Sociolinguistics, Design Research, and You-How to Languate Gooder: Part 1

Caylie Panuccio
Jun 25 · 8 min read
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Hello. My name’s Caylie, and I’m a Design Researcher. In a past life, I studied Japanese, Mandarin, and Linguistics.

The use of language — spoken, signed, gestured, or written — unites us as humans. Beyond serving as a means of communication, language also has the power to influence the way we think, talk, act, and behave — the power to do good, and the power to cause harm.

Given my background, I’ve always wanted to explore the intersection of sociolinguistics — how and why we talk the way we do — and design research. Applying core concepts in sociolinguistics can improve the way we conduct design research, resulting in less biased research outcomes. That’s what these series of articles is all about.

Have you ever thought about…

  • How the way you sound, and the words you use, might influence a research participant’s responses?
  • How our experiences and the way we speak, and those of our research participants, influence the collection of research data?
  • How we as a design research community talk about what we do — and how we might exclude others through language we use?

I’ll cover each of these 3 topics, in a 3-part particle. Below is Part 1.

But before I get into that, I wanted to give some context.

Why UX Research and Sociolinguistics?

I never really knew what I wanted to do. In secondary school, I suggested to my careers counsellor that I’d study anthropology, because I’d always had an interest in humans, history and biology. He replied — ‘what will you do for a real job’? (We got along well, so this was fine!)

I chose to study Japanese, Mandarin, and Linguistics, thinking I wanted to be an interpreter. I then studied a Master of Banking and Finance, thinking the combination of finance and Asian languages might be useful, given the increasingly global nature of money markets and financial services. This landed me a graduate position at National Australia Bank (NAB). I rotated through what was then the Human-Centred Design team.

From that point on, I was hooked. It made so much sense to me to conduct research with the people you’re building things for. I remained at NAB as a UX Researcher for a few more years, then landed at SEEK.

Having worked at two large corporates, I’m surprised by three things:

  1. People who design products and services for ‘all Australians’ don’t always learn how to communicate to all Australians
  2. There’s an assumption that the people who use the things we make speak and think in the same way as us
  3. There’s a lack of focus on the language used in conducting research, as well as product & service designs.

My background, and these 3 things I’d noticed, made me think about how to join it all together. I first presented this as a talk at Design Research Australia — check it out here. But lucky you! You get to read this article!

Socio-what-now? Some definitions

Linguistics is the study of language. Not studying languages (although that does help to describe the things you observe), but studying how language is acquired, how it’s used, and its structure, sounds, and evolution.

Linguistics is a big field, and there’s lots of different branches. Here’s a few:

  • Language acquisition (how humans learn first and additional languages)
  • Historical linguistics (language change over time)
  • Phonetics & phonology (sounds, and how we make them)
  • Morphology (how words are made)
  • Syntax (sentence structures) — mention the phrase ‘syntax trees’ to a linguistics student and they’ll cower in fear.

Cool. Let’s jump into Part 1.

Part 1: How the way you sound, and the words you use, might influence a research participant’s responses

We need to be careful with the words we use in design research & testing, as they can influence the participant’s responses.

Have you really listened to the way you speak?

  • Does the way you speak change depending on who you’re speaking to? What about the words you use?
  • Do you do this deliberately, or subconsciously?
  • What about the words your participants use, and the way they speak? Have you noticed them before? Perhaps the words they use are different to yours. They might sound different to you.

If you haven’t noticed these things yet — you will now!

Don’t be like Homer. (Image credit: reddit.com)

I was once conducting usability testing with a participant on the SEEK website. The participant referred to the job category section (it’s the bit where you choose what industry you think your job title fits in, before clicking ‘SEEK’) as the ‘clarifications’. It’s reasonable to assume due to the context that they meant classifications, but perhaps they misplaced the word due to some nerves, or just couldn’t remember the right word.

This bit. (Image credit: seek.com.au)

I didn’t say anything, and the session continued on.

What was I doing by not saying anything? Let’s look at some concepts from sociolinguistics to find out.

Think about that example I gave of a research participant using the SEEK website. What does that have to do with prescriptivism?

  • I didn’t correct the participant, or ask what they meant. I didn’t repeat or ‘parrot’ the word back at them (a favoured trick of many researchers). Instead, I inferred from the context and their actions what they were talking about.
  • Asking what they meant, or running the ol’ parrot trick, would have meant they may have realised their ‘mistake’ in calling the job categories clarifications (which, isn’t far off the ‘correct’ term).
  • I would have risked making them feel embarrassed, therefore jeopardising the rest of the session — they may have tried to ‘prove’ they were clever or ‘tried’ harder to make up for it, which could have biased the data.
  • If I had asked what they meant, or parroted — this would be prescriptivist. In my head, I’m thinking — “Oh, they clearly mean classifications, better ask just in case”. I’m telling them in a roundabout way that what they said, the way they talk, is wrong. And we don’t want that.

It’s a linguist’s role to describe what’s being said or written, avoiding judgement. The same is true of design researchers — we describe exactly what’s being said and done, with no editing, even though sometimes it may be ‘wrong’. There is no right or wrong way to speak. (That doesn’t mean it’s OK to use language that marginalises people from under-represented groups). It can be interpreted as elitist to define and expect adherence to a certain way of speaking.

I try to note the language used by participants to describe what they’re doing, the tasks they want to complete, their behaviours, and their desires. It’s our responsibility as researchers to not only capture our users’ behaviours, but also how they talk about these things — so we can mirror this in how our products are built, increasing their ease of use.

Image credit: redbubble.com

I have a funny anecdote to illustrate this, from a friend of mine. They were once getting tongue tied and struggling with their words in a conversation. Naturally, the rest of us were teasing them about this — to which they sarcastically replied “I languate good!” (They were also the inspiration for this article’s title).

What they did was take a noun (language) and turn it into a verb by sticking an ‘-ate’ ending on it. It’s not “correct”, but we all understood what they meant.

I want to introduce you now to another concept from sociolinguistics — registers and jargon. And yes, I realise the irony in this — I’m using a heck of a lot of jargon in this article!

A funny example of a register is ‘Legalese’ — the stuff in terms and conditions that no one ever reads.

Really technical words that we find in different registers are called jargon. In our field, we might casually refer to things like…

Platform

Concept

Design

Prototype

Feature

Product

We might call things “platforms”, “prototypes”, and “features”, but our participants who don’t work in our industry probably won’t use these terms. We want our participants to understand what we mean, so we get honest, clear responses, and the participant doesn’t feel like they have to ‘prove themselves’ by matching our language.

Here’s some ‘word swaps’ you can use instead:

Platform = website

Design = concept/idea

Prototype = fake website/website that doesn’t fully work

Feature = thing/thing you can use/thing you can do/part of the website/this bit here etc

Product = service, or, ‘things you use and do’

To figure out if my research approach is easily understood, I like to rely on what I call “the Parents test”. That is, if I ran a pilot research session with one of my parents, would they understand the things I was asking them about? You can use this too.

These are my parents. They are not UX Researchers.

If your research participants belong to a group of people who use a particular register, get familiar with that — and work to understand from your participant what all those special terms mean to them.

So, what did you think?

That it’s for Part 1! Leave your comments below — I’m curious to understand any thoughts you had while reading this article, or your own experiences with language & design research.

Part 2 talks about how our experiences, the way we speak, and those of our research participants influence the collection of research data.

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented…

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

Caylie Panuccio

Written by

UX & design researcher in Melbourne, Australia. Follow me for ponderings on design research technique, UX, language and whatever else springs into my head!

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…