by Bruce G. Allen and Elizabeth Buie (copyright notice)
When you say something is intuitive, do you mean that absolutely everybody understands it right away? If you say a program is logical, what help is that to a user? Does user-friendly mean anything these days? (Did it ever?)
We create meaning by placing words in a context where they absorb their surroundings like herring in a sherry marinade. Use a word in a context that supports clear understanding of the intended meaning, and you make the word richer and stronger for yourself and for the time when someone else takes their turn at using it. Overlook your intended meaning, and you defocus the image scatter the energy of the word.
Word meanings can change over time; thats all well and good. "Awful" used to mean "full of awe", and seven centuries ago "nice" meant "foolish" (some might say it still does!). The rich garden of English vocabulary has grown from the endless planting of new words from foreign sources, jostling for their place in our prose and poetry. A living language is always on the move good thing for us.
Theres a bit of a problem, though, when we want a word to conjure up something more concrete than a poetic image in the readers mind. When we want to use a word as terminology. Terminology is to vocabulary as bulldog is to kennel: It demands a certain kind of care. We want a term to hold its value. It has to say the same thing to everyone who needs to read or hear it.
With that in mind, lets take a look at some usability terms and how their meanings might be compromised.
Let us say this outright: There is no such thing as "just" semantics. Semantics is all about the very meanings of the words we use, the intention with which we use them, and the understanding they create in our audience. In communication, nothing is more important than semantics.
Language shapes reality. It sets up for us the reassuring feeling that reality, or at least the small part of it that we're responsible for, can be comprehended in the way we intend. This is especially relevant to that small part of reality that belongs to usability, as its contributors come from diverse backgrounds and greatly need a shared terminology where meanings are controlled more rigorously than in general vocabulary.
We've looked at eight terms that are in frequent use in usability engineering or user interface design/development; and we have seen how, unless we use them with great care, they can create a reality that is different from the one we intend. To give our usability efforts a reality that is effective, efficient, and satisfying particularly when talking to nonspecialists we need to use our terminology carefully.
Bruce Allen is an electronics technologist with Nav Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. A slothful and difficult personality, Bruce spends about half his time whining to his manager about spending half his time whining to software types who seem never to have heard of users or hardware. In his spare time Bruce stands in the cold and dark taking photographs where there's no light, or whines about mopping up after stirring brown powder into fruit juice in the hope of transmogrifying it into wine.
Elizabeth Buie [at the time of this writing was] a usability specialist with Computer Sciences Corporation in Rockville, Maryland. A cranky and contentious personality, Elizabeth has griped about usability and HCI design since 1977, on projects from spacecraft control to mobile phone service provisioning. These days she focuses on Web sites and applications for the US Government. In her spare time Elizabeth sits at one keyboard seeking to commune with the alto part in the choir's upcoming pieces, or at the other one seeking to grok the digital images that are mere shadows of her photographs.
Elizabeth's griping about usability and its language managed to convince Bruce, long linguistically disgruntled himself and ever ready to add another subject to his own whining. This article is their first effort to whine and gripe as a team.
This article was published in the
March/April 2002 issue of interactions, the ACM/SIGCHI magazine
of human-computer interaction. Copyright © 2002, Bruce G.
Allen and Elizabeth A. Buie. All rights reserved. Permission is
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personal or educational and is not for commercial gain or profit.
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