Live from Confab: Language: Your Organization’s Most Important and Least Valued Asset

Language: Your Organization’s Most Important and Least Valued Asset, by Abby Covert

Confab 2018 logoHow we understand language depends on our experience. Language is a highly complex system for communication. As an information architect, Abby has seen a lot of teams struggle to get on the same page. They need a shared understanding of their language.

We often think that if our grammar is accurate, our communication will be accurate. But that’s not true.

Content is not Information

Content is what we create. Information is what people take away. For our content to create the intended information, our language must be (1) contextually aware and (2)

Misinformation is highly corrosive. Misinformation is a silent killer, because it’s hard to find that it exists. But most misinformation is caused by language mistakes.

#1 Cause of Misinformation: Vague Language

Vague language comes up all the time. We see it in:

  • Marketing copy
  • Error messages
  • Confirmation mesages
  • Instructional Content
  • Icons

Words like “More” or “Other” in a Navigation schema is vague. Discover/Learn/Explore are vague.

There is a fine line between being brief and being vague. Sometimes we’re vague on purpose – but people misunderstand it, which was not intended.

#2 Cause of Misinformation: Proprietary Language

We need to choose names that stand out, but that also make sense to our target audience, and they can use easily. That’s tough! What typically happens is that people choose new words because they want to stand out, but don’t test it or check with users.

This is particularly problematic when you have a barrier to your objective. For example, you can’t understand a mobile notification. But you don’t know how to fix it so you can get past it.

#3 Cause of Misinformation: Language for the Wrong Audience

Linguistic insecurity is how you feel when someone’s talking over your head, or you open an email or excel doc that makes no sense to you. It’s a sense that this information was not intended for you.

Language is inherently messy. There’s no “plain language” button on the keyboard.

Three Ways to Wrangle Language

First, make sure content jives with the audience’s mental model. A mental model is like a big map of knowledge. When people look for content they want to see what they expect, what they disagree with, and what they don’t expect but is helpful and new. All of that adds to the mental model.

Second, write for the context in which the content will be consumed. Context is the circumstances that surround an interaction. Context is cultural, situational, includes everything from screen size to knowing someone might be hungry when they use a food order app.

Third, control your vocabulary. Don’t invent nouns if they already exist in the people and the products. Then consider the verbs: what tasks and actions do they take, what are their user goals, and how do actions get undone? Beware of adjectives – they are often the most vague.

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