Should IT Stop Referring to Business People as Users?

Ann All

I love having smart readers, especially those who take the time and trouble to leave thought-provoking comments on my blog posts. Yesterday I wrote about the need for a user-centric approach to business process management. As with many other enterprise applications, involving users early and often in implementations increases the odds that folks will actually use the app, generating better results for the company.


A reader named John Owens left a complimentary comment that took issue with one thing: my repeated use of the term "users." Now I use this term a lot, typically to describe business folks who consume IT services. I began using that word when I first started writing about technology many moons ago, because it seemed to be the accepted industry term. Now I stick to it out of habit. As with most habits, little if any thought goes into it. But John's comment got me thinking.


As John notes, the term was introduced by IT and "was half a step up from punters." I knew punters was a British/Australian term, but thought it had something to do with football (soccer to us Yanks). Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out it also means a patron of a prostitute or a gambler. (Thanks, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary!) Wrote John Owens:

I have often shared that there are two professions that persistently refer to their customers as "users". One is drug pushers, the other is IT. Some people would argue that the former value their customers more than the latter and do them less harm!

I went to one of our IT guys to get his opinion. Even though he's surely tired of my instant messages that begin, "Got a weird question for you..." he always takes the time to offer his thoughts. It turns out there is a perfectly logical explanation for why most IT folks refer to business people as users. As he explained, "Most back-end systems call an account a username."


Still, users might not be the best word, as it does carry a vaguely negative connotation. When's the last time you heard anything about a user contributing anything positive to a relationship?


My first thought for a possible replacement was customer. But I think it still suggests a person who simply consumes services without bringing anything to the table, not a characterization that most business people would like. Also, customer is generally used to describe external customers, which could lead to discussions in which you'd need to clarify whether you meant internal or external customers.


Deb Miller, director of market development for BPM software provider Global 360 and author of a fine post I cited in my own yesterday, chimed in to say she's used the term process participants. I like it much better than customer, as I think it suggests a more active role for business folks. Strong participation from the business increases the odds of a successful implementation of business process management. (Or just about any enterprise application really, at least those that count on folks using them to achieve business goals.)


In a shiny, happy world, maybe the term partner would be appropriate? To me, partner implies a more equal degree of participation. Any thoughts?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 29, 2010 11:04 AM Chris Curran Chris Curran  says:

As a blanket term, I think "users" is not a great term.  Maybe "colleagues," "fellow employees," or just "hey you."

However, I think in the right context "user" works as it can put the right focus on the conversations, interactions and priorities.  If I'm a systems designer, calling the business representatives I work with "users" is fine as it keeps me focused on their role.  Likewise, if I'm in IT ops and I call business colleagues, "customers" it can also keep the focus where it should be.  But this is not just an IT question - HR, procurement, legal, etc also have this challenge.

Thanks Ann.


Aug 2, 2010 9:13 AM alisha alisha  says: in response to Chris Curran

o       Hat's off. Well done, as we know that 'hard work always pays off',

after a long struggle with sincere effort it's done.



Aug 2, 2010 6:31 PM Aaron Aaron  says:

I agree with not "Referring to Business People as Users" however "End-User" would be very appropriate, as this is what they are.


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