How Do We Define a User?

Picture this: late seventies. People actually go to the store to buy things, and yacht rock is at its unironic prime. To the average person, the word “computer” conjures mammoth machines that fill up an entire room, just to spit out long scrolls of calculations. That is, unless you were a user.

Back then, anyone with the hyper-niche interest in personal computers — and why would you possibly want one of those hunks of math-crunching metal? — was called a user. There weren’t many users out there, but a small company named Apple was vying to win their affection. How? By creating an amazing experience for their users.  

We all know the end to this story. But it took a long time to get there. It wasn’t until the nineties that Apple really buckled down on crafting the perfect computer experience for their users — and not just the experience of their interface. Apple hired a team of designers, including legendary designer Don Norman, to think through every last detail that computer users experienced while buying an Apple computer, from seeing the box in the store, to lugging it to checkout, to trying to fit the massive box into a car. The User Experience Architect’s Office was launched at Apple, to great success. 

“User” made sense for Apple, because it was the term for their customer — the person who used a computer. Unfortunately, though, the term stuck almost immediately. Today, even when “customer” or “audience” or “fan” or “musician” or “home chef” is more applicable, we are all called the same generic, hard name: users. Even our grandmas are users. What made sense for Apple at the time is now everywhere, for everyone, and we still use the term originally coined in the Apple office: user experience

The history of the term UX is rooted in greatness. But is the phrase “user experience” even appropriate anymore? Or have marketers, advertisers and UX specialists bastardized and contorted the original meaning? We’ve written about this before, but here, I’m focusing on the term UX, specifically the U.

In the words of Don Norman himself: words matter. Once upon a time, the word user meant human — a human who happened to be a computer enthusiast. The term was used much the same way that “cyclist” is used to describe a human who loves biking. Today, the word user no longer equates to human. 

User is cold. Impersonal. Dehumanizing. It takes the personhood out of the real live human having the experience.

And user is limiting in other ways, too. User implies that someone is using something — specifically a digital interface like a computer, tablet or phone. For that reason, we too often end up optimizing the hell out of lower-funnel conversion points, and putting minimal effort into the outer edges of what should be our true focus: brand experience.

So we’ve spent $100,000 getting all our conversion pages just right, heatmapping and “user” testing and tweaking the color of our CTA buttons to the perfect shade of #FF0000. But what about all the other touchpoints people experience when they interact with our brand, like packaging, experiential, voice, virtual reality, commercials or digital ads? This entire journey is the brand experience. 

Take ads for example. Do people use display ads or TV spots? Not really. So we begrudgingly spend a measly $20,000 on creative and messaging, and throw $2 million at media, landing a mediocre ad in front of as many people as possible. If we’re lucky we’ll get a 0.04% click through rate — about average for our industry, so we’ll call that a success.

But let’s imagine we marketers focused more on brand experience, and considered the people seeing our ads as brand experiencers. We’d probably serve them a much better experience. We certainly wouldn’t interrupt them with full-screen pop-ups and overeager retargeting campaigns. We’d give them the same focus and diligence that the current concept of UX does in landing pages, websites or app signup, or that CX does in sales and onboarding.

If we truly saw our users as people, we would have to consider their entire brand experience with our products and brand, from the packaging and store experience to the display ads they see in their Facebook feed. We might stop to ask ourselves: is this ad boring? When people see it, will they feel compelled? Does it tell a story? Does it look cool? Does it sound interesting? Can I sleep at night after serving people — real people who support my business — the cold leftovers of my ad spend budget?

This human-centered approach to brand experience isn’t just a theory. We’ve seen this mindset make an actual difference in our click-through rates at Nebo. In campaigns where we’ve poured more time, love and, yes, budget, into the creative end of our ads, we’ve seen some ads outperform standard click-through rates by 10 times, and up to 100 times. No, that’s not a typo. And when you think of media spend bought on a CPM basis, the increased effort more than pays for itself.

Of course, that’s not all thanks to the creative. It’s the targeting and strategy as well. But where others spend $50,000 to get the same number of clicks, we were spending about $5,000. All because we were putting people first.

Nebo is a human-centered agency. That’s why, whether we’re talking ideas around the coffee machine or pitching to a prospective client, we try to avoid depersonalizing words — like user — in favor of words like “audience” or “customers.” Or, you know. “People.”

It’s a small shift in words, but a big difference in perspective.


“We depersonalize the people we study by calling them "users." Both terms are derogatory. They take us away from our primary mission: to help people. Power to the people, I say, to repurpose an old phrase. People. Human Beings. That's what our discipline is really about.” 

-Don Norman, “Words Matter. Talk About People: Not Customers, Not Consumers, Not Users.



Written by Brian Easter on September 13, 2019


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