People not users

In my professional capacity, I’m lucky to find myself among many who say that treating people merely as product users is bad. It’s not uncommon for designers to foreground this in their portfolios, or in their social media bios.

Even outside of the design world there is a growing understanding of how important it is for us to retain our sense of humanity as we navigate digital products. It’s 2022, and the average joe has at least some understanding of how expensive privacy, attention, and autonomy really are on the web.

The anatomy of a user

The growing body of product knowledge has the tendency to — unintentionally — establish unappetizing metaphors about users:

  • User as a scenario
  • User as a number
  • User as an addict
  • User as visitor

These metaphors have in common, of course, that they flatten the human experience to a one-dimensional matter. It leaves little room in the minds of busy designers to remember the plurality, uniqueness, and broader context of all of the lives they hope to improve.

The idea of the one-dimensional user raises few concerns as it comes to operate part of a formula to measure success. And understandably so. After all, making a product is about making choices, and if we’d have to ponder the intricacies of user experiences all day we would get no work done.

We refer to users rather than people for a reason.

The right thing

If we don’t challenge ourselves, however, it’s easy to get lost.

Understanding users helps us to the thing right, understanding people helps us do the right thing.

The language we choose


That's all for now. Eager to see me add some more to this page? Feel free to nudge me.