Users or Customers? Let’s Serve Both

Last updated on 4 September 2023

Jack Dorsey

Last week, Jack Dorsey, the tech disruptor who co-founded and leads both and Squarewrote a blog post stating that he eschews the word user for customer, because the former “abstracts the actual individual,” while the latter “immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on.”

The next day, Jesse James Garrett, the UX guru that founded Adaptive Path and wrote the book on User Experience, rebutted by saying that a customer “is simply the person from whom money must be acquired,” while user “gets you closer to the people you seek to serve, not farther away.”

Let’s Discuss This in A Different Way

This post is not an internet flame session. The discussion at hand is a valuable one, and it’s one we, the tech community, should be having. But we’re oversimplifying it such that it’s distracting us from the real issue at hand. The question shouldn’t be “Do we call all people users or customers?” but rather “How can we serve both our users’ and customers’ needs?”

I Prefer “People”

The word “user” bothers me. I feel, perhaps irrationally, that it’s an insult to people. That’s why I usually refer to “people we create for” or even “beneficiaries.”

But while that works for speaking in general, sometimes we need more specificity in distinguishing people’s roles around a product or service. Here’s what I mean.

Different Roles, Different Needs

Customers aren't the same as users

Jack and Jesse actually agree: they both want us to feel empathy for our users and customers. Each of them feels that one of these two words is better than the other at bringing makers and creators closer to their audience.

Users and customers have different needs; how do we serve them both?

Kate Kiefer Lee summarizes the point beautifully: “If we want to give our people the respect they deserve, we need to put ourselves in their shoes.” The thing is, users and customers represent different “shoes” in that they look at our products in different ways. Here are some examples of how users’s and customers’ needs and perspectives differ.

Same Product, Different Stakeholders

Same Product, Different Stakeholders

Who They Are

Sometimes, the customers and users of one product are completely different people. Parents buy apps for their kids, but may not use those apps themselves. Similarly, in a large company, the purchasing department will buy software and tools for other employees of that company to use.

How We Should Help Them

The challenge here is that often, the customer will not fully understand the user’s needs. In that sense, whoever creates the product may know more about the user than the customer does. Anything the product’s creators can do to clarify what the product does and how it benefits users will help both parties, in the end.

Same Platform, Different Roles

Same Platform, Different Roles

Who They Are

While discussing the Business Model Canvas, Alexander Osterwalder talks about businesses like Google and Sony Playstation, where customers and users play completely different roles. Google’s customers are people that buy ads, while Google’s users are people that use the search engine and click on the ads. Gamers that buy Playstations are not customers, they are actually users (Playstations are sold at a loss), and the real customers are game developers, who pay a license fee for each game they sell.

How We Should Help Them

Jack Dorsey refers to them as “paying customers” and “non-paying customers,” but that conceals how completely different the two groups’ needs and roles are. In the previous example, customers’ and users’ needs were pretty much aligned. In this example however, they are very much at odds. Being too good to customers means screwing users, and being too good to users costs customers potential revenue.

Helping both groups, in situations like this, is a function of striking that balance: the product must be beneficial to users, in order to build a user base, and the way people use the product must somehow be leveraged for the sake of the customer.

Same Person, Different Contexts

Same Person, Different Contexts

Who They Are

This time, the customer and the user are the same person, removed only in context. A person is a customer before she buys a product and a user once she has it. This distinction is important, because a person focuses on different things when buying a product than when using it.

Dr. Joseph K. Goodman has carried out a series of studies, at Washington University, that show that people tend to buy products based on the presence of some features, instead of how much they actually need those features. As a consequence, those people have products laden with unnecessary features and are significantly less satisfied than if they would have bought a similar product with fewer features.

How We Should Help Them

This example is similar to the first one, because the customer’s needs are aligned with the user’s best interests. Also here, the best way to help customers make better choices for themselves is to be honest and forthcoming about how your product’s features will benefit the user and add value to her life.

Empathy Over Ego

We all agree that the main goal is to feel empathy for customers and users, so that we can serve their needs as best we can.

Users and Customers have different needs. Let’s serve each with empathy.

Empathy is the key, so I’ll stop here and let the professionals sum it up (via Whitney Hess).

Click here to see it on YouTube.

Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street - Empathy