Last week Tom Johnson hosted a guest post by Yves Pierrot on the topic of terminology consistency and how it impacts on a user’s comprehension and attitude (you can read the full post here). It is an excellent resource on this topic, but in particular, I was struck by Pierrot’s description of how users search. In his experience, users focus on a small set of terms when browsing search results, lists or content. If they don’t find their target term, then they conclude that what they are looking for is not there. This effect is magnified under constraints of limited time or the volume of the content.
Pierrot argues that the use of consistent terminology in content increases the chances of users finding what they are looking for if the user knows the “correct terminology” but that a novice user would be better supported by non-consistent terminology. From my experience as a user of a new tool or technology, I can relate to the frustrating feeling of searching for help knowing that the term I am using is probably not exactly what I need but that I don’t know the correct or expert term.
So, is this an argument against being consistent in your writing and documentation? No, I don’t believe it is. There will always be novice users in your audience and there will also be experts. In some instances, novices will migrate over time to become expert by, for example, becoming familiar with a software tool and will need a supported path through content to do this – with tutorials and glossaries etc. In other instances, novices or non-experts and experts will remain two distinct groups of users of your content – for example, patients and medical professionals. In this case, it is important to distinguish between model differences and label differences in your content. Sometimes, it will make sense to have more than one label for the same thing if it relates to two separate models. (A model being the users mental model of the context or situation). At other times, it will be important to combine a carefully defined controlled vocabulary with an approach that matches equivalent terms to improve findability.
Every time we create content, we are making decisions about language and shaping user experiences. By deliberately defining the terminology we use, we become more conscious of how users interpret our content and make is more usable.
Disclaimer: no synonyms were harmed in the writing of this blog.
Abbey Covert: How to make sense of any mess
Fred Leise, Karl Fast, and Mike Steckel: Creating a controlled vocabulary.