Lost in translation.
We're regularly advised that designers should learn to speak the language of business.
I confess to being one of the voices encouraging our discipline to get more familiar with the terminology of our business peers.
On a purely functional level, it improves the chances we'll leave a business meeting understanding what the hell was discussed or agreed upon.
Practicalities aside, it also signals we've taken steps to educate ourselves in themes that matter to those around us. For a discipline which prides itself on understanding people and the world they operate in, that can be a good look.
But that doesn't mean we should blindly adopt the business world's lexicon as our own...
Certain types of business language can be seriously problematic. Jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms are often used excessively or without explanation. These can create confusion and alienate people unfamiliar with the terminology.
Language acts as a gatekeeper in some organisations and industries, too. It can be exclusionary, either by accident or design. These are highly undesirable side effects of domain-specific language.
Design is rife with unique terminology, of course. But the language of design is also less commonly adopted outside of our discipline.
The danger of complex, confusing business language is its pervasiveness.
And, as we learn it and understand it, we can adopt it too.
We fit in. And we add to the problem.
So what can we do to improve the linguistic situation?
Designers often pride themselves on appreciating the perspective of others, a people-centred lens helping us deliver better outcomes.
This mindset can extend to how we see our places of work, our users being those we occasionally share a meeting room with.
So, next time you're invited to a business workshop alongside a new starter, put yourself in their shoes.
How would you feel being exposed to an onslaught of new business jargon?
Baffled? Intimidated to ask for a definition? Unable to follow the narrative of the discussion?
If so, ask the group "Could someone remind us all what this means?"
When unique, company-specific acronyms creep into the conversation, remind colleagues to spell out their meaning for the benefit of those hearing them for the first time.
Modelling behaviour like this is a great way to encourage others to do the same.
Simplify, and vocalise with clarity.
Everyone benefits from more straightforward language.
There's a place for domain-specific terminology, but improved clarity is always desirable.
If your business has in-house terminology that takes a while to grasp, suggest alternatives that spell out their definition more clearly.
Acronyms and initialisms often save little time to vocalise compared to when written down. So, be the person who speaks them in full.
For example, instead of "ROI", say "Return on Investment".
It's easy to fall back into this verbal shorthand for design terminology too. Consider applying the same vocalisation principle when referring to your UIs, UXs, and CTAs.
Maintain language cheat-sheets.
One of the first documents I create when working with a new client is a terminology cheat sheet.
Apple Notes, Notion, Excel: whatever your format, keep a log of new terms and definitions as they arise.
Let colleagues know you're doing this, too. It is a gentle reminder that business language literacy shouldn't be taken for granted. It can be hard work to keep up.
Design leader? Make the cheatsheet shareable and editable for your team, and embed it into your onboarding process for new starters.
How do you tackle tricky business terminology?
Do you have any more tips on how to deal with the language of business? What's the most confusing business terminology you've had to deal with?
I'd love to hear from you! Drop me a line, and I'll do my best to share the best ones in a future newsletter.