Jack Dorsey posted last week on reconsidering the use of the term ‘user.’ He proposes replacing it with the word ‘customer’ in the general sense, and ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ in the specific Square context. While I agree in the general sense that the term ‘user’ is somewhat disparaging (though not as bad as some terms I’ve heard – like ‘muggle’) , I think that replacing the term with ‘customer’ is a step backwards. It focuses too much attention on the actual money transaction part of the person’s interaction with the product, which obscures all the more important characteristics of the person.
The problem with the term ‘user’ is that it’s too simple. It pushes us into a model where we think of company, product and user. In reality, we have multi-tiered communities that interact with our products. At StartupDigest we had Curators, subscribers, VIPs to name just a few. At GroupTie we have members, organizers and groups. At bigger sites like Facebook and Google, they have advertisers, developers, members, users and so on. There are too many to name. It becomes very difficult very quickly to think or talk about them in general without resorting to a word like user. It becomes even more difficult because with these various roles comes an interplay between them. Doing something to improve the advertiser experience, may hurt the member experience. Making it easier to buy may hurt the seller.
I think the solution actually is to forget about trying to use an archetypal single individual as our model for thinking about how our product interacts with our community. In fact, that is the word that we should use: community. Companies have communities of people that interact with them. They have different use-cases and different interaction models and no one word will describe them. What we need to do is define our community, define the roles that exist within that community (including the role of the company) and then determine what is best for that community.