Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

We have customers, not users

October 21, 2012 -- Gerry McGovern

User is a word that lacks empathy, and empathy is the most important attribute a web professional can have.

“It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word “user”,” Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter and founder and CEO of Square recently wrote. “We speak about “user-centric design”, “user benefit”, “user experience”, “active users”, and even “usernames.” While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis.”

I couldn’t agree more. The single biggest challenge I have faced since I started consulting on web issues in 1994 is getting my clients (and myself) to truly understand that real, human, flesh and bone people come to their websites. At a very basic and physical level the traditional computer and websites separates us—physically—from other humans. For all their wonderful social attributes, computers physically separate us from other people.

I love Bose speakers. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to buy some new Bose speakers. I went to their Irish website and selected the ones I wanted. About three steps into the purchase process I clicked on a link to move to the next step. Nothing happened. I tried several times. Nothing. I thought that maybe it was a problem with my browser. So, I launched a different browser. Exact same problem. I saw a sales phone number. I rang it. It didn’t work. Dead number. I was annoyed.

I thought about buying others speakers. I did more research but nothing seemed as good. A week later I went back to the website. Exact same problem. I looked for a way to complain. I found a contact form that demanded I fill out my physical address if I wanted to get in touch with Bose. I gave up.

Now, imagine for a moment that Bose were running a physical shop. If there was a problem with their cash register which meant that it brought potential customers two-thirds through the purchase process and then told them that they couldn’t complete the purchase. Imagine the problem was there for at least a week. Would Bose let that happen in a physical store? So, why does Bose—a company focused on quality—create such an awful website?

Because it’s not ‘real’ customers who use the website. Not real human, flesh and blood because nobody in Bose can literally see a real human having such problems. It’s just users, traffic and HITS.

What do the Web and drugs have in common? Users, traffic and HITS (How Idiots Track Success). Lance Armstrong has been called a drug user. But has anyone ever called him a bike user? After all, he has used his bike a lot. But why do we call him a cyclist instead of user? Because cycling is the dominant and defining task. When you call someone a cyclist you know immediately that you are dealing with someone who has a bike. You get an instant image of someone cycling, not someone climbing a mountain, driving a car, or rowing a boat.

A cyclist is someone you can empathize with and relate to. A user is stripped of their humanity. They’re a distant statistic.

“From this moment forward,” Jack Dorsey writes, “let’s stop distancing ourselves from the people that choose our products over our competitors. We don’t have users, we have customers we earn. They deserve our utmost respect, focus, and service. Because that’s who we are.”

Jack Dorsey: Let’s reconsider our “users”