Post-user, post-consumer

Consumer is a horrible word. User is not much better. Gene at

“…for me it conjures up pictures of a pale, trembling arm with a needle full of smack (YMMV, of course ;-). Of course many of the folks who sell to the “consumer” have almost exactly that metaphor in mind as their success model, but let’s not go there.

A colleague here at Nokia suggest a simple substitute for both words, after hearing me whine one-time-too-many about the usage of ‘consumer’.

He suggested “Individual”.

Does that work? A quick mental search-and-replace as a test:

  • User-centred design = Individual-centred design
  • Consumer electronics = Electronics for individuals
  • Consumer awareness = Individual’s awareness
  • User interface = Interface to an individual

Hmmm. 7/10 maybe. A bit tricky to construct replacement phrases, so can’t really see it taking off.

Of course the real difficulty with replacing ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ in commercial discourse is that they are words which make it easier for those of us designing or communicating with individuals or customers to objectify them; keep ourselves separate and aloof from them – perhaps necessary in some respects (“you are not your audience” etc.) and harmful in others.

Any thoughts?

0 thoughts on “Post-user, post-consumer

  1. John Thakara rooted for “actor” for a while (and that’s what some software designers used already).

    I don’t think either word needs replacing in any of the phrases you use as examples: “user” and “consumer” are much better in the given contexts.

    I think the complaints are a little silly. I’m sure Paul and Jason sometimes thinks of their /readers/ (“but wait! I am so much more than just a reader!”) `and /voters/ (“I paint watercolors as well!”) and even /other people on the subway/ (“I lost my virginity on a rowboat!”). A mind cannot contain all the interconnected complexities of the universe, especially when the mind’s owner is writing a memo.

    The people who work at Purina or Comcast or … Nokia have jobs to do, and it is well and good that they think of the aspect of people that is relevant to what they are doing. ‘User’ can be appropriate, or ‘consumer’ or ‘mother’ or ‘Alan’ or whatever.

  2. “Imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presedential elections.” Idoru, William Gibson.

  3. Individual doesn’t work because a lot of what we’re trying to design is not individual use (or HCI), but machine-mediated communication. Individual strikes me as one hand clapping.

    I’ve always been a customer rather than consumer person. User is bad for me just because it implies they’ve already started using something (and the experience is far wider than that).

    My team is now called product experience – obviously the people involved have been removed. *sigh*.

    It is horses for courses, and, as always, I generally agree with Stewart Butterfield.

  4. How is consuming an act of individuality when you shop in giant mega-stores, buy what your geek chums have or generally follow the buying herds? The things you buy, use and otherwise consume is not what makes an individual, but it does make for an aptly named consumer. You should read “A consumers’ republic” by Lizabeth Cohen.

  5. replacing user, or customer, or consumer with something like individual strikes me as wildly dishonest. it’s like when it became vogue to call serious mental patients “clients” – as if the clientel could one day register a complaint and move on. if you want to replace the term, replace it with “people i’m trying to get money from” so that you never forget where you stand in their lives. you may be trying to get money from them by doing something nice for them, which is better then the alternative. but don’t distort the relationship.

    * User-centred design = people i’m trying to get money from-centred design

    * Consumer electronics = Electronics for people i’m trying to get money from.

    * Consumer awareness = the awareness of people i’m trying to get money from

    * User interface = Interfaces for people i’m trying to get money from.

    that seems refreshingly clear to me.

  6. I root for customer. It’s more honest about the relationships between the (ahem) ‘individual’, the vendor and service or object. But customer is not perfect, so I’d heartily support the return of a plurality of terms wherever possible: a book buyer is a reader; a tube ticker buyer is a passenger (actually in this case I despise the term customer – customer implies a sense of choice: I do not choose to go on the tube as such, it’s often just the least bad method of travel); a pint buyer is a drinker.

  7. I think you identified the real issue in the last paragraph.

    JC Hertz suggested ‘player’ when she visited you at the BBC a while back. Gerry Mcgovern seems to prefer ‘reader’. Each uses it as an extension of the metaphor under which they propose to design (as a game-designer and publisher respectively)

    ‘Individual’ seems too devoid of substance. At least you had a clear connotation for the word ‘user’ even if it isn’t a particularly pleasant one.

    Personally I don’t have a problem with ‘user’ because it’s primary meaning for me ties to the use of technology, rather than needles.

    I’d suggest choosing a word which allows for a level of compassion without meaning that you’re designing for yourself, one that works as an extension of your particular methodology or something that simply conjures the (typical) image that you’re aspiring to create for.

    The fact that the person at Nokia used the term ‘consumer’ probably tells you more about their own mind-set than anything. That ‘lets not go there’ part of the quotation. In that case though, using ‘individual’ might be a step in the right direction. You’re encouraging them to rephrase their communications and that in itself may prompt a change in the way they regard their target group.

    My vote goes for a plurality of terms with the 2 C’s as the guiding factor. Connotation and Compassion.

    Using ‘worker’ myself at the moment as I’m managing the introduction of productivity tools for in-house use.

    (er, reading back this post is best summarised as /agree Stewart may have been best, but I’ve typed it all now…)

  8. *At least you had a clear connotation for the word ‘consumer’ even if it isn’t a particularly pleasant one.

    *(er, reading back this post is best summarised as /agree Stewart, but I’ve typed it all now…)


  9. Consumer=My best friend???
    Certainly changes the creative conversation at the front end of new “stuff” design?

  10. How about ‘participant’? The issue with consumption is that it is defined asymmetrically: producers produce, consumers consume. A number of people have plumped for active words that denote a contribution to activity beyond ‘use’ or ‘consumption’. ‘Customer’ is problematic because, firstly, the dialogue becomes reserved for commercial interaction, and excludes stuff that is non-commercial (think of how twisted ’round the axle public broadcasters get when they start talking about ‘customers’. ‘Customer’ also brings with it a bunch of hokey management-speak baggage that comes along for the ride.

    I like ‘actor’ for the same reason.

    As for having specific terms for different activities, the real issue is when to coin new terms (‘mobilist’, anyone?) and when to use analogies to bring across old ones to impute new meaning. Although I dig ‘player’, not from a games perspective alone but also because it has those undertones of influence (as in, ‘The Player’) which are empowering in a way that

    Finally, how about taking a literature-based approach: ‘Hero’ or ‘Heroine’. Imagine manuals that say things like:

    ‘Ch 3. In this scene, the Hero learns how to sculpt 3-D html-based images …’

    ‘To contact her friends, the Heroine pushes the ‘one-touch’ dialler button and …’


    PS: When is Fiona next in London? And when are you coming with her?


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