Don't call me a 'consumer' or an 'end-user'

Language matters, and people who use these terms likely view you as a sheep or supplicant

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In the 1970s and 1980s, some IT pros who had favored the simpler term "user" ironically switched to "end-user" because of the term's association with drug abusers; I still hear older IT folks express discomfort due to the druggie connotation with "user." These days, with the popular language having moved from "user" to more specific terms like "tweaker" and "crack addict," that post-1960s association is fading.

As people began using PCs directly in the mid-1980s, IT kept thinking of them as end-users, recipients at the end of the process -- not directly part of the process. I hear that divorcement a lot when I talk to IT managers. (CIOs are less likely to be so divorced because they have to partner with business unit managers. Support technicians and other IT folks who are "embedded" with the business staff are also not so divorced from the people they serve, given the close personal relationship that often develops.)

The "end-user" label lets IT treat people like vendors treat consumers: faceless automatons who will accept what is given and do what they are told, brain optional. That's also why "user error" is such a common IT diagnosis, rather than poor design, because it feeds into that mentality that people are the problem unless they do only what they are told.

What you say influences what you think and do
By now, I'm sure many readers are indignant, exclaiming they don't think of buyers or users in these passive ways. I'm certain that's true when they actually think about it. But language is pernicious, and most of the time we use it without deep self-analysis. Its subtleties combine to steer us in directions we didn't expect -- and in many cases to confirm the prejudices that we would not want to admit, even to ourselves. We know that to be true from the "innocent" language of sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia. It's just as true in the vendor/buyer and IT/user relationships.

I don't mean to suggest that people who use the terms "consumer" and "end-user" intend to demean people. And I'm not into being the thought police or politically correct for its own sake. But I do mean to suggest that if you consciously change your vocabulary to terms that don't cast the other person as a passive entity, you'll reform some of those subtle assumptions in your brain and begin to engage people differently, in a way that honors them more and creates the kind of relationship everyone says they want with the buyer or user.

Likewise, individuals need to stop letting themselves be called "consumer" or "end-user," as part of asserting their active role in the relationship.

Words have power. When you write or speak, be conscious of these terms. Who knows? In a few years, we may have rewired ourselves to actually think of people in an empowered way that forms the basis of the consumerization phenomenon. That will be good for users, vendors, and IT alike.

This article, "Don't call me a 'consumer' or an 'end-user'," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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