The Word User Is Fine

Words are powerful things, and some wield an exclusively destructive power. Given the recent spate of aging comedians—mostly Pythons—adopting the absurd alt right notion that discriminatory language is a necessary component of free expression, it was a relief to hear Billy Connolly talking to Adam Buxton about the N-word, and his distaste for it.

Famed for his candid, sometimes luridly vulgar skits, Connolly is nevertheless aware that the accumulated connotations attached to this and similar words make them unbearable. He challenges anyone who claims otherwise to think of a redeemable sentence that uses the word. It’s not that you literally can’t use it; but it’s a better decision, and you’re a better person, not to.

Unfortunately, when it comes to discrimination and discriminatory language, we are good at telling people that it’s bad, but not at explaining why that is so. If you don’t appreciate that certain words help to dehumanize people, marking them as deserving of manifest forms of discrimination, then you can be persuaded to see a moderation of language as an arbitrary infringement on your precious vocabulary. A recent uptick in (performative) racism can largely be attributed to this ideology, I would suggest. Whether you actually see certain people as inferior, or you’re just edge-lording at the expense of those people’s dignity, is the same in terms of impact.

Some words can simply “get in the sea”, to use the vernacular, but others might be less harmful than our considerable efforts to police them would indicate.

Take the word ’user’, as in the operator of a digital product and its interface. Some dislike this term (and, to a lesser extent, the more specific ‘end-user’) because they feel it is reductive, or even dehumanizing. The following is from

Well, first of all let’s get rid off [sic] the word user and let’s talk about people… Because user implies something totally internal: I’m a user, I want to use this machine, so let’s use it. This is a utilitarian/task cognitive approach to interaction design, a rather medieval kind of approach.

I have trouble with this, on a number of levels — not least of all: why should we consign utility to the medieval age? That seems… odd. But also, where utility—and usability—are virtues, how do we reconcile that with considering ‘user’ a derogatory term?

Many cite the drug usage connotation of the term (heroin user) helping to paint the person using the product as passive, rather than an empowered participant. If you are creating a toxic and addictive product/interface, comparable to a drug, may I suggest you stop doing that, rather than fussing over removing terminology that betrays your ill intentions.

A person who uses other people is the one in control, and it was because terms like ‘patient’ and ‘customer’ were deemed too passive that—ironically—we began to use the term ‘service user’ to describe people in the UK accessing mental health services and the like.

Is user always the best term? Certainly not. Depending on the context and the nature of the product, terms like ‘poster‘, ‘team member‘, ‘contributor’, or similar might do better. But where we have to use the term person to remind ourselves that the person using our product is more than just a user of our product, that says more about the arrogance with which we approach product design than any tokenistic attempts at sounding humane can ever make up for.

The term user is fine, just don’t sell meth.