Insider language, assumptions and usability

I have to admit, I was a little jarred the first time the App Store told me to “Get” a new app.

iOS 7 App Store

I got how computers work, and you didn't get apps, you installed them. Downloaded them, if you wanted to get technical. I’d been installing apps, programs and add-ons, after downloading them, since I was a teenager.

This isn't the first time I've seen this, either. A signage refresh just before the 2010 Olympic games changes all the exits from Vancouver Skytrain stations to Way Out. I can’t find any images of these signs, so I imagine Translink’s reneged on this choice, but they still prefer to use somewhat indirect arrows and labels as opposed to more explicit entrance and exits:

An entrance (not that you’d see it called such) to Waterfront Skytrain station. Note the arrow.

At the time, the change bugged me. It was the degradation of language! Before you knew it, we’d be describing things as double plus good, talking about Out and In, instead of entrances and exits, maybe even replacing doors with ways inout! The horror, the never-quite-gone former English major in me breathed.

This was before I cut my teeth in my first technology job ever: I left Vancouver a co-op Technical Writer at BlackBerry in 2011, and came back to my UX design degree with a different bent on things. After my stint at BlackBerry, I looked at the Vancouver Way Out’s in a new light. Because, of course. Words like “exit” are so specific, and you would never want that when trying to explain something.

As a technical writer, I became hyper-aware of the language we use to describe technology, code and more. Just like dictionary definitions can’t use the word they’re trying to define in the definition itself, technical writers must strive to avoid using related terms to describe abstract concepts. The reason for this is what I call “insider language”: language that people in the field understand with ease, but that won’t make sense without specialized language.

One of the best examples of insider language I can think of is the word ligature. Depending on your field of study or professional practice, a ligature can be any of the following:

  • A piece of thread used to tie off a structure (usually a blood vessel),
  • A style of musical notation,
  • The metal piece that holds a reed to the mouthpiece of an instrument such as a clarinet or saxophone,
  • The bits of elastic on your tooth braces,
  • The combination of two or more typographic characters in a glyph,
  • A form of strangulation
One type of ligature.

Note that, for the most part, these different uses of the word ligature have common elements which give them meaning in everyday speech: the concepts of joining, restraining and looping one thing around another are common to all definitions. Regardless of a common root, however, their modern connotations refer to entirely different things depending on whom you’re speaking to.

The problem might be obvious from a usability perspective, but in case it isn't, let me give an illustration of “insider language” in use — unconsciously.

And what would you call this?

I used to work in a store on Robson Street, Vancouver’s go-to shopping area. When restocking merchandise, our managers and team leads would tell us where to put things: “On the A-Frame!” they’d say, so called because it was comprised of two shelves leaning against each other at an angle and a horizontal support bar — forming an upper-case “A” when viewed in profile. Or maybe on the B-cap, or in the runs, or on the shaker tables. We all obeyed, because hey, that’s what you do when you’re working retail.

One day I saw a coworker directing a customer to some merchandise. It was a big store, and they was stuck behind the counter, unable to walk the customer over themselves. So she pointed, saying, “they’re over there, on the A-Frame.”

The customer was confused. They walked generally in the direction my coworker had pointed, and eventually came to me for help, where I walked them over. It wasn't that what they were looking for was particularly small or hard to see — it was in plain sight, and as my coworker said, on the A-Frame. But they never would've found it with those directions because they had no way of ever knowing what an A-Frame was. They didn't work here, and the only people who called those fixtures A-frames — indeed, who called the things that held merchandise “fixtures” — were people who worked in this store. This was later corroborated by a manager of mine, who told me he’d been scolded for calling A-frames something different, because that’s what they’d called them in that store.

The danger — and power — of insider language is its specificity. Every work situation has it: from schools, to hospitals, to coffee shops. They save us time and mental processing power, by reducing the meanings of a word to an exact pinpointed definition. The danger in that specificity comes when we forget about the world outside of our language bubble: that they have no way of knowing about that insider language until they’re told. Language as the power to clarify and confuse, and we need to be cognizant of of the words we use when we practice UX design, usability, and information architecture.

There’s one more layer to “Get”-ing an app, as opposed to installing it: the great simplification of our computing lives, as ushered in by mobile devices and user experience paradigms. As opposed to downloading, then opening, installing and configuring a new program or application, now all we do is get it. We click the button, maybe provide our password, and quietly wait to receive. The only opening we do is to open the app for the first time, were we might be taken through a special on-boarding process for new users.

Installing something brings to mind a process. You install new windows on your house by first removing the old ones, making sure the new ones fit, doing any adjustments to the now-gaping hole in your house’s wall as required — shimming a gap with a piece of lumber and some caulking, perhaps; — and then, finally, you put your new windows in. A few more steps to seal things in, and finally you have new windows. Getting windows does nothing for you if you don’t install them, get-ing an app requires little other than your consent and momentary patience: passive receiving versus the active process of installation.

As UX designers, we tend to focus on two things: the placement of elements in an interface, and how (regardless of those whether those elements refer to buttons on a page or pages themselves) they flow together. I suspect this is a result of UX’s sticky relationship with the field of Human-Computer Interaction — computers being concerned with the relationship between data, of course — and design, which in terms of execution of ideas aligns itself with the world of art, using the same principles and techniques but to a far more pragmatic end. UX Designers are wonderful at working with data, and producing visual results. People hire UX designers precisely because they’re able to think in both ways. But there’s a third realm in which we can create value that is so often ignored: language.

Not everyone is a visual learner. For some, you’ll never place that button just so so that they stop making a mistake. You’ll never chose the right icon to represent an idea , and even if you did they’ll never remember it. Language can offer irreplaceable clarity to your designs at minuscule small visual/aesthetic cost, but it often never crosses the designer’s mind.

As a final illustration, take a look at the menu bars below — from Facebook, Pitnerest, Twitter, LINE and Instagram, and ask yourself this: without the context of the rest of the app, which is the clearest? Which interfaces let you know exactly what will show up when you click on its icon?

Menu bars, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LINE and Instagram, for iOS.
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