While freelancing throughout the past decade, I’ve had my fair share of tough clients.
From swoop-and-poopers to nickel-and-dimers, I’ve found myself contractually obligated to some pretty frustrating people. Sure, working with bad clients is about as fun as watching Fifty Shades of Gray with your parents, but it’s part of the education you receive in the school of hard knocks.
If you ask me, bad clients pale in comparison to another insidious condition of the design industry. We all know that every discipline has its own set of obfuscating buzzwords meant to hide the fact most people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about, but in this case, I’m talking about one tiny word.
This word has become bastardized beyond repair.
Not only has this word been stripped of any meaning — it shouldn’t be in our vocabulary in the first place.
Are you ready for it?
I know, I can be a little overdramatic, but can you blame me?
I understand why designers are obsessed with this word. It gives us a convenient label for the people who use the products and services we help design.
What else would you call them?
Much like how many of us take free Wi-Fi or even a college education for granted, we designers have also started taking people for granted.
We claim to care about their goals and pain points as we conduct user interviews.
We promise to have empathy for them as we lump them into user personas (another term that grinds my gears).
We gather user feedback and then present a final product that, many times, these people have no choice but to use.
If you ask me, we’re the ones using them.
Let me rephrase that — the companies and institutions we work for are using them. As if this wasn’t bad enough, when we use this word, we’re also giving our clients permission to use it.
We might as well be calling their customers Mudbloods.
Thanks to the word “user,” we now have to answer a question more pervasive than, “What house are you in?”
It’s now on the tip of every client’s tongue:
“Will our users use this?”
Since adding the words “user” and “experience” to my job description, I’ve heard this question more times than I have pulled out my phone while on the toilet.
Why Designers Should Stop Using Users
For the most part, our clients aren’t trying to be malicious — they’re asking this question from a place of fear. After all, there’s a good chance their livelihood depends on whether or not people use (and pay for) the thing they’re trying to create or sell. (Did I just describe economics in one sentence?)
In the end, this fear usually outweighs logic and reasoning, which means these client relationships can often become super frustrating.
Painful Product Meetings
I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to sit in on meetings where product owners or business managers at huge corporations have said:
“Who cares if they want to use it or not? We’ll make them!”
“Have we talked to people? I have no idea. We have deadlines to meet!”
“Where else are they going to go? They don’t have any other choice.”
As you can tell, I’ve become just a teeny bit jaded when it comes to putting faith in large companies to do what’s right and actually talk to the people they’re supposed to serve.
So, what exactly are we supposed to do?
In this case, each time we use the term “users,” we move one step away from remembering that these are actual humans. Over time, these tiny steps add up and suddenly you have executives and managers making decisions that clearly reflect a blatant disregard for people.
Instead, stop obsessing over their personas and start talking to them. If you’re really wrapped around the axle on this, why not make things easier and just call them people? Whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or on your own, you should do what you have to do in order to get in front of these people.
Explain how important it is to hear directly from the people you’re trying to help.
Hell, if your boss still refuses, simply point out how much time and money you’ll ultimately save if you first design the right thing before you design the thing right.
I wish I could take credit for this. It’s one of those clever design thinking mottos.
Why Users Aren’t Useful
Dropping the term “users” may not seem like an earth-shattering change, but it can be the small nudge that gets the boulder rolling downhill.
When you address this sort of human-focused approach with clients, the most important thing is to meet your clients where they are. If you happen to be working with people who have never even heard of “human-centered design” or “design thinking,” you’ll need to start slowly and explain their value.
If you start by humanizing people, pretty soon you’ll help build an intentional culture that actually gives a damn about real human beings.
We can all dream, can’t we?