If you’ve worked with a user experience (UX) professional before, you’ve probably heard us affirming the importance of speaking the users’ language. It seems simple enough, right? So what’s the real hangup with following through?

The Origin

Speaking the users’ language is not a new concept. In the early 90s, Jakob Nielsen (the godfather of usability) and Rolf Molich crafted a list of 10 heuristics, or principles, for developing effective interface design. The second principle provides specific guidance on speaking the users’ language:

Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order (Source: Nielsen Norman Group, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/

Insider Speak: Come Again?

By nature, we use language that we’re most comfortable with. As professionals in the digital and nonprofit space, we work within industries and organizations that have their own language. Organization- and industry-specific language is referred to as jargon or insider lingo. Sometimes this language makes its way onto websites, applications, and other digital artifacts. Because we’re inside the system, we get tunnel vision. We forget that just because we’re familiar with it doesn’t mean that our users will be. This brings to mind another golden rule for usability: we are not our users. (And conversely, our users are not us.)

Familiar Metaphors For The Win

In the digital space, it’s crucial that we speak plainly, clearly, and consistently. And to use language, metaphors, and concepts that are relevant and relatable. I think Iyanla Vanzant said it best, “Let’s call a thing – a thing, people!”

Shopping carts work so well for ecommerce sites because they represent a concept that is commonplace within real life. When you’re at your favorite store and you see an item that you like, what do you do? You put it in the shopping cart. The same can be said for the trash can icon. If you need to get rid of a file on your computer, what do you do? You delete it or drag it into the trashcan. These metaphors are successful because they’re familiar and connect with our experiences in real life.

Keep It Simple

Insider speak only benefits those that know what you’re talking about. No one is going to stay on a site with content that is difficult to understand or that fails to support their tasks. Avoid jargon and insider lingo. Use language that is easy for all members of your target audience to understand. Keep it simple.

Ensure concepts and metaphors are recognizable and follow familiar conventions. When using icons that are not universal, include labels as they can enhance clarity and further convey meaning.

For more information on usability, language, and content strategy, check out: