Keeping Jargon Where It Belongs

Jared Spool

May 8th, 2007

Most of us work in industries that develop their own specialized languages. In website design, we’re no exceptions, with terms like style, ajax, content management, and tags all walking around with special terms.

These specialized languages serve a purpose. Until Jesse James Garrett coined the term Ajax, we didn’t know what to call those asynchronous http request calls that allowed us to update data on the screen without page refreshes. Ajax is a shortcut. Once we learn the meaning of a shortcut, we can communicate succinctly and accurately.

It’s natural, once we learn some shortcut for those hard-to-explain-otherwise concepts, they become part of our common parlance. Over time, we use them so frequently, we forget their origin and they fall into our regular vocabulary.

This is great, as long as we never leave the office or try to talk to anyone else. As soon as we do, we might as well be speaking Estonian. We’ve all had experiences where we’ve let one of these terms, intended for use only with our colleagues, slip out in discussion with an outsider. The look of puzzlement on their face is always warranted.

Unfortunately, we can’t see that look when we accidentally leave one of these shortcuts sitting on our web site. And that’s just what did when they included terms like “Trip Planner”, “Promotions & Programs”, and “Packages” in their tool bar.

Navigation bar at

I’m sure, within the walls of the Best Western marketing department, these terms are well understood by all. The distinction is clear between a promotion and program. The marketing staff knows exactly what they get when they click on the trip planner. They understand what makes up a package and how it differs from a promotion.

But do the users? Will they understand the distinctions in these terms. If they do, all is well and the links will do their job nicely. But if they don’t, they are likely to cause confusion. At best, users will pogostick through each tab. At worst, users won’t click on any of them, leaving potentially useful content unexplored.

The problem arises because we become so comfortable with our specialized language, it becomes no longer specialized to us. It’s part of our normal vocabulary. We can separate out the jargon from the common language.

This is particularly true for words like “packages”, which have a similar meaning in the real world, but not the meaning we’re intending. The words blend into our design and we don’t even realized the jargon has escaped from its cage.

It’s fairly simple to test for jargon, though we rarely see teams take advantage of the technique. We use a simple vocabulary test, like those from your grade school days. We ask users to write down or tell us what a phrase means to them. With a dozen responses from randomly selected typical users, you can get a pretty good idea where the jargon isn’t working.

2 Responses to “Keeping Jargon Where It Belongs”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    “According to research from Nielsen/NetRatings, people are buying cutting-edge technology but often don’t understand the terms that describe what their device actually does.”

  2. » links for 2007-06-04 Says:

    […] Keeping Jargon Where It Belongs Another useful tip on writing for the web: watch that jargon! (tags: writing usability) […]

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