We, the People …. the Customer … the User?

Let’s put this as neutrally as possible.

People interact with public services.

Now, here’s a simple question: what should we call those people – and why?

Perhaps it’s not such a simple question after all. They – we – are many things. We are patients, customers, passengers, swimmers, clients, taxpayers, claimants and more (as well as, but slightly separately, being voters, citizens, residents).1

The question of what the collective noun should be for all of that, and of whether there should be one in the first place, never quite goes away. I don’t think it’s a particularly fruitful debate, and there never seems to be a way of avoiding going round the same circles, but I have just read a post by Russell Davies, which achieves two remarkable things. The first is that he has something to say which takes the debate forward. The second is that just maybe something has changed in the real world which we should respond to.

Of all the possible words we could consider, I want to focus on just three, because that keeps the problem manageable and is enough to bring out the issues. Those three are:

  • people
  • customers
  • users

What is the user need?


Let’s deal with ‘people’ first. Yes, of course we are. And precisely for that reason, it’s pretty meaningless in this context. Russell nails that one pithily and mercilessly:

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.


Then we get to ‘customers’, which is where it gets more interesting. Russell is pretty dismissive of that approach too:

At the centre of the ‘customer’ relationship is the need to win someone’s custom. That might seem like good discipline – we’ll import the competitive service ethos of the private sector! – sadly what you get instead is a set of corporate habits founded in sales and marketing rather than service; born of a time when the dominant corporate habit was persuasion, when taglines and image were more important than delivery.

There are two drawbacks with that argument. One is that in an important sense we often do need to persuade people to behave one way rather than another (even if that persuasion is not about capturing their custom in a commercial sense). The other is that behaving as if there were that need has some very positive effects on both the design and the delivery of public services.

That’s why I argued in a post I wrote six years ago that were several reasons why ‘customer’ might be a good word to use:

  1. because that’s what we are
  2. because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got
  3. because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times
  4. because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well.

As I noted then, by that stage the debate had already been rumbling for at least ten years, prompted in part by Michael Bichard, the then newly appointed founding Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency, who insisted on referring to customers, not claimants. But the use of the word ‘customer’ in the context of public service delivery goes back much further than that – it was used in a completely matter of fact way by a writer in 1951, for example.

So it’s not that users of public services are customers in every sense of the word, but that it is a good idea to treat them as if they were. Designing a service as if the people using it could reject it and walk away forces a powerful and valuable discipline. To that extent, the point of talking about customers is as a way of framing questions for designers and providers of services. As a wise colleague of mine who went through the Bichard revolution put it in a comment on that post from 2008:

Who should really care what we call customers? Customers don’t. (And actually we don’t really call them that to their faces, as surely as we never said “dear claimant”). Customers care about the service we give them, not what we call them. And if calling customers customers means we give them a better service, then who but the customer should care?

When I first wrote about all this, that was reinforced by the fact that in an important – and often new – way, people were customers. Being a customer was and is about making a choice, not necessarily about making a purchase. We did, in Russell’s words, ‘need to win someone’s custom’, indeed that need was often why the question came up in the first place, because we wanted people to choose online services:

In many ways, the most interesting thing about services going online is that they create choice, often for the first time. Not, of course, choice about everything and not necessarily about the whole experience, but choice where there has not been choice before. If there is choice, we can exercise that choice, embracing or spurning the channels being offered to us. Since there are strong reasons for wanting people to exercise their choice in a particular direction, there is a necessity to make that alternative attractive and to market it effectively. The terms of trade are dramatically changed – and at that moment, we are customers in a strong sense of the word.

Paradoxically, the success of digital may mean that that is now changing. If we were in a fully ‘digital by default’ world, there would be less choice for most people to exercise in many circumstances than there is now. Of course, we haven’t got there yet, and as the government’s digital strategy recognises, persuasion and awareness are still vital:

To persuade people to use government digital services, we need to improve the quality of the services to make them clearly preferable to the alternatives.

We also need to make people aware of the services that are available. A number of techniques can be used to raise awareness and encourage people to use digital channels.

So at least for now, I think there continues to be some positive value in talking about customers.


What then of the third candidate, users? Russell is clear about that one too:

User is a good word because it clearly indicates what the relationship is all about. Our primary responsibility is to make something that someone can use. It’s about utility.

Users are everybody

I have got a lot of sympathy with that. I have no problem talking about users (or about usability). But from other perspectives, it’s a word which is seen as alienating and mechanistic. Some of that is just about other contexts in which the word is used – ‘Are you a user?’ can be a rather unfortunate question to ask. But more importantly, it is part of a broader concern about feeling dehumanised – there is a website dedicated to proclaiming that I am not a user; I don’t know of any similar campaign to disclaim being a customer or a person.

In another post I wrote at a point when it seemed that patients might be in danger of becoming users too, I quoted Don Norman:

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer – you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer – one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user – the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused. […]

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.

There is a bit of a paradox here. The people I know who tend to talk about users (and usability, user research, user experience and all the rest) are among those who care most passionately about getting behind mechanistic and dehumanising interactions and who best understand that people are indeed ‘rich, complex beings’ – the kind of attitude imbuing this post by Leisa Reichelt, for example. Criticising her for using ‘users’ seems to miss the point fairly spectacularly. But despite all that, it does abstract from the more specific and varied roles we play as humans. That’s what makes it possible (or appear to be possible) to have a single word, but it is also what makes that word risk being a little alienating.

We are many things

If we are at risk of condemning ourselves to an infinite loop, from people to customers, to users and back to people, that strongly suggests that the question has gone wrong somewhere. As far as that goes, I am not sure I can improve on my conclusion from six years ago:

So where does all that get us? Well, probably nowhere very much – which is precisely the point. Using ‘customer’ isn’t the perfect solution, but its use has had powerful and largely positive consequences for public services and their users. It isn’t the perfect solution because there isn’t one to be found, and the more time and energy spent looking for this unicorn, the less time and energy there will be for the basic job of making things work better.

But that doesn’t mean coming back to the question is a waste of time – and as I said at the beginning of this post, Russell is on to something important here. In some respects, the more successful the digital agenda proves to be both in providing online services and in encouraging people to use them, the less like customers we collectively become.

Much more importantly, I think Russell may have captured an important turning point. When Michael Bichard started talking about ‘customers’ of the benefit system in 1990 it was a revolutionary act. His aim was not to suggest that there was any new element of choice or consumer power which those people could exercise, it was to force his staff to think differently about the people to whom they were delivering services. A quarter of a century later, the best reason for no longer talking about customers would be if that mind trick were no longer needed.

Picture of users taken from Aviation House by Ben Terrett, licensed under creative commons.

  1. And yes, separating those two lists is itself contentious, but that’s an argument for another time.

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