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Users or people?

Kristina Hoeppner's profile picture
Posts: 4769

28 November 2019, 4:09

Hello everyone,

I'd like to propose a change to how we address people in Mahara to make it more welcoming.

Like many other software products, we say a lot like:

  • Messages from other users.
  • Your pages will no longer be visible to other users.
  • ... an institution to which a user belongs
  • Online users
  • User menu
  • Search users
    and so on.

Often when I think of the term "user", the negative meaning of "drug user" / "drug addict" comes to mind. The Oxford English Dictionary also lists "A person who exploits others" as meaning besides the less negative one of "A person who uses or operates something."

There have been people over the years that also tried to eradicate the term "user" to humanize the language used in software and applications, but it hasn't caught on yet en masse. "User" is a pretty generic term, yet it comes with negative connotations that we should not ignore. Don Norman, usability expert, already said in 2008 that the term should be removed from our vocabulary when referring to people interacting with software.

Others don't find anything wrong with it as there is no great alternative. "People" is pretty generic. And if we made our language more specific, e.g. "learner" then some people may not feel addressed. Therefore, there is no simple solution. I would like to review where we write "user" in Mahara and see where we can replace it by a more fitting term. It would not be a "Find and replace all" action but every occurrence would need to be checked individually.

For example:

  • A user who creates a portfolio could be called "(portfolio) author".
  • "Search users" could become "Search people".
  • "Delete user" could be "Delete account", especially as we are only deleting the digital representation and not an actual person.
  • The Mahara user manual already became the Mahara manual. cool

In the main language file area "user" comes up over 1,300 times though it might really be around 700-800 times as some of those results are string identifiers that wouldn't be changed. I also do not propose to remove the word "user" from the code. That could spell disaster...

What do you think about this idea?

Thank you

Here are a few references that I found while researching the topic if you want to read other people's opinion for and against such a change:

Jack Dorsey: Stop calling them "users"

As a designer, I refuse to call people 'users'

8 terms to call your users - which one fits your mindset?

UX terminology: Is it time we dropped the term 'users'?

User vs. customer: Does it matter?

Has 'user' become an outadate term?

In defence of the term 'user'

10 January 2020, 21:23

Interesting topic! I never thought about it. For me the term 'user' isn't connoted negatively, but I'm not a native speaker. I understand the reasons to change it though, if I think about it. 

In my opinion if you want to change the term, it could be better to find one word to replace it with and not multiple (e.g. member instead of user). Otherwise I think it is a bit confusing and hard to summarize the topics under a common term.  

Kristina Hoeppner's profile picture
Posts: 4769

13 January 2020, 13:54

Hi Stefanie,

Thank you for your reply. You can take a look at the individual replacements at I may be a bit overwhelming to see as every file that I touched has been listed. The strings themselves are in a file in any "lang" folder.

For the most part, I replaced "user" / "users" with "person" or "persons". In groups though also as "group member" and in some cases it made more sense to use "author" or "people", sometimes even "account" so that I'm not killing off people, and sometimes I could get rid of the word altogether. That's just English though. Many of the replacements are done "silently", i.e. the translators won't notice them so they can decide whether they want to / need to make any changes in their own language as not everyone may have a term like that and I wanted to prevent people needing to update the translations for no big gain only because we are making a change in English that is not changing the content of a statement.



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