Facebook Product Design Director Julie Zhou: R.I.P., ‘Users’ And ‘Product Design’

By David Cohen 

RIP650Facebook Product Design Director Julie Zhou advocated the death of “users” — the term, not the actual people on the social network — in favor of “people,” as well as the demise of the term “product design,” in a post on her blog.

Zhou mentioned a statement by Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

We need to stop calling people users. They’re not just there to use our products; we’re here to build things for them.

She wrote on the topic of “users”:

Obviously, a semantic change doesn’t change what you’re building. It doesn’t suddenly produce more light-bulb moments of dazzling inspiration. Words are words — a layer of abstraction on top of our true intentions — and swapping one term for another doesn’t change those intentions.

All the same, it’s silly to think that there isn’t any power in words. Everything that is said carries with it rich shades of subtext and assumption, whether we mean them to or not.

“We need to stop calling people users.

Of course we do. The product is always in service of people, not the other way around. It’s easy — so very, very easy — to fall prey to a company-minded mentality of the world, where everything revolves around the builders and what they’re building, rather than the customers. This bias is so pervasive that we hardly even notice it: “We need to improve our top-of-funnel.” “We’re not getting enough conversion on this feature.” “This user messaging needs to be tweaked.”

Calling people users is a symptom of that, where suddenly, they becomes a modifier, something in-relation-to the subject placed on the pedestal: the product.

And that’s just backwards. People don’t exist to use your products; you build products with the goal that they can be useful to people.

And on the term, “product design,” she added:

Sometimes, the best design work is not just about a product, but about creating a great experience outside of a product, and the term product design tends to undervalue that also.

In that vein, the future of design will be more and more about crafting experiences, rather than products, shifting closer to the industry of service and away from the industry of manufacturing. We’re starting to see this already with more integrated platforms and simpler, less-frictioned apps (Yo, Wut); more magical and predictive experiences (Siri, Google Now); more connected objects that talk to each other to holistically make things easier (health trackers, smart watches, home appliances); and greater transformations in connecting the online to offline world (Lyft/Uber, Postmates, Tinder).

Goodbye, user. So long, product design. Long live the notion of designing better experiences for people. That’s what I’d like to wake up every day and strive to do.

Readers: What did you think of Zhou’s blog post?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.