3 September 2021
Design Practice

The Pros and Cons of Professional Language

Most industries have their own professional language — often described as “jargon” by the less generous amongst us. Some may point out how ironic it is that designers—who pride themselves in making things easy to understand—use language that deliberately obfuscates meaning. They’ll claim that this is done by gatekeepers attempting to shore up their positions in order to keep new entrants out. This may be true, but In the spirit of Occam's razor, I suspect there’s a much simpler (and less nefarious) explanation.

The Point of Professional Language

Professional language is used as a short-cut by industry insiders to describe something specific to their industry that they expect each other to understand. As such, far from obfuscating meaning, professional language is intended to simplify communication between peers. 

To delve into this further, let’s take an example from aviation. The modern cockpit is full of various knobs, buttons, dials and displays. Each one has a very specific function and it's important for the pilot and co-pilot to know which one is being discussed at the time. Because of this every instrument has a specific name; the Turn Indicator, the Direction Indicator (DI), the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF). 

To avoid using too much jargon, the pilot could try and describe what the instrument looks like. “It’s the circular one with the plane in the middle and degrees around the outside” but that actually describes two of the above items. Or they could try and describe its purpose. “The device we use for setting direction”. However, that also covers two of those devices. Hence why pilots use Jargon. To clearly express what they’re referring to and avoid any misunderstanding.

Misunderstanding each other when flying a plane is obviously a lot more risky than when talking to a colleague about a potential design approach. However the logic remains the same. We use professional language to quickly identify what we’re talking about, so that we don’t have to give a longer explanation that’s open to interpretation.

In the design world this is slightly complicated by the fact that we don’t always agree on what something means. So when I say “Persona” I mean “a user archetype created from user research, and used as a shortcut to communicate the insights we learned from said data”, while somebody else may think “a bullshit document full of made up demographics that’s no use at all”...but I digress. 

Where Professional Language Falls Down

Professional language works best when everybody in that profession understands what’s being referenced. We can argue the difference between UX and UI, Personas versus Jobs to be Done, or Wireframes vs Prototypes, but if you’ve been in the industry you’ll have a high-level understanding of what’s being discussed. 

Things start to get a bit more challenging for new entrants to the field. It’s true that this language can initially be a blocker. In fact it can be super frustrating when talking to an expert and they say a bunch of things you don’t understand. I’ve been in plenty of situations in my career where somebody has said something in a casual, confident tone and I’ve feigned understanding, only to go and look up the term later.

If you’re on the receiving end of this, it’s easy to assume that it’s deliberate. That they’re using big words in order to sound intelligent or confuse you. While this may be true of certain individuals, I don’t subscribe to the idea that this is a deliberate and industry wide attempt to make it hard for new entrants. In most instances it’s as habitual (and admittedly potentially insensitive) as using the term “Flat White” in front of our Uncle and Aunt from out of town who have only just wrapped their head around what a  Cappuccino is.

We Learn by Internalising New and Unfamiliar Concepts

Our vocabularies expand from the day we are born, as we’re exposed to new words, make sense from the context they’re used (“I’m in a coffee shop so I’m presuming it’s a type of coffee”), get to experience them ourselves (“Ah, yes. It’s clearly a type of coffee”), ask questions (“I’ve not heard of a Flat White before so what’s in one”) or, if we feel self conscious, look up the details after the fact. 

In fact this is very much how we learn. We get exposed to new ideas and concepts which are initially alien to us. Over time, and through continuous exposure, we learn what these concepts represent, lay down new pathways in the brain, and these ideas eventually become commonplace. 

As such, I think it’s important for those who regularly use professional language to be aware who else is in the room and if you’re around less experienced people in the same discipline as you, offer up a quick definition. 

When Not to Use Jargon

Professional language starts to creep into the realm  of “Jargon” when you find yourself in mixed company; and by that I mean a mixture of people who are in your profession and people who are outside or on the edges of your profession.

Going back to the aviation example, while it’s perfectly reasonable for the pilot to tell the co-pilot that the VOR indicator is down, if they choose to address the passengers they’ll probably want to explain that “one of our navigation aids is down” instead. As such, professional language is both context and audience specific. 

This is where Jargon starts to become frustrating for people. When you use a lot of unfamiliar language they not only don’t understand, but have no interest or reason to understand it. 

Professional Language Across Disciplines Can Be a Communication Blocker

I’ve been in countless meetings where a group of product people have tried to communicate something important to a group of executives, but those executives haven’t heard it. Sometimes this is because the Product team has moderated their language in front of their bosses so much that the urgency wasn’t communicated. Other times it was because the level of detail and understanding the product team had wasn’t shared effectively enough for the executives to really appreciate the nature of the problem. And sometimes it was because the language they used was so domain specific that the meaning or importance got lost in translation. 

In fact, when I meet teams who claim that the leadership team just don’t care about design, 9 times out of 10 it’s because the design team has done a bad job at communicating what they do, why they do it, or why the executives should care. It’s always easier to blame others in that situation, but it’s more effective to look at what you can do to change things around. 

Using the Language of Business

When you find yourself talking to non-designers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using your own professional language, and assume everybody knows what you’re talking about. For you and your colleagues these terms feel obvious, so it’s easy to assume that the rest of the business has the same level of understanding. Often they’ll nod along with what you’re saying, giving you the impression that they do indeed understand. However there’s a chance that they may just be humouring you, not wanting to ask what the term CSS means because it’s been used so many times now they assume everybody else knows and they don’t want to look like a fool. Or they may have a basic understanding of what you’re talking about, but may be missing some of the nuance. 

In these situations we are often encouraged to use the language of “business”. Essentially translating our jargon into somebody else's jargon. In general I think this is good advice. Just be aware that some nuance may get lost in translation. Also be aware that some people around the table will actively want to learn more about your discipline. They may have heard about this UX thing and want to learn more. So while I’d caution against trying to educate unwilling executives, I think some mixing of language is fine. 

Wrapping Things Up

Like a lot of things, I’d argue that Professional Language (or Jargon if you’d prefer) is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral. It can be a super useful shortcut when talking to peers, it can be potentially confusing to new entrants to the field (although being exposed to unfamiliar concepts may also act as a driver to learn), and it can actively get in the way of understanding when speaking to people unfamiliar with your domain.

While some people believe we should remove jargon entirely, this doesn’t necessarily make communication simpler. In many situations it actually opens you up to misunderstanding. Anyway, I struggle to get behind any philosophy that attempts to limit our vocabulary rather than expand it. The key is understanding who you’re talking to and in what context, and changing your language accordingly.

This all feels bleeding obvious if I’m honest. However with so many people pushing back against the use of professional language, I thought it was worth reiterating. Mostly so I have something to point to when this conversation next comes up on Twitter.