Sometimes A User is Just a User

Jared M. Spool
4 min readMar 8, 2019

UX Strategy with Jared Spool, a Center Centre — UIE newsletter focused on bringing UX to a strategic level inside your organization.

Every few lunar cycles, we come across another post decrying how UX professionals should never use the term user to describe the people we’re designing for. The authors assert the term is too generic, dehumanizing, and possibly offensive. ”Users are people who are addicted to drugs!” they exclaim.

In one such post we recently encountered, the author said they’ve switched to always using customer instead of user. They want to ensure everyone on the team knows that the people who use their designs have paid for the design.

In our practice, we have a basic principle: Use the term that helps our colleagues best relate to the people whose lives we want to improve. That could be a customer. It could be a doctor. And, sometimes, the best term is just a user.

Not All Users are Customers

Customer is a great term when a person, in fact, makes a purchase decision. But that’s not always the case.

Take, for example, a roadside assistance application that comes as a benefit of an automobile insurance policy. The users of that application could be the customers of the insurance company. At some point, the purchaser of the policy may indeed be in need of roadside assistance.

However, it could also be one of the purchaser’s family members. Often multiple household members share a vehicle. Not all of them are the customer. Only the purchaser is.

This is an instance where user is a better term than customer, because not all users make purchasing decisions. The distinction between a policy purchaser and a non-purchaser household member doesn’t factor into the design choices the design team needs to make. The few times customer would matter is in an instance when the application demands a policy number, which only the policy purchaser may have access to.

Not all Customers are Users

We researched people using roadside assistance. In that research, we found an interesting use case: A parent who purchases roadside assistance coverage for their college-attending child. The parent wants the peace of…

Jared M. Spool

Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre - UIE. Helping designers everywhere help their organizations deliver well-designed products and services.