Why jargon matters

career, design
A syllabus from one of my UX classes; just the lesson titles are full of jargon! Each column is a week of lessons and events.

A syllabus from one of my UX classes; just the lesson titles are full of jargon! Each column is a week of lessons and events.

My ex-spouse, bless his heart, contributed some good to my life. (I can say this twenty years later, sixteen years into a marriage to the right partner. About the first one, all I can say is that every relationship sucks if it’s the wrong one, no matter how well-intentioned and good the people involved.)

Possibly the most important good he contributed to my tech career was this advice: “Jargon matters.”

Let me say that again, more loudly:

Jargon matters.

Everyone hates jargon, right? It’s used by some to exclude outsiders and preserve territory (lawyers and doctors, I’m looking at you!), or by others to show off being part of the “in” group at work. Sometimes it’s misused, and depending on the likability of the person making the mistake and the empathy of the observers, colleagues feel one of two excellent German concepts: Schadenfreude (pleasure in another’s misfortune) or Fremdschämen (embarrassment on someone else’s behalf).

Metaphors for perfectly good alternative phrases are some of the most irritating jargon, and every so often an article appears with a headline like, “The Sixteen Most Irritating Jargon Phrases,” or, “Ten Pieces of Jargon That Are Past Their Prime.” They’ll tell you never to “put a pin in that” or “leverage” the “long tail,” and similar metaphors that admittedly spring from a trend and should probably pass with that trend.

Still, some jargon is good. This is the jargon my ex was talking about. It was 1997, and I was studying psychology but learning HTML and Perl and such to ramp up my tech skills for the web. Ex would hear me describing something instead of using the right word for it, and one day he gave me a book (I think it was on webmaster skills) to read and told me to use the right words. He shared some hard truths: I was a woman, my degree wasn’t in computer science (even though I took a ton of computer science courses: Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, systems and architecture, etc.), and if I didn’t use the right word for the concept, no one would take me seriously.

He was right.

I spent a lot of time telling my students to use the right terms, because Ex wasn’t just right. He was very right. Not knowing the right term can kill you dead in an interview or a job, especially if you’re self-taught or inexperienced.

Terms of art

If you absolutely, positively can’t bear the thought of using jargon, think instead of using the right terms of art for your field. Every field has them.

Sometimes the same word means different things in different fields. When I first began my web career (still in school, mind), I worked with people from a variety of fields. My background was primarily psychology, with strong concentrations in biology and computer science, and a dash of technical library experience. (I am not a librarian by any means, but I was a senior library database technician, and I led projects for client libraries and cataloged a very few things for one project; these were reviewed by an actual cataloger, of course.)

Anyway, as a knowledge engineer at a telecom company I worked with linguists, a biology major, librarians, and of course programmers. I noticed that confusion often arose from people using the same word, but with a different meaning according to their field’s jargon. To combat this I created the now-defunct Perspectives, a knowledge engineering dictionary I hosted myself. Words were sorted by field and alphabetically, so you could look up a given word and see how different fields used it.

Catalog is a great example. At least three distinct definitions exist, depending on your field of expertise.

  • For product and sales, a catalog is a list of offerings (products, services, or a combination thereof) for sale. Go to almost any retail site to see one. Most people are familiar with this meaning.
  • For IT, a catalog is “a directory of information about data sets, files, or a database. A catalog usually describes where a data set, file, or database entity is located, and may also include other information, such as the type of device on which each data set or file is stored” (definition from TechTarget.com).
  • Library science takes a different view. A librarian catalogs books and other media by creating the right kind of metadata to identify it within a particular classification system, using authority control and other methods to create a bibliographic record others can readily find. (Authority control does not mean “I’m in charge and I can do what I want,” quite the opposite — it’s making use of a controlled vocabulary of authorized names, subjects, etc., to assure everything associated with a particular piece of metadata is easily found, because an authorized term is the same everywhere.) Cataloging is arguably the heart of librarianship, and a library catalog is a very different thing from an online shopping experience (though metadata is used there, too).

How to reduce confusion

It’s clear that not only does jargon matter, but awareness of jargon does, too. The best ways to avoid—or at least reduce—confusion that I’ve uncovered are:

  • Keep your own use of jargon as close as possible to the standard for your field. If you’re uncertain of the best term, you have a couple of options: turn to a known, authoritative site or group for their take (e.g., the Nielsen Norman Group), or search to see which term is used in what way the most (also known as letting Google decide). When I was teaching UX, I occasionally wanted to verify the best term, or even best spelling, for a given technique or deliverable. Whatever NN/g considered correct typically won.
  • Be aware of the fields of people in the conversation. If you sense a term is being used differently, share your meaning and ask for theirs. Recognize that everyone has their own expertise.
  • If you’re new at a company, they may have in-house jargon. Explain your meaning and ask for clarification when you hear something that doesn’t quite click with your understanding.
  • If you use a term of art and it is not understood, briefly explain it. Don’t make a big deal out of it.
  • Do your best not to invent jargon. It’s extremely unlikely that a technique or whatnot that you’ve designed is new. You may have invented it, but that doesn’t mean others didn’t also invent it, possibly years earlier. (For example, I invented card sorts on my own, but that doesn’t mean I get to call them something else. Other people invented them before I did; I just hadn’t heard of them yet, and necessity required a card sort, so I did that thing. Once I learned the term “card sort,” I began to use it. This made me a better professional because I could communicate well. It’s been more than two decades, and I don’t even remember what I called it when I first thought of the idea.)
  • While this entire article is about how people can and do judge you by your jargon, do your very best not to judge others by their jargon. Everyone’s on a learning path; you and that person who’s using a different term are just at different points. (Besides, they might have the right of it. I know, that’s unlikely, but it’s a possibility you have to consider.)

In user experience and product design as fields, new systems and approaches rise and fall frequently. It’s rare to develop something that isn’t out there already. Keep up with what’s happening so you understand and can speak to and use what’s useful, but don’t try to change the language. Stick with the core terms of art for your field, do your best not to be distracted, and you’ll be that much closer to being a reliable professional.

Learning the right words makes it easier for you to work and play well with others. Be ready to learn, be ready to share, and focus on solving the problem in front of you. That, and the user on the other side of the screen, are what matter most.


Originally posted on Medium on May 25, 2020.