In the nine years since graduating from college, I’ve worked a number of jobs under the broad umbrella of “museum education,” with some detours over to social media and digital product management. As educators, we’re taught to think about the “entrance narrative” of the humans with whom we work: what is the background knowledge on a topic with which they arrive? What do they think they’re going to get out of the experience, and what makes them hopeful or fearful about the interaction? As humans, we all have goals, aspirations, physical and psychological needs; there is so much that unites the human experience beyond the singular moment of interaction with whatever content I may create.
As a new arrival to the UX/UI space, I’ve been struck in the meet-ups I’ve attended by the single-minded focus on “user” as the human being on the other side of the screen. Heck, it’s right there in what we call ourselves: user experience researchers, designers, engineers. Fellow UX researchers likely spend plenty of time understanding the ins and outs of our users, in order to create well-defined groups and personas. I don’t know how much time we spend on thinking about the ins and outs of the word “user.”
When we define someone as a “user,” we limit their experience to the time that they are spending with our products. This rich human experience that we share, the inner life we all have, becomes secondary to the successful completion of a task. When a “user” is our audience, we elevate our product to a level it doesn’t deserve: if the person on the other side of the computer is just a “user,” then the thing they are using must also be the most important part of their life, at least for the hour they are using it.
Even the best products, the most interesting experiences, the most addictive games, are a blip on the radar of a whole human experience.
I’m pretty sure at this point in the post, some of you—most of you?—are rolling your eyes and saying that “user” is convenient shorthand, that of course we think of our users as more complex and thoughtful than just in the moment they’re interacting with our product. This is an argument I’ve had over questions of why it matters when we say, “NASA is planning on a manned mission to Mars” versus “NASA is planning on a crewed mission to Mars” (we hope!). While there is still debate over whether the words we use change our perception of the world around us, there is value in reflecting on why we use the words we do, and choosing to use a word that broadens the possible. While a speaker says, “a manned mission” might imply “man” to stand in for “human,” saying, “a crewed mission” reflects a deliberate choice to dream of people of all genders being astronauts. Likewise, when we choose to move away from what is easy and conventional—using the shorthand “user”—to a word like “human,” “person,” “human person” (my personal favorite), or a word that better describes that person (veteran, high school student, lifelong learner), we dream of possibilities for them beyond our sites.
In a few weeks, I’m starting a new position with Ad Hoc, a small company that works with the US Digital Service to bring Silicon Valley expertise to building better government websites focused on how real people use them rather than on the bureaucratic structures behind them. I was comforted in making the change from museums to pure tech because every person with whom I spoke called the users on the other side of the computer “humans” or “veterans.” I’m looking forward to talking with many of you in September to build a better vocabulary for your home bases to describe those people for and with whom you’re building.
Want to Learn More?
Elissa will be speaking at the edUi 2017 public square, Anything But Users: How We Talk About Humans.
About the Author
Elissa Frankle is a DC-based museum educator. For the last nine years, she’s worked at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum; currently, she is the Museum Experience and Education Specialist there. In this role, she manages an online citizen history project and leads teams working to improve the in-museum experience for visitors through human-centered research.
Elissa holds a Bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in German and an MAT in Museum Education from the George Washington University. When not working, she can probably be found rooting for the Nationals, running around DC, or singing with the Capitol Hill Chorale.