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Sociolinguistics, Design Research, and You-How to Languate Gooder: Part 3

You’ve made it this far! Now, let’s bring it home with Part 3. This is getting a bit ‘meta’ and looking inwards to reflect on how design researchers talk about what we do.

(Lost? Here is Part 1 and Part 2).

How we as a design research community talk about what we do — and how we may exclude others through language we use

Have you ever sat in a presentation and thought to yourself…what is this person talking about? They could be talking very quickly, so that it’s hard to understand what’s going on. Or they could be talking too slowly and you’re struggling to pay attention. Maybe they’re using a bunch of words you’re not sure of the meaning of, or words that you’ve not come across before.

Below is a (fictitious) paragraph of someone talking about design research:

“Last month I conducted an exploratory research study. The study comprised 20 contextual inquiry sessions, which are a form of ethnography typically used in anthropological studies at the tertiary education research level. Participant ephemera was collected in-situ to ensure validity and robustness”

Do you think this is reasonable in the context of…

  • Two design researchers chatting over a coffee?
  • A design researcher explaining their methodology to a General Manager of Product?
  • Me telling my partner what I got up to at work yesterday?

You’re probably thinking that paragraph sounds a bit full-on. And you’d be right. It *might* be appropriate when talking to a bunch of seasoned design researchers, but it’s certainly not appropriate to use anywhere else.

Here’s another example. My ‘languate’ friend from earlier often talks to their partner about their work. I asked their partner how they respond to this.

“They’ll start rattling off a bunch of terms specific to their work that I don’t know, and it doesn’t click for them that I don’t know them. I find it really hard to know what they mean.

I don’t remember what they say because I have no concept of these things”

What do you think is happening in this example? My ‘languate’ friend clearly knows what they are talking about, and they’re passionate about it. But the way it’s explained is confusing for their partner — so they don’t remember.

These examples demonstrate our final sociolinguistic concept. Let’s look at in-groups and out-groups.

According to social psychology, an in-group is a social group to which people identify as being a member. The in-group classifies those who are not in that group negatively — the out-group.

This is a kind of ‘us vs them’ mentality, when it’s deliberate. In much of what we do, it’s typically subconscious.

In sociolinguistics, in-group members impose their dominant ideology (and language use) on the out-group to advantage themselves and legitimise the status quo. The out-group are then made to believe that they (and by extension, their culture and language), are inferior to the dominant group.

Have you ever been in a situation where a lot of complex words were used that you didn’t understand? How did that make you feel?

What you felt was exclusion. The in-group may have been using a number of complex words, or jargon, specific to the subject matter that they were talking about. You, as the outsider, weren’t given a way in through them explaining things to you. Maybe you were made to feel inferior because you didn’t understand something. (Again, this isn’t necessarily deliberate).

We’ve all been the banana.

In some cases, the use of jargon is a result of our privilege. Perhaps you’ve been guilty of this. I’m certain I have.

Ask yourself, what are you trying to prove by using complex words?

In our research sessions with participants, we can sometimes make them feel excluded if we use words that are too complex, or don’t explain concepts or ideas in a way that’s easily understood. We can even do this through our accents.

We use language to exclude, consciously or subconsciously, all of the time. We use it to make ourselves feel good, and to make others feel bad. If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s this.

When discussing your research plans, methods, and results with your stakeholders, you need to use juuuust enough technical language to show that:

  • Design research is a legitimate skill that requires training
  • You know what you’re talking about

But, you need to also explain what your technical language means so that your stakeholders come away feeling as though they’ve learned something, and that they’re on an equal footing with you. Plus they’ll remember what you were talking about!

The best design researchers are not the ones who use all the jargon and sound super smart in meetings because it is going over everyone’s head. The best design researchers are able to make technical concepts easy for anyone to understand, no matter their experience.

You’re striking a balance between affording your research the respect it deserves, and explaining what you do/why it’s important in a way that’s easy to understand, which avoids alienating your stakeholders.

If you can’t explain a concept in a simple way, do you really understand it?

Let’s summarise Parts 1, 2, and 3

You made it! Thanks for coming on that sociolinguistic journey with me. We covered:

  • Prescriptivism, and why it’s not OK
  • Registers and jargon, and how they sneak into our research approach
  • How we express identity through language, and how we can use this
  • In-groups and out-groups, and how to avoid creating these.

Here’s how you mitigate these things:

  • Capturing exactly what the participant says, and mirroring what they say.
  • Avoiding jargon and complex words
  • Employing ‘word swaps’ to avoid overly technical language creeping into your facilitation
  • Code-switching to reflect the way of speaking your participant is using
  • Using phatic communication to make your participant feel at ease
  • Literally just explaining what you mean

You won’t get this stuff right 100% of the time. We’re humans, we make mistakes. As a researcher, be aware of these things, so you can try to do something about them.

Finally, think about how you can use language to do good.

As before, please leave your comments below — I’m curious to understand any thoughts you had while reading this.

Special thanks to…

  • Dr. Cameron Hunt, who languates good
  • Dr. Nathan Eva
  • Danya Azzopardi

If you’re keen to learn more about the weird world of language, David Crystal’s Encyclopaedia of Language is a great place to start.




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

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Caylie Panuccio

Caylie Panuccio

UX Researcher in Melbourne, Australia. Ponders UX research technique, practice building, and language stuff.

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