Language Should Never be 'Plain'
By Ultan O'Broin-Oracle on Aug 14, 2010
I see a lot of UX professional debate on the subject of plain language. Many of these arguments are decontextualized. They often import personal frustrations from filling out government forms in the US or EU, anecdotal evidence about technical error messages, and so on. This is not very helpful for making a case about what language user assistance should use for the enterprise applications user experience.
Sure, we must communicate ideas clearly and succinctly, but we must also do so using the terminology of the target audience's roles,expertise, and how they actually work. Generalizations about plain language certainly seem very reasonable when we discount such variables, aren't they? Often we see recommendations made for one design context that simply don't apply in the other.
The most notorious one in the user assistance area is the conflation that all online users read publicly available web content the same way that they would read content in the enterprise space (for example the "golden triangle" or "F-shape" argument). These findings do not hold true in the enterprise applications world.
Same for language on the web. Instead of talking about some globally applicable 'plain language' being required by all users, the discussion needs to move in the direction of information quality, and away from the dominance of internal linguists, and towards the conversations in the user community.Information we deliver in user assistance components should reflect the needs of the user and how they work. We must use terminology that our users recognize and use consistently when interacting with the UI, searching, reading online, and most importantly, when they seek help or help each other. Getting your terminology right is central to information quality.
Engaging the user community and their conversations is key to this. On one level, it's easy. Why call "breadcrumbs" something else if the term is widely accepted in general use? Or why say "Enter a valid password" when you can say "Enter the correct password"? And, then, of course, we have some language used without thought of use at all (like "OK" in dialogs instead of more meaningful button options).
But, in the enterprise space with such a broad range of domain expertise and many possible roles, involving specialized vertical, functional or technical expertise, additional layers of complexity are added to our choice of words. User experience is about knowing who our users are, so use that research.Terminology, and therefore language, can hardly be 'plain'. This is an area that interests me greatly.
So, stay tuned to this blog and the usableapps website for news about UX developments concerning language and user conversations.