You or users?

March 14, 2009

Anne, a work colleague, asked:

Is it better to use ‘you’ or ‘users’ when referring to how a product can help a customer perform certain tasks etc? ‘This product provides the user….’ OR ‘This product provides you…’

My response:

It depends.  It depends on your audience and the rest of the document.

If the document is for a specific user (such as a user manual with step-by-step instructions – ‘do this’, ‘do that’, etc.) then ‘you’ is implied or explicit (‘you do this then you do that’). When I write such material, I’m in the mental frame of talking to a specific person.

If the document is all written in the third person (e.g. ‘the company is’), then you’d refer to users of the product as ‘users’. However, ‘users’ has other nastier connotations outside the software domain, so I’d err on either using ‘you’ or rewording altogether to avoid either one or the other. That said, whichever way you go, be consistent! Sometimes that’s really hard to do when writing about ‘the company’ and also using ‘our’.

Personal preference: I much prefer ‘you’ (explicit or implicit) as I believe it personalizes it for the reader. Remember, when someone reads your material, they’re only one person reading it, even though you may have produced thousands of copies. My preference is to ‘speak to the reader’ by using ‘you’.

But that’s not hard and fast…

More:  Scott over at Communications from DMN recently wrote about how he hates using the term ‘user’ as it reminds him of a junkie. His blog post — The word “user” — is here:

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