In response to Kathy’s note

I’ve been a fan of Kathy Sierra ever since I saw her speak at South by Southwest Interactive in 2006. For a long time, I had been struggling with my identity as a professional; a masters degree from UC Berkeley goes a long way towards advancing a career, but it wasn’t until I heard Kathy speak and read her blog that I found my own voice to describe what I had learned, to describe my feelings about digital design.

In a way, she changed my life.

That’s why I’m saddened and distraught to no end about what happened to her. I’ve seen terrible things happen to good people, and in that moment all you can do is react and empathize. So Kathy — if you end up in or near San Francisco again, let me know and I’ll happily lend my imposing visage to scare off the Internet scum when you’re out and about. It’s the least I can offer.

Also, I have to commend her on her willingness to write publicly about the ordeal. Others would be afraid to even speak of this, but she came forward with poise and clarity to describe the events and her feelings. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been, and I hope that it’s the first step towards living a normal life again.

I’m usually more verbose than this, but anything else I could say about how the Internet breeds malcontents or how humans interpret text communications has been said before (probably by Kathy, and certainly much better than I could state it). Kathy’s writings have meant a lot to me, but whether or not she returns to speaking and writing isn’t nearly as important as her health and safety.

The word “User”

Corey had the line of the day at SXSW:

“User-generated content. Can we come up with a better name for that sometime over the next week?”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a phrase whose time has come to an end, just like “user-centered design.” I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was called “Dave-centered design” but first I’d have to get over my self-consciousness as researchers follow me 24-7, observing my showering habits to help them create a better bathroom clock/radio

The problem isn’t either of those phrases; the problem is the word “user”. Yes, I busted out the quotes — the word tongs as my former prof Geoffrey Nunberg calls them — because I’m keeping that word as far away from me as possible. I don’t want anything to do with that word ever again.

Me using tongs to hold a sheet of paper with the word "User" written on it

It is the most de-humanizing word that you can use to describe activities that are done by humans — humans viewing and interacting with your own website. These people are devoting their time and attention to your site. Calling them “users” takes away the fact that there is a person sitting in front of her computer, reading my text, reading five other web pages, updating her MySpace profile, carrying on ten instant messenger conversations, listening to music, and watching the TV all at the same time.

I’m a human being, and the last thing that I want to be thought of is a person spending all of his time on MySpace. I want you to know that there’s more to me than blogging and commenting and watching YouTube videos. You hide my complexity as a person when you call me a “user” and contextualize my activities solely in terms of your website. Disregarding that complexity is the first step in the downward spiral of bad user research, feature development and prioritization, bad user experiences, and ultimately the kind of thing that I want to keep you away from as you read my future digressions.

So what should we call “users” instead?

Great question. I’m glad you asked.


Metonymy is a figure of speech where you substitute the name of one thing for something else. For example, you could refer to the British royalty as “the crown”. If you have a video site, instead of using the word “users” you could just as well call them “play button pushers” or “eyeballs” or “lazy”. Well, maybe not lazy. Maybe not eyeballs either. Obviously my imagination is broken tonight. But don’t let that prevent you from getting creative with your names; metonymy is a great place to start.

Call them what they call themselves

This is my favorite strategy. If you have a site for people who produce video clips distributed on the Internet, you probably shouldn’t call them vidiots (and you certainly shouldn’t call them “stupid”). They most likely call themselves vloggers. Calling them by the name they call themselves shows that you respect and understand them. And in case you hold that label in low regard, it’s best to hold back your laughter until after you have some privacy (vloggers *hee hee*).

Give them a name, individually

Persona development is one of the best techniques for getting everyone to understand who makes up your target audience. A persona is an imaginary person who idealizes the typical person using your product. The number of personas you need depends on your audience, but a two or three is usually enough to focus your discussions. Instead of asking whether or not your “users” would like some new idea, instead ask if Bob, Laura, and John — your personas — would like it. I’ll write more about personas in a future post.

Brand them

Yeah, “branding” sounds like an evil marketing word, but damned if I wasn’t a proud member of the Nintendo Fun Club back in the day. A brand is fine as long as they adopt it too. Green Bay Packers fans happily accept the moniker “cheeseheads”, but you would never call them “Green Bay Packers users” (and the eerie connotation that phrase has). Branding the people on your site gives them an automatic identity — something to share with the other people on the site and a way to know whether you’re “in” with the group already or “out” and need some enlightenment.

Call them what you call them

What do you call your friends? Your former schoolmates? The people on your co-ed soccer team? Call them something real like “humans” or “people” or “friends” or “buddies” or “teammates” or “those people we talked to at the conference” or “that chick I woke up next to after that night we got really shitfaced”. Something like that. But if you’re homophobic, you should watch what you say around fans of Gay.com. Just a friendly warning.

Last words on the word

Give them a name that you would be willing to say to their face, that they wouldn’t be upset or embarrassed about if you said it with them standing right next to you. They’ll appreciate the attention and identity you give them, and you’ll have a friendlier word to use when you talk about them

And remember – these terms are shibboleths; if you don’t use them or use them incorrectly, the people you’re referring to will know you’re an outsider. Incorrectly calling a blogger a “web logger” is a bad idea. Also, there are some times you can’t use the word that these groups call themselves. The “n*****” word comes to mind as an example, so always be careful that you’re not inadvertently hurting their feelings by the name you choose.

Finally, you need to do the legwork to figure out the best term to use when talking about the people on your site. You’ll be amazed at what you discover. For example in my final project at Berkeley, Megan and I studied Berkeley freshmen and their technology habits and histories. Even though the students we interviewed were 17 or 18 years old, they sometimes referred to their friends and schoolmates as “kids”. Megan and I could use that word when asking our questions to them too (despite the fact that we weren’t much older than they were).

Good luck finding your own term to replace the word “user”. Hopefully the last days of the phrase “user-generated content” are finally at hand…

Turning Point

I quit my job.

Ok, I didn’t quit like this guy quit or this guy quit. I did the standard two-weeks-I’m-outta-here routine. It’s never easy to leave a job, no matter what the circumstances. I know where I’m headed next, but there’s plenty of time to talk about that in the future.

But this is more than a turning point in my career. It’s also going to be a turning point for this little web site. I’ve been repeating my user-centered design daily affirmations — such as “Do it for your users” “You are not a user” “You have to find out their needs” — every day for the last couple of months, taking it with me to my job interviews and talks with friends.

From these experiences and others I’ve learned that it’s a very powerful philosophy that not enough people understand. I also haven’t given it enough attention on this site. That’s why I’m going to start writing more about it from here on out. It’s a change you’ll notice very quickly, so stick around for the fun new things I have planned.

But I’m not the only one wrapped up in change, and before I depart to my user-centered state-of-mind I’m going to linger in the music world for a moment longer. Apparently lots of folks out there think this year will be a turning point for the use of DRM in digital music stores. I’m not so certain. Let’s look at two big music stories of late.

First, negotiations with EMI (one of the big four music labels) to sell DRM-free music have collaped. Why was EMI looking to sell their music DRM free? Money. This has nothing to do with appeasing music buyers or Steve Jobs. EMI has made some other headlines lately, including:

EMI has been going down for the last few years, facing many of these same profit and restructuring problems before just to face them again. So why pick now to sell the music as MP3s? The cynic in me thought that EMI was doing the MP3 negotiations to boost their stock value, making them some more money in any potential buyout. However, checking their stock performance over the last few months it seems that the market is more interested in the buyouts themselves rather than selling MP3s.

Negotiations ended when, as “unnamed sources” said, the digital retailers wouldn’t pay a big enough advance (that is, money upfront) for EMI’s catalog as MP3s. If they had paid, those retailers would likely need to raise the prices on those tracks to make up for the loss, something they’re not eager to do because of the impact on sales. And if EMI isn’t gonna go MP3, you can be certain the other big labels (Sony BMG, Warner, and Universal) won’t go either.

This just leaves the question about EMI’s fate, if they really are struggling so badly. I don’t know the exact future, but I have a feeling Warner won’t be so forthcoming with an offer now that EMI isn’t going to sell MP3s. That is, a major reason Warner made the offers right now was to stop EMI from selling their music without DRM. The big labels like DRM the way it is, and a DRM-free EMI catalog would force them into MP3 territory as well.

This brings us to the other turning point of late. Steve Jobs wrote an open letter trying to convince the big labels to sell their music DRM free. This is, of course, bullshit. Yahoo, eMusic, and others have been way ahead of iTunes in selling MP3s and in calling for big music to sell their tunes without DRM. (Why? To level the playing field versus Apple, of course.) Jobs — like Apple did with the iPod, iMac, and all things Apple — came out after everyone else did but suddenly made it cool.

I’ve written before about why Apple uses DRM — because the big labels want them to, and there’s no iTunes Store or digital music market without the big labels’ content. But Apple is equally at fault; they have never licensed their DRM to other companies (and the major labels didn’t insist on interoperability when they had the chance). The indie labels have never cared about DRM; most of them already sell their content as MP3s on eMusic (the #2 digital music retailer) among other DRM-free outlets. This debacle is solely about the big four labels and DRM.

So why is Jobs calling for the end of DRM? Things are a bit different now that France and Denmark and Germany and Sweden and Norway have all opened investigations into Apple, their DRM, and anticompetitive practices. Steve Jobs is covering his ass, saying it’s not his fault there’s DRM in the music (true) and it’s out of his hands — and up to the big four — to fix it (bullshit).

Of course, in situations like these you can always expect the market to come up with a solution. DVD Jon, who famously cracked DVD encryption, apparently is pitching a system compatible with Apple’s DRM for anyone who wants to buy it. And in response to Jobs, the big four have shot back that DRM is necessary in light of their declining revenues (due to declining CD sales), challenging Jobs to nix the DRM on the Disney/Pixar movies sold in the iTunes Store if he believes in interoperability so badly.

When it was just France who was considering a bill to eliminate DRM last year, that was no problem for Apple because they could stop selling in France with little impact on their bottom line. Now that Europe has ganged up on Apple, Apple is gonna have to do something to fix this. Not even the combined forces of all the digital music retailers will be enough to convince the big four to sell their music without DRM. It’s Apple’s move if they want to be the ones to decide the resolution to this turning point. Otherwise the EU has it’s own plans for the future of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store, and Apple certainly won’t like that.