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Essays — Of Mice and Men, and Users

To paraphrase the Elephant Man, "I am not a user! I am a human being! Iamaman!"

Users.

That's what we call people who use computer applications or visit websites. Technical writers put together books called user guides or user manuals. Usability professionals assess how easy, or difficult, it is for people to use an application or website. They focus on the user interface - that combination of on-screen metaphors, symbols, and software elements that enables users to navigate and use an application or website to accomplish a task or find information.

Users are also frequently called by the somewhat nebulous and redundant term end users. How did all this start? In a world of mice and menus and webs and spiders and dialogs and hackers and spam, is user really the best that we could come up with? I've always thought that user is vague sounding at best and saddled with implied baggage at worst. Call someone a user in passing conversation and it's usually not a compliment.

People use all kinds of things. Cars. Bicycles. Toasters. Airplanes. But, we don't generally call people using those things users. We call them drivers and cyclists and consumers and pilots or passengers or flyers. That is, unless someone like a usability expert is looking at how people use cars or bicycles or toasters or airplanes, in which context the people using them might accurately be called users. But why are only people who use computers always called simply users? What about Computerists? Or computerers? Or digitalists? Or digitalers? Uh-oh. Maybe user got where it is because there is no single good replacement.

Maybe computer applications and websites are somehow different than bicycles and cars and airplanes and toasters? Users of computer applications and websites can be internal or external to the company that makes them. They can be consumers and customers and employees, or just digital passers-by who visit a website. Also, the experience of using a computer involves interacting with both software and hardware simultaneously. I suppose all of this is what makes it so difficult to come up with a different word than user. It's such an umbrella term. Maybe a little like scientist or athlete, both of which embrace large and small specific sub-groups such as meteorologist, botanist, skateboarder, or gymnast. But both athlete and scientist are just so much more alive and less plain than the pedestrian, literal, and faintly onomatopoeic user.

I suspect that user is a holdover from the early days of computing, along with the thankfully less-common execute and abort. And it probably persists because no one could think of anything better. Or maybe no one ever tried. Then again, maybe I'm the only one wondering about this. Oh well. Sisyphus has an easier day job than trying to replace user in the vernacular of things computer related. That particular Elvis has left the building. We have user names and registered users and user groups and user audiences and user interfaces. The entrenchment is total.

So, what am I to do? I'll do what any good user does when attempting to answer the un-answerable, understand the un-understandable, and maybe someday change the un-changeable

"Hi-ho Google! Away!"

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© 2007. All photographs, fiction, and work samples on this site are the copyrighted property of Jerome A. Meredith.