[EAS] Tough Customers

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Fri Jul 21 17:34:13 EDT 2006

(from INNOVATION, 19 July 2006)

       Design expert Don Norman says that calling people "users" or
"customers" or "consumers" depersonalizes them and reinforces companies'
tendencies to focus inward rather than on what should be their mission --
helping real live humans. "Years ago, in my research group at the
University of California, San Diego, I remember Liam Bannon passionately
arguing that the terms we used would control the way we thought, acted,
behaved and, ultimately, designed. Do not make your systems idiot or fool
proof, he convincingly preached, for why would you want to think of your
constituency as idiots or fools? 
People are rich, complex beings. They use
our devices with specific goals, motives and agendas. Often they work with
-- or against -- others. A label such as customer, consumer or user ignores
this rich structure of abilities, motives and social structures." Norman
notes that it's time to admit that designers design for people: "It is time
to wipe words such as consumer, customer and user from our vocabulary. Time
to speak of people. Power to the people." (CACM Interactions 2006)

Right message, wrong word choice. Don Norman is having an out-of-place
1960s moment this time. "People" have been a political jargon term for so
long that I can hardly accept it as the new term of empowerment,
constitutionally enshrined though it is.
I side with Ralph Caplan, one of my favorite writers on design. If I recall
correctly, in his book "By Design" he proposes that the adjective "tough"
(i.e. demanding) by used to qualify the word. "Tough user" or "tough consumer"
just don't go together. But "customer" still has an association with critical
judgment. So let's hear it for "tough customers." --PJK

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