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Are users customers too?

As an adman, marketer and interactive designer I've been feeling increasingly conflicted of late. Are my worlds of marketing and interactivity finally colliding? Is the IT world ready to take the leap and embrace some good olde school lessons on customer experience from veteran marketers?!

I have been wondering about these two doctrines for some time, in the sense of trying to decipher that which is the same - but merely obscured by terminology - and determine where the practice and understanding of technologists versus marketers differ.
So why is this of any concern to a Creative Director in the employ of a web solutions company? The answer lies in the genesis of my career, which was a combination of post-graduate marketing study and stumbling into my first job as an advertising visualiser, back in the eighties... Cast under the skilled mentorship of a couple of very well seasoned admen, I came to learn the very real need to apply the core principles of advertising theory to my print advertising customers, if there was any hope at all of them moving any product (and wanting me to design their next campaign!). So it was that the "5 Ps", persuasion, call to action and many other principles came to life and became the mainstay of my approach to visual communication design.
Anyway, valuable lessons learnt, and strangely many years later, seemingly ignored by the majority of the authors and proponents of the greatest communication tool yet created by mankind - the internet! 
Thus my increasingly conflicted state. As this decade has unfolded and my exclusive focus has been interactive design, increasing understanding and consequently specialisation has exploded around the practice of guiding and influencing the experiences of our online visitors. So how is it, then, that the most celebrated approach for success in this new realm is very clearly labelled "User-Centred Design" and, by its very description, dehumanises the very practice it set out to, um, humanise?! Are we really trying to aid and influence the experience of real people, or is there some need to distance ourselves from the activity at hand? Are we asking for Porterhouse but still thinking cow?
And is this hypocritical of me when I have indeed been a great proponent of user-centred design and, more recently, an enthusiastic flag waver for all things user experience? And of course I have to say no. In fact, the more I vehemently believe in the value of design led solutions (and, in fact, a design led world!), the more significant those two things are to me. BUT they're just not enough. So, as someone who came to this industry via non-technical means, I've had to back up a bit and find out why my IT colleagues insist on dehumanising my beloved customer to a mere user. It seems the notion of a "user" is a historical software design term, but also dates back to scientific testing (of the stopwatch variety) from early Industrial Revolution times.
Why is this an issue then, and what does it mean for you or me? The simple problem is this: to be a "user" is a passive state and a technology-centric view. Sure, we are all users of websites, and one would hope if a design is successful, this experience should be seamless and effortless in the truly user-centred sense. But there HAS to be more to it than that, right? What about the multi-faceted delivery of "user experience"? Surely that promises more? And it does, but not enough.
A passively effective system can only be just that: passively effective. As an online consumer I deserve more than that, and as an Interactive Designer, my customers deserve way, way more than that. So what's missing, and why does it matter? Why do we need to think about people, not users?
• Because people are actively involved in the experience we create.
• People can have great experiences.
• People can be persuaded.
• People can be motivated to complete a task.
And before I rat hole on this well-worn debate, if you check out Josh Bernoff's blog on Forrester and particularly the delightful comments rhetoric, you'll find plenty more food for thought on the matter of users, or not.
Getting back to my original point, I can finally see through all this healthy debate a convergence of intent and thought by technologists and marketers both that may finally rid me of my conflicted state. A while ago in a fortuitous discussion with the ever insightful Mark Di Somma he cast me in the direction of the Eisenberg brothers and their Persuasion Architecture. Whilst Persuasive Design is only one component of this inclusive new architecture, it has nonetheless given me great hope for an approach that recognises the combined wisdom of both professions and applies it to the greater good of the people that frequent our creations.
At last I can build customer experience and make a call to action safe in the knowledge that I am not dating myself with reference to eighties marketing doctrine, but in fact I am right back at the cutting edge, again. Amen to that!

Posted by: Eamon O'Rourke | 03 October 2007


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