Speaking Design: What a Few Key Terms Taught Me
Why it’s crucial for UX researchers to learn design vocabulary and concepts.
In 2016 I started working at Facebook as a Rotational UX Researcher. It was:
a) My first “real” job
b) My first job in tech
c) My first UX research job
d) My first job in design
e) All of the above
Because of all this newness, I sat through a lot of meetings just staring at people or, on a productive day, writing down terms to look up later. These terms often wound up on notes stuck to the inside of my dryer or scrunched up under a colleague’s desk.
For the most part, I could function without knowing the proper design terminology for the concepts and components of the user interfaces (UI) I was working with. While referring to a facepile, I might say “the little profile pictures” or “the circle heads.” But if a designer told me she was concerned about the hierarchy in a mock, I figured she was just being a perfectionist about her chevron or something equally “designer-y.”
Then, about a month into the job, I met one of my remotely based Spanish teammates for the first time and realized that the so-called “crystal ball” designs we had been working on were not crystal balls at all, but that I’d been mishearing the name of our designer, Cristobal. Unfortunately this mistake was loudly unearthed at a dinner in Manila with 5 coworkers.
That incident, combined with the general vagueness and confusion I’d been feeling, spurred me to start asking colleagues to slow down and define the terms they were using. It wasn’t easy — I felt like I was outing myself as a very junior newcomer to the industry. But as with most on-the-job learning, it became less uncomfortable after the first few times. I quickly learned that my colleagues were happy to clarify things for me, and a few even sent me resources and reading to do on my own. I gradually became able to parse out internal corporate jargon from important design terms.
The longer I’m on the job, the more I believe that researchers need to use the same vocabulary as the designers we work with. Using a standardized vocabulary not only indicates a respect for the established principles of our unified UX discipline, but also reduces the need for clarification. When I tell a designer or content strategist that “participants didn’t understand the NUX,” it gives them much more concrete, actionable information than “participants didn’t understand the text.”
Learning what certain terms mean has also led naturally to educating myself about important design principles — and some of the ongoing company-wide conversations around them. Learning the proper terms for UI components and concepts has improved my presentations, made my design feedback more effective, clarified my product recommendations, and made me a more credible source of information to my team.
Here are a few examples of design terms I’ve learned on the job, along with explanations of how learning and knowing them has helped me improve as a researcher.
NUX literally means “new user experience” but you’ll hear it used as both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means the tip that appears when a user sees something for the first time. The verb form refers to the act of walking users through a new experience, or presenting them with such a tip, as in “we NUXed users returning after 6 months.”
As a researcher, it’s important to know about the NUXes your product team is using and where they’re using them, and not just because they may serve as your users’ introduction to the product. A NUX often indicates an area to pay attention to during testing, since NUXes are often used as a band-aid solution when a product team isn’t sure how to tighten up or clarify the user experience.
When I informally asked a designer what NUX meant, it led to a fascinating conversation about their use across the Facebook app, as well as the schools of thought about when and how they should be used. This conversation helped shape my research questions, and the findings from that research helped me form a strong point of view to advocate for better new-user education.
The actual design term here is “visual hierarchy,” and it refers to the design principle of displaying information according to its order of importance and category. Less formally, designers may talk about hierarchy to describe how distinctively information is categorized and organized.
On one of my first research projects at Facebook, I noticed that participants weren’t understanding that the most important part of one of our advertising flows was the section for targeting their audience. They were missing the explanatory sub-header altogether. When it came time to create a research report, I told my team we should add more or better copy to help people understand the section. A mentor of mine who had seen the research sessions pulled me aside to suggest that I present the problem not as an issue of misunderstanding the text, but as an issue of hierarchy.
When I dove in and learned more about the concept of hierarchy, I realized that I should change my product recommendation to focus on fixing the hierarchy of our workflow. We didn’t need more explanatory text, we just needed to stop grouping this section field into a visual information category (sub-header) that indirectly suggested it wasn’t that important to users.
3. Progress Indicator
Progress indicators tell the user that something is loading. They’re a great example of a small design element that can greatly improve the user experience. An indicator lets users know that “we’re working on it,” so they don’t have to wonder whether their connection is bad or something’s broken. A progress indicator can be either “determinate,” with a defined endpoint (e.g., a line going across the screen), or “indeterminate” (e.g., a spinner going around and around).
One product I’ve worked on had slow “perf” or performance, meaning it took a long time for our content to load. We noticed that users were becoming frustrated and abandoning before the content loaded. This would have been the perfect situation to recommend a progress indicator, which would encourage the user to just hang on a few more seconds. But because I didn’t know the term, I didn’t think to suggest an indicator. Sometimes the benefit of knowing a term is simply reminding you that the thing it refers to exists!
Whether you know these terms already — or even if you work in an entirely different field — I hope my experience encourages you to ask questions about the words your colleagues use. Gradually learning to “speak design” has been an invaluable part of my growth as a researcher. And it’s helped me contribute to a cohesive design and research relationship that builds satisfying experiences for 2 billion people. As for what the future might hold, I’ll leave that to my crystal ball designs.
What are some examples of terms you’ve learned on the job — and how has learning them affected your research?