What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘consumer’?

What about ‘user’?

More than likely, it conjured up thoughts around buying behavior, shopping carts, and marketing mixes. For those more familiar in talking about users, you probably thought of click rates, downloads, likes, and shares. In both cases, the words, which refer to some group of interest to you or your company, evoked a series of metrics and associations that matter to you. The question we have to ask then, is do these same metrics matter to this group? Do they care that they are your users?

Bigger then, what would happen if we stop considering them our consumers and our users? What if they were simply our humans?

Language has a lot of functions. We communicate, express ourselves, relate, connect, inform and affect others all using language. With that said, we know word choice matters. Decades of social psychological research show us that even slight variations in language can have very powerful effects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Therefore, it is reasonable to think word choice may be what’s holding you back from really understanding your audience — your humans. Here are 5 things to think about as you consider your word choice:

  1. First, the words user and consumer are loaded, as we’ve seen, and may be limiting our thinking. Shift your thinking to see your group as humans. Call them humans in your next meeting. Say humans in your head as you think about them. What begins to happen? If you are like me, their stories begin unfolding and no “metric” is off the table. Are they time-crunched single moms trying to make ends meet? I would say her story is different than a college student, sinking under debt, trying to please their parents, wondering if they made the right choice, and choosing between eating a full meal and paying for books. This is not the richness and depth you will get when they remain your users who downloaded your app and are twice as likely to be male aged 24 to 44.

  2. By contrast, the category ‘human’ has no preconceptions or loaded associations. It is the broadest classification category, separating us from discussing other land mammals, fish, or microorganisms. This is not a debate on zoological taxonomy and subspecies classifications, more just the broadest label we can give the group in question that has no preconceived notions, directions, or feelings associated with it. The word gives us a blank slate to start fresh in thinking about them and a cleared cache to get to know them again, for the first time.

  3. Being human is more than demographics and observable behaviors. Thinking of your group as human — with feelings, motivations, goals, dreams, fears, traumas, heartache, and triumphs — allows us to honor all of this in them, not separate it out and put their “stuff” in the discard pile. Their daily experience does not leave this out, so why should we? All of this makes them who they are and the human that ultimately interacts with your company or product. Thinking about what gets them up in the morning or what scares them may provide insight and an opportunity for connection not currently on your product roadmap. If you’ve added psychographics to your user personas, that is a great start, but keep going. Keep digging for more details about their story.

  4. Humans and their experience are all around you. When we focus so intently on one group, we fail to see other groups, their similarities and differences. How is the human experience of your group different, better, worse when juxtaposed to the humans they exist next to in their experience? Put them back into their context- relating and navigating life with other humans. When your users are moms, what do you know about their kids? What about their partner or spouse? Do they care for their aging parents? We are social creatures, so cutting your users’ ties to other humans because that isn’t relevant to your “consumer experience” may hinder the actual experience we are striving to provide. It certainly hinders our ability to connect with and understand them. Humans are connected to other humans. Consider how these connections shape their experience. And honestly, comparing and contrasting is simply a great exercise to gain some perspective.

  5. Finally, acknowledging your group as humans reminds us of our own humanity. We are able to better empathize and connect when we remember that these ‘users and consumers’ are human, just like us. They have a story, just as we have a story and their story and experience, like ours, is worthy of being known.

Language allows us to do a lot of things, but when it might be inhibiting our ability to connect and understand, it may be time to reevaluate the words we use. While these seem like some pretty solid points to consider, if you still aren’t sold, then just remember: Changing ‘user’ to ‘human’ in your vocabulary is free, it is simple, and doesn’t require top-level decision-making and committee consensus. Just try it. This small wording change may just be enough to shift your perspective and learn something new about your humans.