The Challenge of Replacing "User" with More Precise Terms

Originally published at: The Challenge of Replacing "User" with More Precise Terms - TidBITS

This MIT Technology Review piece points out that relying too heavily on the term “user” exacts a cost in depersonalizing the relationships we have with the software that fills our lives. Let’s work to use more precise terms.

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Some serious and not-so-serious words:

  • Wearing, Modelling, Rockin’ (because Apple’s current brand positioning is more fashion than technology)
  • Writer, Coder, Scientist, Musician, Filmmaker, Banker… (go more specific than user)
  • Product, Target, Recurring Revenue Source (because of Apple’s focus on services and how the Surveillance Economy is embedded into daily life)
  • Victim, Survivor, Test Subject (just kidding)

In any case, I don’t think “user” is so bad because no matter what someone is doing with their computer, phone, tablet, and other tech products, actively or passively, they are using them.

Whenever I unthinkingly type “user” I take a hard look at it and usually wind up replacing it with “person.”


There is a plethora of English terms with multiple meanings even contradictory ones, e.g., cleave. There’s a web page for this (of course): 75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings) - DAILY WRITING TIPS

Yes, ‘user’ has a derogatory sense but it has many others. It works for the purpose of designating the person using a computer system or application etc. and I for one have given up trying to find an alternative that is as widely understood.


No useful contribution to the question at hand here.

Thank you for that acknowledgement.

The term “user” offends me much less than the use of “guest” to refer to customers of hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, or pretty much any other business that takes my money.


As a big fan of Tron, “user” means a super hero who defeated the evil MCP software. :smiley:

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I don’t think that MIT history of the word ‘user’ is very well researched. Early computer systems were always designed to be shared. Certain systems could only accommodate a single user at a time, others were multi-user. The word ‘user’ was heavily used before anyone ever imagined a device or piece of software that was only for one person. The negative connotation of user comes from the contraction of the word ‘abuser’. Personally, I would not hold that against the word ‘user’.
For you who are guests - remember that your hosts probably call you temporary residents or even better ‘transients’.

For services and software that require a signon - the word ‘account’ would be best. People have more than one account, some accounts are shared and other accounts aren’t even owned by people. Use any word that you want for the entity using a device or piece of software that is meant for one human.

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it’s both generic and suffers from connotations of addiction (which aren’t always inappropriate with regard to technology).

Addicts? Inmates? POWs?

Seriously, though, it’s hard to come up with a term that’s generic enough but still actually applies to your audience. People aren’t necessarily the users.

It’s not like replacing manned and manning with staffed and staffing.

That’s what I feel like a lot of the time!

“Paying Guest”

A bit like the more recent change:

Blacklist => Denylist
Whitelist => Allowlist

“Purveyor” somehow fits the bill as a replacement. Yes, we are users, but we are also purveyors of the info we obtain.

It is a long standing joke that the only two industries that use the term “user” are software and drugs.

It is problematic though, there isn’t a particularly great replacement. For some cases I use “customer”, but that does not really include all the people using Keyboard Maestro.

In theory, there is nothing really wrong with “user” as meaning “a person who uses …”, any negative connotations are presumably cultural.



Purveyor, n: a person who sells or deals in particular goods.

This navel-gazing thread is, I must confess, awfully entertaining.


Internally, companies that make the best products refer to “customers,” not “users,” as it keeps the focus on who it is they are really serving.


I’m ok with being called either a customer or a user. I’m not a fan of straining for alternatives or euphemisms.

I’m immediately skeptical and a little bit repelled when a large organization calls me a “partner” or a member of their “family” or a part of their “community.”

That said, I do agree that word choice can have an important psychological impact on how organizations engage with people.

For example, I strongly dislike Apple’s decision to switch from “Preferences” to “Settings” in recent versions of macOS. People have preferences, while apps have settings. I think the change nudges designers and developers to focus on the technology, not on the person.


The term user when I’m coding makes sense. Someplace like in these forums “member” sounds nicer.

We should tackle the propaganda that has made it so.

I quite liked the way the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) defined both “customer” and “user” in version 3 of the framework.

A “customer” is the person or entity who pays for the product or service.

A “user” is the person who uses the product / service purchased by a customer on a day-to-day basis.

It is possible for the user and the customer to be the same person.

Perhaps replacing “user” with “consumer” is the way to go @ace ?

Human, which is apropos now that it’s possible that the “user” of the computer is an AI instead.

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That is an important and useful point. For many products and services, the customer is the ad buyer, not the user.

Few concepts about the modern technology landscape have more explanatory power.

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