Why do words matter?
Many of the components in a user interface are words. It’s not just the content. Core interaction elements like navigation menus, browse categories, embedded links, and call-to-action buttons are all made up of words. People use words to search for things online. And then they mostly rely on words for signposting and orientation once they arrive deep in a service.
Understanding the context of your users is key. The way we organise and label information affects the people that use it and how they interpret things. For example, the terms used to group content can either set rigid boundaries and create unhelpful silos - or they can pull related information together in useful new ways that benefit users.
For a site like GOV.UK, which contains government information for everyone in the UK, the words we use in navigation are extra important.
The right choice of words will reflect users’ language and mental models. Users won’t have to think about the words much because they will feel natural and familiar. The language will provide good navigational cues, create the right tone, encourage trust and help users find what they’re looking for or complete the task they set out to do.
The wrong choice of words can have serious negative impacts on the user’s experience. Jarring or inappropriate words offend people. Specialist jargon or ambiguous terms can fail to resonate with users or provide good ‘information scent’, meaning that people will end up getting lost and frustrated.
Why choosing the right words can be hard
Firstly, the English language has such a rich vocabulary with so many shades of meaning. Words are often ambiguous; people use different words to mean the same thing, and the same word to mean different things. People classify and label things in many ways depending on their perspective. There are cultural variations in the English language, and international audiences may well have a different first language. Specialists often use different terminology to non-specialists. Alongside all this, language is constantly evolving: new words are introduced and other words go out of fashion.
Secondly, experts designing services for users regularly suffer from ‘the curse of knowledge’. They’ve often become so close to their area of expertise that they unwittingly forget to empathise with their non-expert audiences. However, these audiences may mentally organise the same world in quite a different way and use a completely different (and often less technical) vocabulary to describe it.
Lastly, within the context of Mobile First design, there’s also a pressure to use the shortest words possible in navigation elements, sometimes at the expense of conveying meaning. Short words may be good for design reasons, but some of the preciseness and value in supporting the user may be lost.
Practical tips for overcoming these challenges
Users often come to a site like GOV.UK with information needs related to stressful life events, like what to do in an emergency situation, or what happens if you’re on long-term sick leave, get made redundant, or need to apply for a visa.
However, the site’s content consists of lots of documents containing ambiguous words and complicated concepts that apply across many diverse subject domains. Supporting good navigation and browse with the right terminology for all the different types of audiences and their needs is an interesting information architecture challenge.
In reality, there’s always going to be an element of messy subjectivity, and the words we use are never going to be perfect for everyone all of the time. However, there are practical things we can do make sure we’re getting the language as right as we can.
These are three main techniques we’ll cover during this tutorial:
We’ll discuss the pros and cons of these qual and quant techniques and how they are best used in combination. We’ll look at how you can get best value out of these research activities. Because getting the words right in your interface is core to supporting a good user experience.
Vicky is an independent information architect who has spent the last 20 years structuring, organising and labelling content to help people find the things they need.
Since February 2014 she's been working at GOV.UK, supporting browse and navigation following the transition of more than 300 government organisation websites to the single GOV.UK domain. She's currently helping to create a comprehensive subject-based taxonomy for all the content on GOV.UK to underpin improved navigation. The taxonomy will need to reflect a hugely diverse range of user needs across many different subject areas.
Vicky has also recently worked for Oxford University, Oxford University Press and the BBC. She started her career as a graduate trainee at the Bodleian Library in Oxford before going on to qualify in information management.