An interesting observation that has always fascinated me: it is only in software industry and drugs industry where we refer to customers as "Users". I don't know of any other.

For instance, we talk of "User Acceptance Testing" as opposed to "Customer Acceptance Testing" when referring to final software acceptance testing.

What are the origins of this?

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    cosmetics users? highway users? athletics equipment users?
    – GEdgar
    Oct 4, 2011 at 15:11
  • 4
    customer implies a person who is paying.. I don't think it would apply to software development as a LOT of things are done for free Oct 4, 2011 at 16:46
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    There are plenty of other businesses where the customer is not the user, though there user is usually replaced by consumer.
    – Jonas
    Oct 4, 2011 at 17:21
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  • What drug industry is that? I think the pharmaceutical industry often speaks about “patients” but I don't what pot growers call their users.
    – Relaxed
    Feb 13, 2014 at 16:37

6 Answers 6


It's an amusing point. As others have noted, in the computer industry the "customer" and the "user" are often not the same person, so we need different terms for them. Of course this is true of many other industries, too. But I think most other industries have more specific words. The person who buys a car is generally referred to as a "customer", but anyone who uses it is called a "driver". Likewise in the publishing industry someone who buys a book or magazine is a "customer", but someone who uses the book is a "reader". The appliance industry does talk about "appliance users". Maybe there are other cases.

Maybe the distinction is more pronounced in the computer business because customers and users are more distinct than in most industries. The customer is usually upper management; the users are usually clerical workers. Well, I suppose you could say the same about many products that are typically sold to businesses. Like, the person who buys a forklift truck probably isn't the person who drives it.

I think this is more an "additional musing" than an "answer". Whatever.

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    You make a good point. The user of the car is also the "driver" because it describes the activity most commonly done with a car. With computer programs, coming up with a descriptive term for the user for each program they use could be exhausting, so maybe that's why the general appliance term "user" came to be used with computers? Sometimes with computers the term "operator" is used, though it's not always in the same context as "user". Oct 4, 2011 at 17:31
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    And remember that it's only in the last 20years that PCs were the most common computer users. Before that most 'users' never saw the computer they were using and certainly weren't paying for it.
    – mgb
    Oct 4, 2011 at 21:05
  • @Frustrated: Hmm, I wonder if in time we'll come up with a more specific word for using a computer.
    – Jay
    Oct 11, 2011 at 15:41
  • @Jay: they already exist, viz., word processing, gaming, browsing, coding, blogging, emailing, tweeting, cybering, etc.; a generic term for using a computer is not supposed to be specific, and the specific terms already exist. Rather than a single generic term which is more specific, I think we'll see a larger number of specific terms. Nov 5, 2013 at 17:33
  • In human factors, a discipline concerned with things like forklift trucks, I think the user would typically be called an “operator”.
    – Relaxed
    Feb 13, 2014 at 16:32

In the software industry, the customer and user are not always the same individual. The Customer is the one that pays for the project (such as the Finance department), the User is the one that uses the proudct produced as a result of the project (such as clerks in an office). Usually, both parties should have input to the process of creating the product.

I can't speak for the drug industry.

  • But the disconnect between customer and user applies to all kinds of products, not just to computers.
    – Daniel
    Oct 4, 2011 at 15:09
  • @drɱ65 δ: True, but I work in computers so that's what I will speak about. If you work in a different industry, you can speak to that. ;) Oct 4, 2011 at 16:08
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    +1 - Was going to make this exact point. They are actually two different groups, sometimes even operating at cross-purposes from each other, both of which you ideally need to take account of. The same may well be the case for the drug industry, as the people who actually write the prescriptions are not (supposed to be) the people actually taking the drugs, and often it is yet a third party that pays the bills.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 4, 2011 at 17:56

The OED’s earliest citation in a drug context is dated 1923, and 1950 in a computer context. The description users is understandable in both cases. Those who use computers are not invariably customers, and drug addicts are not customers as normally understood.

I’m not sure it’s the case that users is found only in the software and drugs industries. It might also apply to those who receive other services.


Maybe the reason is logic?

Customer is defined (WordNet) as

someone who pays for goods or services


User is defined as

a person who makes use of a thing; someone who uses or employs something

As both with software and drugs it does not matter who bought it, but who actually uses it, to me it sounds logical.

  • Why do you say that software and drugs are unique in this way? Why not appliances, books, etc?
    – Daniel
    Oct 4, 2011 at 15:08
  • @drɱ65 δ: as Jay answered, the "users" of the other products have more specialized terms: books=readers, cars=drivers. As for appliances, the term "user" makes perfect sense for them, and I don't know that it's not the correct term.
    – Doktor J
    Oct 4, 2011 at 16:49
  • Actually, both matter, if you hope to make enough money to stay in business.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 4, 2011 at 17:58
  • What Doktor J said. We don't have book users, we have book readers. Book readers, Car drivers, TV viewers, and Computer/Software Users.
    – user606723
    Oct 4, 2011 at 20:36

"User" was first regularly associated with the concept of narcotics starting in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s in the US, "drug user" became a legal term with a specific definition.

In sources prior to that (or at least those visible in Google Books), "users" tends to refer to either users of public roads or, earlier on, users of property. As "utilize" would be an appropriate verb to describe these people's engagement with roads/property, this usage seems straightforward.

My hunch is that the word "user" was a convenient, sanitized noun that would cover any drug and any manner of attaining a high. Separate legal categories of "drug injectors" and "drug inhalers", etc., would have been needlessly complicated and, from a legal point of view, an unnecessary distinction.

Software is similarly utilized in many different ways. The term "user" enables us to refer to one group of consumers, rather than having to group users based on what type of software they use or how they use it.


I worked for a bank, back in 2002, in Brazil, and in Portuguese, we have the same problem. We changed a little our vocabulary because:

User: is more for a drug user, than a customer

Attacker: is more a football offensive player, than an aggressor

Antivirus: the only analogy that you can make is a vaccine. In the "real world" there is no antivirus, just vaccine.

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