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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Users Face Well-Meaning 'Intervention' from the Tech Elite

One of the weirdest memes to crop up in awhile is the sudden declaration by some experts that they hate the term 'users'. "I hate being called a user"! Well, really, are you really being called one? To say, for example, that "Joost has x00,000 users," is just making practical use of a label - shorthand for "whatever those individuals are."

And when working on user interface dilemmas, here's a flash: user is still a perfectly fine term! It doesn't need to be all-encompassing or perfect, any more than "consumer" ever was.

In academia, it's common (dating back thousands of years, but particularly common in the modern era) to use what C.B. Macpherson called a "model of man" that adopts explicit simplified assumptions about abstract individuals and their likely behavior. The discipline of economics is largely built on a simplified human model called homo economicus. Importantly, it doesn't have to be true to be useful.

The claim that we shouldn't call would-be user of various Internet protocols and interfaces (including specific websites and apps) "users," because "we don't call people who use the phone 'users' - the Internet is now 'used' by everyone!" is nonsensical. For starters, I defy you to compare my experience attempting to navigate and decide whether to make, say, a purchase, including my response to layouts, fonts, colors, messaging/copy, credibility elements, ease of interaction, and other testable aspects of a landing page, cart, etc., to using a telephone!

More to the point, modeling a fictional character called a "user" calls them what they are (artificially, but also, importantly, leading to real-life improvement in interfaces) in a narrow sense, much as an academic viewpoint starting with "as a woman" or "citizens" or "buyers and sellers" or "the poor" or "the law profession" must impose an artificial order on reality just in order to carry on a conversation.

For Thomas Hobbes, individuals in the state of nature (a hypothetical place without laws) were contentious bodies vying for supremacy, prone to a never-ending "war of all against all." Entertaining stuff that Hobbes attempted to derive from "first principles."

But our contemporary modelers of men are much more prosaic. Jakob Nielsen simply narrates his real-life failure to be able to complete a task with a software interface. Qua user, Jakob was stymied. This in his role as user. He argues that his advanced experience with user interfaces suggests that if he can't complete the task, a high proportion of users of this software will fail to complete the task also. This probability of catastrophic failure makes the software close to useless.

So what are we supposed to contrive to call these folks? Lovers of software? Software-seeking Jedi? Clickerati? IP-dogs? Jeesh.

Nope. As far as I'm concerned, for homo interactivus, user experience vernacular still applies.

Sing it, Styx.

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