Jul 22, 2016 · 2 min read

Let’s watch our language

As designers in government we prototype, test, learn and start again until our services are simple, clear and fast.

It’s our job as content designers to make sure the words in services make sense to the person reading them. The wrong words can make someone feel confused, and can stop them understanding how to use the service.

We see the confusion caused by unclear communication everyday in the office — it’s often the result of our longstanding culture of acronyms.

Where I work in government, we talk of PIA and SPAG. DMs, POs and BAs discuss CPMO and CIS. We’re part of BTG, working on ESA, HRT and PIP.

We make sure undefined acronyms and abbreviations don’t seep into our services, but changing the way we communicate with each other is a bigger job.

Understand our users

Identifying who we’re talking to is the first step to clear communication. When we’re talking at work, our users are a varied group.

A contractor might be working with an apprentice. A civil servant of 20 years might be working alongside someone who joined government last month.

We all have different levels of experience, so a term that’s really clear to one person might mean nothing to another.

The mistake is to assume everyone knows what you know: not only what a particular acronym stands for, but enough context for it to make sense in the conversation. And that they can recall it instantly. That’s a big ask.

Work hard to be clear

Just as we do everything we can to make the services we build easy to understand, we each have a responsibility to communicate clearly to our colleagues.

Sometimes using an acronym or abbreviation might be the best option — we often find this in services. It might help avoid making your conversation longwinded. That’s fine, as long as you explain what you mean upfront.

It’s a good pattern to follow: make sure everyone has the same understanding at the start. The worst that can happen is that a conversation lasts a few seconds longer, while the meaning of a term is explained.

Lead by example

An important principle of agile is working in the open. We’re not doing this if we’re not communicating clearly.

This is a problem we can all help to fix. Next time you’re not completely clear what something means, ask. More often than not, you won’t be the only one.

When you find an abbreviation on the tip of your tongue, think about who you’re talking to and whether they will understand.

In a culture where jargon is deeply embedded, it’s the responsibility of all of us to change it.



A collection of open stories on the realities of designing a digital government, shared by the people who work there.

Melanie Cannon

Written by

Head of Content Design, Department for Work and Pensions (These are my views)


A collection of open stories on the realities of designing a digital government, shared by the people who work there.

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