Does anyone know of material regarding the significance of terminology in (participatory) design processes? I'm looking for theory regarding cases such as this: If some users are patients being monitored at home, what difference does it make whether they are referred to as patients or as something more neutral that does not remind them, in their day-to-day life, that they are sick (both in the interface and in communication with e.g. anthropologists or designers)? And what difference does it make to the design team and the UX consultants etc. whether they refer to the users as patients or simply as users, or as something else?

A scientific paper (possibly a case study) would be preferred, but any input will be appreciated.

Context: I've been following a course called Designing Interactive Technologies as part of my master studies. For my exam, I have to prepare a presentation on a related topic of my own choice. As there has been some debate during the course on how we should refer to the users (patients, citizens, ...), I would like to debate what effect the choice of terminology has on both the development process and on end use.

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    The very thought of considering this is far too far towards "political correctness". There are vastly more important things to consider.
    – Confused
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:11
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    First of all, this is not for an actual project. It is for a theoretical discussion on whatever concerns I might find interesting to debate. I am not prioritizing this above something else that should be considered first - I simply want to dive into this specific topic of interest. Secondly, I am in no way talking about or leaning towards political correctness. I am talking about the psychological effect of using one term over another. That is what I would like to find existing research on.
    – Idall
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 7:34
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    You might have to look into areas of psychology research to find this kind of information, because there would have been a lot of studies on the various effects of doing testing on subjects, including the use of specific terminologies. As @Confused mentioned, UX designers don't consider this as much (as they could or should).
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 22:53

1 Answer 1


I don't think there would be a paper on this, but an obvious example to consider would be the client/customer and vendor situation. Some people argue that using the word customer reinforces a professional relationship and therefore reduces the appearance of 'friendliness', and hence sometimes the term client is used to put them at a higher status in a professional relationship.

Another example would be the aged care sector, where people living in retirement villages don't want to be referred to as retirees because they want to consider themselves as having an active and healthy lifestyle rather than in a sedentary state.

An interesting example might be the way politicians address the 'public', and with the prevalent use of social media these days (some would see this as a way of 'bridging' the gap) the choice of words would probably have changed as well.

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