To me, calling someone a “user” contributes to the gulf between IT and other business people.
Most of us don’t think about it and say “user” or “end-user”. Those who do think about it say something like client, customer, or business customer, or something similar. Sometimes these terms work and sometimes they seem contrived, but there’s a better way.
Lior Arussy of the Strativity Group argues that what we call our customers is critical to effectively serving them (http://www.crmxchange.com/focus_customer/Oct06_2.asp). According to Arussy the problem is that many of us use terms for customers “based on their role in our process, encouraging a “one size fits all” approach that treats all customers the same. The diversity and complexity of customers is subsequently ignored and replaced with a customer that does not exist but who fits perfectly within the organization’s business model. The customer is thus subjected to the company’s processes and efficiency needs rather than the other way around.”
When we in IT call them “users” we do the same thing. Rather than thinking about a business person’s role in a business process, we think about them in terms of how they use “our” system. This encourages us to think narrowly about how, for example, a recruiter uses a personnel workflow system. The word “user” encourages us to disconnect from the business process rather than understanding how the system fits into the hiring process as a whole.
Maybe I’m exaggerating and this one small point doesn’t matter much. However, in most organizations there is a a communications gap between IT and business, and as the service provider it is IT’s responsibility to bridge the gap. Communications gaps are made up of lots of little habits of thinking and practice, and this is one of them.
So what should you call the user of a business application? When I’m talking generally about business people who use IT applications, I use the term business people, which after all is what they are. When I’m talking about the users of a specific system I try to use the term that everyone else in the organization uses for what they do, like “financial analyst” or “recruiter” or “production line supervisor.”
I hope that being specific and correct about business people’s role encourages me to understand the system I’m building in business context, making it easier for me to build the application exactly as they need it.