and activity and there seems to be a rush of brilliant ideas to what these “users” might find useful. Conversations about “users” identify a range of random tools, conversations with “roles” identify context an use, and based on this we find relevant and useful tools tailored to what we know their use will be

Now, many discussions on blogs are very general, and by that it is often impossible to identify a group or a role, but still I find that the term “user” in this instance does a poor job in reference to the brand.

Where a “user” not only uses a brands application but should be titled with participating on it. And since users are the ones reflecting, defining and spreading a brand, “participant” is even more relevant.

Or if on feels like being a bit crazy: MEmans, a self-constructed word for self-centered Humans :o)

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  1. August 15

    Helge, I agree with the quote you reference – the application is a goal. Goals are achieved by USING an application. Who USES an application? A USER. People USE applications as a means to an end, as you point out.

    Depending on point of view, a company may very well want to create an application in order to have people spend as much time as possible with it. Why? To make money.

    Think about a coin-operated video game. The player tries to achieve a goal of “winning” the game and keeps pumping quarters into the machine to get there. If the player thinks that winning is impossible, then they will disengage and not spend any more money. User stops = fail for the company.

    It’s the same with many web applications today. Take Facebook or MySpace. They don’t want users to achieve a goal as quickly as possible; so you connect with an old friend and never log in again? That user is useless to the company. They need people to spend time on the site, so the company can sell more advertising and stay in business.

    I think you point out a very important issue Helge. We are talking about two sides of the same issue. Sites want “participants” to achieve their goals, thus improving their brand affinity/loyalty and investing time into “using” the sites, so an operator can generate a return on the capital invested to build the site.

    Businesses exist to make money and by making money, because users can be monetized in some form.

  2. admin
    August 15

    I agree Peter, I’m sure we are talking about the same thing from two perspectives, but I would love to ad two thoughts to your comment :o)

    1. There is a reason for the “use”. And my point is that we have to identify this reason and use it to understand the context of it so that we can tailor the application and site for it.

    You say a player plays a video game in order to win, that is a motivation. “Player” is an excellent description in this context, but “user” leaves out the whole motivation to win.

    Regarding Facebook: Facebookers want to connect, and stay updated on friends and family. Playing individual games or advertising for Skittles has little to do in this context. How do you get them to spend more time there? New content has to ad to the existing structure of the “social economics” or the “Social object”.

    I claim that describing a Facebooker as a “user” doesn’t help us understand this, it doesn’t add value to the discussion. But identifying and defining the users roles do. It ads context and enriches our understanding of relevance and use.

    2. I disagree with the statement that businesses are in the business of making money, if they were they wouldn’t make any. :o)

    Two reasons:

    First: As Peter Drucker says: The business enterprise has two and only two basic functions: Marketing and innovation.

    In order to do both of these we need to understand the context of our users conversation with our brand, so that we know our own role, and how to expand on it.

    Secondly: Chip and Dan Heath defines a “Commanders Intent” as the ONE goal that should define and govern any decision inside a company. “Make more money” isn’t really a good Intent as it doesn’t help us choose between A and B, it doesn’t give us direction that makes sense to the customers. “Making money” wouldn’t give our brand a consistent direction. But as an example: “The low cost airline” (as used as an example from SouthWest Airlines in the book) does.

    So, we need context, we need roles, and being a bit overly difficult on this point I would say that “user” doesn’t pull all the way through. :o)

  3. […] Then we started talking about users, these soulless mouse button clickers who have no ambition, motivation or context. We started asking people to envision what they thought […]

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