Having immersed myself in the wonderful world of acronyms for a project that I’m working on at the moment, I must say I’ve never felt so passionate about the user experience of using acronyms.
I’ve been asking myself questions and answering them:
1) What are acronyms?
- Do they usually just take the first letter of each word it represents? I don’t think so, because some acronyms are invented to make something sound ‘better’ which means letters are thrown into the mix (or omitted) and some are purely the first letters of the words involved. Also, I realised that acronyms derived from a foreign language wouldn’t follow this rule after you translate them into a different language. For example, CURIA for Court of Justice for the European Union
2) Why use acronyms?
- Well that is simple. You don’t have to remember the usually long name that the acronym stands for. I don’t blame anyone for resorting to acronyms (as I realised I have started doing so myself 2 months into the project), but like a double edged sword, acronyms can both help and hinder the communication and understanding of a subject matter.
The use of acronyms is very common in certain disciplines – medicine, law, finance, and engineering just to name a few. In fact, just scouring Google Scholar for a few minutes returned several academic papers criticising the use of acronyms and taught me some new words – ‘acronymania’ and ‘acronymophilia’ to describe the manic use of acronyms; ‘acronymesis’ to emphasise the shortcomings of misusing acronyms.
One of my favourite quotes was from a paper criticising a medical paper which contained 27 acronyms. It nicely sums up why acronyms can sometimes hinder rather than help the communication and understanding of a subject matter:
“Although each acronym is defined when introduced (in the paper), few readers of this article will manage to remember the meaning of each while following the logic of the authors’ discussion. To do so would require immediate comprehension of 27 new terms, each used repeatedly but defined only once before its first use in a detailed, complex argument.”
Apply this scenario to a real conversational context – say a board room meeting with a group of multidisciplinary professionals (gathered together to create a better world). Will the communication during the meeting be as effective as it could have been if everyone actually conveyed exactly what they meant instead of using acronyms? Something to ponder upon perhaps?
Solutions to acronyms?
Surely there are ways to get around the manic use of acronyms where one can still cater for those who are ‘in the know’ as well as people who are ‘new to the field’?
- Know your audience – if you know you’re speaking to/writing for/communicating with people who wouldn’t necessarily understand the acronyms that you’re using, then use them wisely (e.g. by consciously providing explanations), or if possible, don’t use them at all
- Utilise the wonders of technology – a potential design solution in helping one to understand/learn acronyms is by displaying the explanations of the acronyms in context
- Minimise the use of acronyms in general – I believe that using acronyms is the same as using jargon – it implies a closed group of people would only understand those words. It is good to feel like one belongs to a group, but sometimes letting in new ideas can spark innovation.
Next time you’re tempted to use an acronym, try this little exercise and ask yourself how much you have learnt after finding out that:
- ‘LASER’ stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; or
- ‘SONAR’ for SOund Navigation And Ranging
… and my favourite so far
- ‘CAPTCHA’ for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
Last but not least, an acronym can also mean different things to different people, for example:
- A friend of a friend eventually found out that most people understood ‘LOL’ as Laugh Out Loud (not Lots Of Love) after he noticed unusual behaviour whenever he used LOL in his correspondences
The very interesting talk last week at UKUPA on UX Strategy got me into some serious thinking.
- The evening started off with an academic definition of what User Experience (UX) Strategy is by Tom Wood
- It was then followed by a reality check by Leisa Reichelt on how realistic is it to implement strategy in organisations
- Zachary Paradis rounded up at the end with some myth-busting with his semi-philosophical talk plus excellent practical examples
The excellent combination of different takes on the subject got me thinking about why we are so passionate about delivering strategic advice to businesses as UX professionals, and as some of the comments that came after the talks, are we actually uncomfortable talking about it?
DISCLAIMER: As it always happens in the field of UX, the battle of the terms manifested itself naturally when you start wondering if UX strategy is different from customer experience strategy, service design, and business strategy to name a few. I would treat these terms equally for the purpose of this blog post, but you can definitely argue about the similarities and differences between them.
Can UX professionals do business strategy?
Providing businesses with a strategy isn’t what most people would expect to fall within the UX practitioner’s remit. But the truth is, we do it – and we do it more often than most people realise. As advocates of the user, it is inevitable that we end up being entangled in the inner workings of organisations in the quest to understand the experience of a customer with a brand, the different touchpoints they interact with, what is and isn’t working, how can the services be improved etc. Now pair that up with a multidisciplinary team, our ability to communicate these often complex processes in a clear and effective way using all the creative skills we have in our pack, and being able to visualise the plan for change. We find ourselves in the perfect position to deliver strategic advice to organisations (whether they consciously asked for it or not) which usually takes the form of a plan on how they can provide better services and products to their customers.
As such, our passion to create better services, insights into the user/customer behaviour and needs, and creative skills in explaining and visualising complex processes could be some of the reasons why UX professionals ended up making such good partners when ‘talking strategy’. As for whether we are comfortable talking about it or not, I know at least I am and we are doing it more and more at Webcredible to make sure our clients gain our full expertise and support.
A few months ago I ran workshops at UXcamp Europe and UXcamp London on How to make decisions collaboratively (without killing each other) using the KJ method. The KJ method was invented by Jiro Kawakita and is a brainstorming method which helps groups reach consensus quickly and accurately especially when it involves prioritising something. A summary of the KJ theory and some handy tips for using it can be found in my previous blog post.
The purpose of this blog post is to share my exciting results from the Europe and London workshops.
So, without further ado, here’s what I found:
The focus question that I had on the slides during both the Europe and London workshops:
Q: What defines the differences between these following terms?
- Information Architecture
- Interaction Design
- Usability Engineering
- Visual Design
The results I found for the above question from the 3 groups of workshop attendees are summarised in the table below:
|UXcamp Europe Group 1
|UXcamp Europe Group 2
||How to make it look good
||Properties of the system
||Ease of use
I do have some confessions to make for choosing this focus question to illustrate the KJ method:
- Probably not the best idea as it wasn’t the most straightforward question for practising a new brainstorming method
- Slightly controversial that some people ended up obsessing over the results and not the method itself
… but the UX consultant and researcher inside me thought it was too good an opportunity to miss out on collating some interesting information across different continents!
Personally, I don’t see any point in arguing over these terms as they overlap with each other at various points and are used by different people interchangeably (which I’m glad that most workshop attendees agreed). The important thing when using any of the terms (and other jargon in our UX lexicon) is to actually understand what encompasses it when being used during a particular instance. For example, when someone says “The information architecture of X should be improved”, does that mean the navigation of X, the content of X, or both? Bearing in mind different people have different understanding of such terms, it’s important not to resort to using such jargon when explaining what we do as User Experience (UX) practitioners.
At the end of the day, it is about communicating to our clients and colleagues what we’re trying to do and why. This includes using words that they actually understand and not terms that we’re used to using but not really that great at explaining what we do.
Have you used the KJ method? I would love to hear your experiences, just leave a comment below!