Stop calling them users and customers, call them humans

Randy Gibson
9 min readMar 30, 2022

Humans experience our business with their intuitive minds (system 1). Calling them users or customers only dehumanizes and causes us to use more of our analytical minds (system 2).

Herein lies the gap.

Humans are complex and emotional beings. In order to understand them, they require empathy and more of our emotional and intuitive minds, commonly referred to as our right brain.

  • This is also called our “system 1” by Daniel Kahneman and behavioral economists.

Users and customers, on the other hand, are dehumanized. Search users vs. humans and see. This dehumanization gets exacerbated when we translate them into metrics and acronyms (e.g. monthly active users (MAU), customer lifetime value (CLV)).

Dehumanization can lead us to use more of our analytical and reflective mind or commonly referred to as our left brain.

  • This is also called our “system 2” by Daniel Kahneman and behavioral economists.

It’s estimated that humans spend around ~ 95% of their time in system 1 thinking.

The other ~5% is spent in system 2.

Let’s call it the mind gap

That is — we are building our businesses with our analytical minds (system 2) but humans experience our business with their intuitive minds (system 1).

The image result for “problem-solving” is of four people thinking with great difficulty. Translation: they’re using a lot of their system 2 (analytical mind).

Image source

But, true problem-solving requires creative thinking, or elastic thinking, and looks closer to this:

Image source

Translation: this is your system 1.

It’s been shown that 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. When humans are in the shower, their analytical mind (system 2) is quieted and their unconscious mind (system 1) goes to work.

When humans are experiencing your product or service, they are using this same system 1 (automatic, unconscious, emotional, and intuitive thinking).

  • E.g. browsing your website, using your SaaS tool, talking to your sales rep, researching you on the web, trying out your service

But, when we are creating, designing, and problem-solving to improve this experience we use our system 2 (analytical thinking).

  • E.g. brainstorming meetings, writing detailed requirements or strategy docs, consciously thinking of ideas, researching competitors, discussing why metrics are up or down

How do we close the mind gap?

The more we can engage our system 1 the better we will be at closing the gap between our products and the humans experiencing them.

System 2 is still required but it should follow system 1.

System 1 is for discovery and system 2 is for execution.

System 1 is for divergent thinking and system 2 is for convergent thinking.

Let’s start calling them humans

If language is the most powerful technology, then let’s enable it. Let’s start calling them humans instead of users and customers.

When you look up the root meaning of “user” you’ll find definitions of exploitation: “to make use of, profit by, take advantage of, enjoy, apply, consume”

Do you call someone who uses a book or a saucepan a user? No, we call them a reader or a chef.

Only in a business context do we call them users (or, when we are referring to an Egyptian nomarch).

You may ask, then, why did “user” ever come to be?

It’s difficult to determine but it was somewhere around the creation of the term GUI (graphical user interface) in 1968. Then, in 1993, Don Norman coined the term “user experience (UX).”

After “user stories” came along in 1997 it was set in stone.

Although, when you listen to Don Norman explain the term UX, he is describing humans interacting with a system. “The father of the GUI”, Douglas Engelbart, in his 1962 essay “ Augmenting Human Intellect”, also described humans and systems interacting.

Yes, there are fields in technology that use the word human, e.g. “ human-computer interaction (HCI)” or human-centered design, but you’ll still find the word user, “Computers have many uses which often involve an open-ended dialogue between the user and the computer.”

How else can we close the gap? Listen to our thought leaders

Behind every thought leader and methodology, you will find them advocating for narrowing the mind gap, just not explicitly.

Here are a few examples:

  • The great designer Dieter Rams’ “ less but better” principle focuses on simplicity and intuitive design. “You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people.”
  • Similar to Rams is Steve Krug’s, “Don’t make me think” also focuses on simplicity and intuitive design. The title speaks for itself — the humans experiencing your product shouldn’t have to think (he calls them users).
  • Krug followed with “ Rocket Surgery Made Easy”, where he advocates for creating scenarios to observe users experiencing your product naturally.
  • Steve Blank’s, “The Four Steps to Epiphany”, tells us to “get out of the building” and coined the term “customer development.” “So what is it that makes some startups successful and leaves others selling off their furniture? Simply this: successful startups all invent a parallel process to product development. In particular, the winners invent and live by a process of customer learning and discovery. I call this process “Customer Development.”
  • “[Businesses] spend a large part of their time behind their desks inside their building. This is somewhat amazing, since no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”
  • In Lean Startup, Eric Ries (student of Steve Blank) advocates for “validated learning” by experimenting early and often. “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want”
  • Marty Cagan, the godfather of product management, wrote Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love. “Winning products come from the deep understanding of the user’s needs”
  • “The [customer research] interview is one of the most powerful and important skills for any product manager.”
  • Teresa Torres, the godmother of product discovery, wrote Continuous Discovery Habits. “Product teams make decisions every day. Our goal with continuous discovery is to infuse those daily decisions with as much customer input as possible.”
  • Clay Christiansen developed Jobs to be Done in his book Competing Against Luck. “The Theory of Jobs to Be Done…focuses on deeply understanding your customers’ struggle for progress and then creating the right solution…”
  • Even Pixar, one of the most innovative companies ever, spends time organically observing humans (and rats) on research trips. “Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.”
  • “When Pixar was prepping a movie about a Parisian rat who aspires to be a gourmet chef, several members of Ratatouille’s team went to France and spent two weeks dining in extraordinary, Michelin-starred restaurants, visiting their kitchens, and interviewing their chefs. They also trudged through the Paris sewers, where many a rat makes his home.”
  • As mentioned before, human-computer interaction (HCI) and human-centered design are both helping to achieve this goal.
  • Of all the methodologies out there, design thinking might be the closest to being truly human-centered.
  • Although not explicitly, its methods begin with enabling system 1 (e.g. Fly-on-the-Wall, Walk-a-mile Immersion) and then follow with enabling system 2 (e.g. Abstraction Laddering, Round Robin).
  • I don’t belong in this category, but yours truly has written a lot about this topic:
  • When interacting with humans, seek reliable information
  • Behind these business terms are human beings
  • If we nourish our subconscious we will nourish our customers
  • It sounds easy but collecting and connecting the dots is really difficult
  • Where do our best ideas come from?

We can’t close the mind gap, we can only narrow it

The biggest challenge when researching humans is that questions spark them to use their system 2, but we want to understand their system 1.

The other challenge is how easily we can influence people with our words.

This is why surveys are so unreliable.

This is why there’s so much skepticism in qualitative research because it takes skill to get reliable data.

And this is why, in usability testing, they strongly encourage the facilitator to stay quiet, let the participant ramble on, don’t interrupt with too many questions, and just be a guide for creating an organic experience.

There’s a great book on how to do research and it’s appropriately called Talking to Humans.

Although, even perfect research falls short because we are still left with underlying assumptions. This is one of the paradoxes of data. It can bring insight but it can also bring disillusionment.

This is because humans are hard-wired to find coherent stories in data, and the less data we have the stronger the effect.

  • “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

This is where experimentation comes in

Our assumptions need to be tested. By doing experiments, you pressure test your assumptions with reality.

Marc Randolph, a co-founder of Netflix, explains this concept during a Tim Ferriss podcast:

  • “No idea performs the way you expect once you collide it with reality. And, the more I learned, the more I believe that is true. What this has forced me to do is say, ‘I got to stop thinking about things and I got to just begin doing them because that’s the only way I am going to figure out whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea.’”

This is the core principle behind the philosophy — “having a bias for action.” Without action, our assumptions go untested.

Action alone isn’t good enough, we have to pair it with learning.

The process goes like this:

  • We do discovery → we find opportunities and insights in data (qual & quant) → we get ideas but they are layered with assumptions → we test our ideas and assumptions with humans → we learn → rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

The process needs to be rinsed and repeated because humans are constantly evolving and so is every business’s “product/market fit.”

A blatant example of this is called the “ law of shitty click-throughs.” This shows how Digital advertisers used to be able to get people to click on banner advertisements 78% of the time. Nowadays, this click rate is down to 0.05%.

This is because our system 1 adapts to the environment.

In Strangers to Ourselves, they call this the “adaptive unconscious.”

The adaptive unconscious is all about energy conservation. A software developer would call this energy conservation “automation.”

This is why sports require thousands of hours of practice. When involved in a game, we are heavily using our system 1. But, our first time playing the game doesn’t go well. Thus, our system 1 needs “training.” By practicing a lot, our unconscious is trained and it automates our behavior.

This is why, despite not wrestling or playing football for 17 years, I can still run an arm-bar move or a post-corner route without thinking.

This is also why teenagers, who are driving for the first time, get in more wrecks:

  • “The Automatic System can be trained with lots of repetition — but such training takes a lot of time and effort. One reason why teenagers are such risky drivers is that their Automatic Systems have not had much practice, and using the Reflective System is much slower.” -Nudge, Richard Thaler

Therefore, this is why our businesses need to continuously spend time training our unconscious system 1 to understand the humans we are building for.

Here’s a trick you can use-try procrastinating more, it’ll give your system 1 more time to contribute.

  • “Research shows a positive correlation between procrastination and creativity, because by putting off conscious attempts to solve problems and make decisions, we provide ourselves more time to fit in those episodes of unconscious consideration.” -Leonard Mlodinow, Elastic

But, we don’t want to be so right-brained that our head gets stuck on our shoulder. We obviously have to use our system 2.

Just remember — discover with your system 1 and execute with your system 2.

  • “There is a need for a modicum of ordered, analytical thought to transform novel ideas into a creative product.” -Elastic, Leonard Mlodinow

The idea for this article originated as an idea (system 1) I had on a run. It then took months of thinking and writing (system 2), with many more ideas (system 1) added, to get here.

Engage your system 1. Start listening to thought leaders. Start experimenting. Start calling them humans.

Originally published at on March 30, 2022.



Randy Gibson

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. -Carl Sagan ___________________ Professional: (