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Don't call them "users"

·2 mins

There is a powerful quote from “The Social Dilemma”, a documentary on Neflix about the dangers of social media and big tech.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

That line has stuck with me. I happen to work in data infrastructure. In fact, my team is responsible for setting up infrastructure and systems that power decision making at companies, but those systems could also easily be used to help surveillance capitalism thrive. When we treat customers (people) as a opaque, digital, lifeless form - a row in a database table - we’re more likely to take actions that may improve short term outcomes for the companies we represent (example - targeted FB ad for revenue growth) at the expense of the experience of the invididual on the other side of the screen.

How can we do better?

We came up with a challenge for ourself last quarter: don’t call them users. Whenever possible, let’s resist the term “users” when we’re referring to humans using the products that we’re analyzing, both in code and in communication. We’ve tried this for the past 3 months, and it’s had a dramatic effect in the way we work, the types of decisions that we help inspire, and we hope - improved outcomes for our client’s customers. When building a WAU chart for a learning management system - how about Weekly Active Student? Need a canonical primary key in your dbt models? Why not accountant_id, or developer_id, or educator_id?

Granted, this is incredibly hard given how entrenched the term “user” is in software engineering, UX design, and product management; but because something is hard doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. In fact, I will argue that data and analytics engineers, who are responsible for transforming data and surfacing insights to internal teams - are in the driver’s seat to help enact this change. We have the power to re-label tables, columns and dashboards, to give each individual customer a voice. We have the power to help teams generate empathy for the people who use the products that we build. From empathy comes shared understanding, and a desire to help customers achieve

So the next time you’re working on that that dbt model, or building MAU/WAU charts, think about the person who is represented by that row in the database.

Don’t call them “users”.

Saadat Qadri
Saadat Qadri
I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from data, product and growth leaders at companies such as InVision, CB Insights, Breather, Karbon, FreshBooks, Wealthsimple, among others. I love getting my hands dirty in helping build infrastructure to power insights and growth. I’ve helped build data teams from scratch, and I’m learning how to a better manager every day.