More on Language in Service Design

Ever since Disneyland adopted the term “guest” for their customers in 1955 the theatrical analogy has slowly spread. I heard it just the other day while I was in line to get popcorn at the movies. But Ron Knoth at Retail Design Diva isn’t having it:

I understand the machinations, but have failed to accustom myself to the new retail moniker “guest,” as when I am in line, and the cashier says, “next guest please.” I am not a guest. My guests do not stand in line. The retail experience and expectation is not improved by what is said. The retail experience and expectation is transformed when better service is provided.

This isn’t an isolated point of view. There’s a backlash forming against the marginalization of the word “user” in interaction design, arguing that it shouldn’t matter one way or another which word we use. But I believe it does matter. There’s power in language; it shapes our understanding. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that language influences not only how we understand the world but how we behave in it. It’s a major theme in Orwell’s 1984. We can’t escape our vocabulary.

So I don’t mind being called a “guest.” It’s more distinctive than customer, more personal than a number and less familiar than asking my name. Language needs to be supported by actions, but as a shibboleth for customer service it’s a good first step.


  1. designthinkers

    You are right, words are a good step in the right direction. It indicates a shift in mindset. This is never a bad thing. Words are very powerful. But in the end something must be done. Actions speak… Otherwise words like “guest” will lose its meaning, or gain another more negative meaning.




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