June 21, 2006

Still Thowing Out the User

There is much buzz about getting rid of the term user these days. Don Norman talks about using the term person, PeterMe picks up on this, and others are not happy with the term "user generated content", like Jon Udell who would like to use "reader-created content", Robert Scoble who believes it is screwing the Long Tail, and Jeff Veen who talks about people writing the web. I have to agree, well I did more than agree.

Throwing Out the User

More than a year ago I got fed up with the user and wrote about saying Good Bye to the User. In years prior I have watched people having painful moments in usability testing. These people felt sorry that they could not easily use what we built and designed. They had empathy for us, but we just lumped them in the category "user". User is not a good word, it is a dirty four letter word. Far too many times designers and developers blame the "user". We tried to solve the user's problems. It was not the problem of the user, it is a real person's pain.

As designers and developers we know deep inside that technology is complex and difficult to use, but we often forget it. The term user has stood in the way. But using person or people, we can see the pain and feel the pain. Many of us consider ourselves users and we do not have these problems, but we are über users, who at one point had the same pain and struggles.

People are different, we have learned this early in life. We can take some characteristics and lump groups of people together, but there are so many important facets that that make us who we are it is difficult to lump people across facets. The only way to lump people separating ourselves as designers and developers out of the equation and putting the focus on regular people. If you are reading this, you are most likely not a regular person who has problems using technology as they wish or need to. It is real people with pain. It is real people who worry about privacy, identity issues, easy access to needed info for themselves and some easy access for some people they know but impossible access for most everybody else, etc. But, the problem with this is these real people do not know this is what they want or need until they do not have it an it becomes painfully aware to them.

Generating Content

I like approach of Jeff Veen and Jon Udell who focus on person-created content. In a hip world of popularity engines like Digg where the masses or crowd bubble up information we forget that most people listen and trust individual voices. We have done this with mass media for years. We trusted certain news anchors and certain reporters on television. We read and trusted certain journalist, columnists, reviewers, and opinion writers. This trust was not always to the wrapper of the communication, like a paper or the whole network news offerings. It comes down to people trusting people. Individuals trusting individuals.

Those of us who have been blogging for nearly a dog year or more understand it is about the individual. We are individual people creating content. We are individual voices. We may be part of a collective at times, but people trust us the person and over time may come to trust people we trust, whom our readers do not know and do not trust yet.

Bringing People Together with People

So what do we need in these social computing environments? We need to see the person. We need to have the ability to find the person similar to us. We want to find those whom are near in thought to us. This may not be the most prolific person on a subject or the most linked to, but their interests match our interests and or vocabularies are similar (often a very good sign of commonality). In the popularity engines we should be able to find those who have "liked" or "dug" things similar to that which we have the same feelings and/or interests.

Doing Without the User

The past year I have been asked many times how easy it is not to use the term user. Well, at first it was hard to transition because it was a term I just used with out thinking. It was also hard because many of my clients and customers I worked with liked using the term user (they also have had many of the problems that come with the term user). But, over time I have a few clients using people and the empathy for the pain that the people who use their products feel is felt and it is reflected in their work products.

One benefit that came from focussing on the person and not the user has been being able to easily see that people have different desired uses and reuses for the data, information, media, etc. that the products I am working on or my clients are developing. I can see complexity more easily focussing on people than I could the user. Patterns are also easier to see looking at the individual people as the patterns resemble flows and not steps. When we focus on the user we try to fit what we built to pre-determined patterns, which we have broken into steps. We can determine steps that are roughly common points of task changing in the flows (changing from seeking to recognizing in a search task it part of an iterative flow, which we can determine is a separate step, but whether that leads to the next step or iterates a few more times is part of a person's information workflow.

Steps are Broken

One of the steps that is getting broken by real people is that around process. People use tools in different ways. For years we have been looking at a publish and subscribe model. But, that is missing a step or two when we look at the flows. People create content and publish it, right? Well, not quite. We are seeing people skipping the publish and pushing it straight to syndication. There is no single point where it is published and has a definable address. The old publish and subscribe model assumed publishing would syndicate the information (RSS, ATOM, RDF, etc.). But, we all know that syndication has been a really slow adoption for traditional media. It was many years after those of us blogging and syndicating information saw traditional media pick-up on the trend. But, traditional media has always understood going straight to syndication with columnists, radio, and television shows. It was the blogging community and personal content creators that were late to understanding we could just syndicate the information and skip the publishing step in the flow.

Getting to Watching People and Flows

How do we not miss things? We watch people and we need to pay attention to their flows. Each individual, each of their desires, each of their different personal information workflows, across each of their current devices, and how they wish they could have what we build inflict less pain on their person.

The person should not feel empathy for those of us building and designing tools and systems, we must feel the person's and peoples pain and feel empathy for them. Where have we stood in their way of their desired flow? Now we must get out of the way, get rid of the user, and focus on people to build and design more effectively.



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