Vocabulary Inflation in UX

At our recent virtual UKCS conference, Jacob Nielsen gave a mini keynote about vocabulary inflation in our field. Let’s have a listen.

So I’d really love to give these keynote that our traditional physical conferences and we get everybody together in a big room and that’s the stage and lights and we give people a drink. And we unfortunately cannot do that here at the virtual conference. So but that said, we can do other things and this is what I like to call better than reality, should really be a design goal for us when we do any kind of online electronic or digital creation, try to not just replicate the physical world, but rather be better. And so one thing we can do this better is that we can have a tech check, you know, the before the conference, that’s for a physical conference. It just makes no sense to ask people to fly in the day before just to check the equipment. And sure enough, every morning when we start the first day, there are some people who can’t get the slides on their computer and that’s creates trouble. Right. And now we can fix it before we start. And the same is true for something like a mini keynote that I’m doing now. It doesn’t make sense in the physical conference to set up the huge room and the staging and grab everybody together. And then it’s just a little quick thing and then back out again. So let’s do something different that we can do because it’s virtual rather than lament that it’s not physical. So that’s what we’re doing.

And you know, I have been in user experience field now for thirty eight years, and during that time I have certainly seen many things change and evolve. And one thing that has changed and evolves that I’m less happy with compared to many other things is this vocabulary inflation. So I’ll show you that in my time in this field, we’ve had, I would say, about 10 different terms for just the basic field itself.

That’s less than four years per name for our field, and that’s just ridiculous, and that’s what I call vocabulary inflation, constantly changing what we call things, always being dissatisfied with the old name, always trying for something more fancy rather than something plain spoken.

And people already know what it means. And so I think that’s a disgrace. And other fields don’t do that. I mean, think, for example, about psychology.

They’ve had the same name since seventeen forty eight, even though their methodology is surely changed a lot. But you don’t hear people today say, well, psychology, that’s what those guys did in the old days with introspection. Nowadays we use scientific methods and now we don’t call it psychology anymore. That’s what they did. We do mind signs. They don’t they don’t say that. They still say they do psychology or even more so the field of history.

That field has the same name since a year. Four hundred and thirty B.C when Herodotus wrote his book, The Histories, or really in Greek history. And that is a word that means knowing by inquiry and because his method was he would go around Greece and find the oldest people he could find and then he would ask them what stories they had heard from their grandparents. And so basically he would go for generations back and find out what had happened in the old days with this method. And that’s what he wrote in his book, The Histories.

But you don’t see people today in the field of history saying, well, history that what Herodotus did, going around talking to old people, that’s not what we do today. We have more fancy ways of finding out what happened in the past. So we do pass signs or some other weird name. They just still use the same name, even though they do it in a better way than Harod. It’s just another example of this. From now back to user experience, let’s take the methodology. That’s sort of a tweak on the standard usability study methodology where you record the session and then after the the tasks, you asked the user to review that recording and comment on what happened. And so that’s sometimes called retrospective testing, which is the word I prefer. But it’s also called cooperative testing. It’s also called replay testing. It’s also called peep or post experience. I track protocol if you do it with an eye tracking study. Actually, my own father did this used this method back in the nineteen fifties in his research and and he actually called it self confrontation. Now that word didn’t really catch on. Maybe, maybe too confrontational I guess. But anyway, the same method keeps being reinvented ever since in nineteen fifties when my dad did it and created a new name every time. And so that’s just ridiculous. Example of a computer inflation all over this field. These things cost a lot of problems. And I think the worst problem is that we just get a lot of confusion and people are talking at cross purposes when they use different words and they don’t know that they are meaning the same thing. And so I think that’s really kind of the base issue with vocabulary inflation. It also means that our job titles get messed up. You know, two different people may be doing the same thing and have widely different job titles or the same title may mean different things. And because of this change, if you look at somebody’s resume who has been in the field for, let’s say, ten years, the old job titles make no sense anymore. You don’t know what they mean compared to current job titles. And that’s the kind of career problems aren’t just more confusion and annoyance. Actually, maybe the worst problem is that vocabulary inflation reduces cultural transmission. And by cultural transmission, I mean the way that you learn from what has been done before, and that’s kind of the culture is transmitted into the next set of people who are doing it. And there’s actually a very nice book about that that I can I can recommend. It’s called The Secret of Our Success and our now means humans, you know. So the secret of our success is that secret is that we learn from what has been done before. So we don’t have to always personally invent everything because that, of course, nobody is so smart that they can invent everything that they need to know and need to do. And so we take what’s already known and then we build or improve on that, and that’s how we can get better. So you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. You want to take the wheel and make a better wheel or a user experience. You don’t want to reinvent the method all the time on the inside of the guidelines, but you want to take what’s known and improve on it. But that is harder to do when you don’t kind of rely on what’s been done before. You don’t understand what’s been done before because the vocabulary has changed every few years. And finally, vocabulary information is just annoying. You know, it’s extra work. Just translate what’s already kind of Old Knowledge’s into the same doll, it’s written in a different way, just extra overhead annoyance, confusion. So why do we have it, given that it has all these downsides? Well, the first reason, I think, is just plain ignorance. So user experience is blessed in many ways by being a growth field. You know, it’s really going up all the time. And a lot of new people are joining the field often from other fields. Now, that’s generally good, but it means that they don’t know the vocabulary of of our field, of the user experience field. And so maybe they didn’t really think that they thought up a new idea when it’s something that we’ve done for 50 years already. And then they come up with their own new name for the existing well known thing.

Another reason is that user experience is sad to say, a kind of oppressed field, unfortunately, in many companies is still not has that same recognition of respect in other artists from other disciplines or from the stakeholders or executives as disciplines that have been around for long because they have been around for longer and better understood.

And so some people think that the way to get respect is to repudiate what’s gone before. Well, we don’t do this usability. That’s what they did in the dot com bubble. Now we do this other thing, make up more fancy terminology because people surely respect you if you speak in a in a very advanced and strange way and actually know they will not. People will not respect you if they have a hard time understanding you because you use new vocabulary. You get respect from delivering results, not from speaking in more fancy new newly invented words. And so that’s a problem right there. And also, I think it’s a deeper problem as well, because if if we don’t own our own heritage and we can continuously say no, what we used to do is not the right thing, why would anybody else respect us if we don’t respect ourselves? Rather, we should say we keep getting better and we will have these known things and we will make them adapt them to the circumstances. Notice we go, which is fine. The last reason for vocabulary inflation is more almost predatory. It’s like some companies like to have their own kind of brand. The terms that put to bamboozle the clients, to be quite honest, that they make up a term for something that’s quite a while now. They say, oh, this is our proprietary methodology and if you come to us, things will be great. I would much rather that they would compete not on calling the same thing something else, but rather saying we do the same thing, but we do it like with deeper insights, a more if methodology or whatever it is that would be their competitive advantage, depending on who they are. That would be, into my opinion, the way to really compete and differentiate yourself, not by making up your proprietary methodology. That’s really the same with a five percent tweak. It’s much better to understand if you say we’re doing this, this established establishing, it’s been known to work for decades and then we’re changing in these ways to work better for the types of projects we do that would be more honest and also easier to understand. And it would reduce this amount of confusion that the entire field is suffering from now. What is the solution to vocabulary inflation? I think actually it cannot be 100 percent solved because you these strong forces pressing for it. But I think the analogy is with monetary inflation, that’s how I came up with this this term. And in monetary inflation, you know, if you have high inflation of one hundred percent per year, a thousand percent per year, that will destroy the economy. And there’s some countries that are examples of that in history. But if you have inflation of the one percent per year, that doesn’t matter at all that everybody can cope with that quite easily. So I think in the same way for vocabulary inflation and a little bit of adaptation over decades of the vocabulary is not going to bother us. It’s like this constant change that is bothering us, so let’s just reduce it. And so I think there are a few ways we can reduce it. And the first and maybe most important one is education. So get rid of this problem that people don’t know what things are called, so they come up with their own words not knowing any better. And that’s something that we are very, very strong on. And it’s a normal group. We always try to explain things that really plain-spoken clear language not to make, not to mystify user experience, but to clarify a simplified user experience. So that, I think is a really big and everybody is it our all our responsibility to do that educate, educate and make people understand our existing vocabulary desisting methodologies. A second one is also everybody’s responsibility, recist, racist, just refuse when somebody comes up with a fancy new term for something that’s already.

As a term, say no, you’re describing this that we already know and maybe you’re describing this with a five percent tweak, but then that’s what we should call it.

So if we do that, I think we can actually reduce vocabulary inflation quite a lot. And that’s what I would really encourage you guys to do. So let’s not reinvent the wheel every few years. Let’s not reinvent user experience. Rather, let’s make better user experience. So that’s my challenge to you. Thank you.

After Jacobs talk, we asked the audience which term they preferred. We got four hundred and fifty eight responses and the results in third place, product design with seven point six percent of the votes in second place, user centered design with fifteen point seven percent, and in first place, the most preferred term with sixty four point two percent of the votes was user experience.

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