Monthly Archives: May 2006

Domain-specific vocabulary

My first language is Portuguese and all my life I was encouraged to master English as a way to get ahead. I started learning when I was five and in school I was always way ahead of my friends in terms of comprehension, grammar, writing skills and vocabulary. By age 17 I had completed every degree and specialization I could find that accredited me with the ability to communicate in English. I did it because I always had fun learning other languages and English classes allowed me to explore other interests (American History, Business and negotiation, etc), while improving my language skills along the way.

Having been living in the US for two years now, I find it fascinating how many people live and work without great proficiency in English. The Chinese place I order from every other week is spectacular but I always have to go through a ritual of slow/loud/over-articulated speech when I order. It’s an excellent example of how great proficiency is not necessary – people are very accommodating and if someone has difficulty, they’ll make an effort to understand and include them.

I learned – as I was learning English over the years – that many people feel uncomfortable because they are not very proficient, even if they have a fair understanding and can communicate effectively. I have always tried to make an effort to converse with them and point out that their level of understanding is sufficient and that more proficiency is ‘good to have’ but not mandatory. When I could no longer find advanced classes in English, I decided to take French and it was eye-opening (and very exciting) to be in that ‘unknowing’ position again. After two years of French I decided I was done because I had enough skills to communicate; sometimes I won’t get all the lyrics in a song and other times my conversations may require a little bit of mimics and gesturing, but that’s ok, as long as communication is possible.

Domain-specific speak is no different. Since I came to the US I’ve struggled with the health care system because it’s a very different structure with its own nouns and clauses that are not equivalent to the system I was used to in Brazil. I still haven’t mastered it (and I don’t know that I will – or want to!), but now I know enough to be able to go to the doctor if I need. Being an information architect and being so involved in IA discussions, I don’t ‘see’ or ‘hear’ any of the IA-specific lingo anymore, but I know it exists when I tell a non-IA about my work and I see a puzzled look in their eyes.

This week I went to a great conference that gave me the opposite perspective: Women in Medicine in Santa Fe, NM. When you’re used to sitting through and commenting on ‘Wireframes: A comparison of purposes, process, and products‘, it’s a shift of paradigm to sit through and understand ‘Disclosure of Medical Errors’ and ‘Addressing Death and Dying with the Pediatric Population’, but no less interesting. First, because I’m a nerd and I could identify the information problems in all the scenarios they explored, but also because the topics were interesting themselves. What was most interesting is that, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when drugs and specific body parts (tissues, ligaments, etc) were mentioned, but that had no impact in my understanding of what they were trying to get across.

The domain-specific vocabulary in the medical practice is what enables doctors to explore possibilities and make decisions, the same way that discussing taxonomy, content inventories and the user interaction model is relevant to the work I do. I NEED them in order to explore possibilities and make decisions and eliminating this vocabulary for other people who are not doing the work to understand them, would be counter-effective to the purpose of doing the work.

People complain about the over-use of acronyms and technical terms and that often leads to saying acronyms and technical terms are bad. That’s a misconception and counter-producive argument that aids nobody. We just need to be mindful of who we are talking to/writing for to use the appropriate language. Acronyms and technical terms give my team agility and gains in efficiency when we’re working together, but we know not to use them when doing a presentation of that work to a larger group. This translation effort is needed and is often ignored, thus the bad connotation for acronyms and technical terms.

Translation doesn’t happen without effort and though we don’t think about it we exercise that skill continuously – when we go home and tell our family about our day, we don’t use the same terms or tone to explain what happened. When we tell our travel stories to our co-workers, we don’t reproduce the exact chain of events. Everyone has that capability to a greater or lesser degree, but explicitly thinking about the need to translate helps, in itself, one’s ability to do so.

At work, I use JJG’s visual vocabulary to create diagrams that outline our end-user’s interaction with the systems we create. I had to learn this vocabulary in order to use it. The people who consume the diagrams I create also need to learn the vocabulary in order to understand them. At first, it may seem like creating added work on both sides, but it is actually what bridges very separate groups together. Every domain-specific group (engineers, product managers, project managers, marketing folks, etc) has its own speak and particulars, and though simple English is (/should be) everyone’s choice when speaking to the larger group, that’s often insufficient, specially when communicating something new that requires everyones agreement and understanding (like how we are defining the overall interaction between a customer and a product). Learning a little bit of the vocabulary from the Visual Vocab allows everyone to take a great leap in understanding what’s going on and gives them enough proficiency to comment and critique it. Though I had always seen the value of the Visual Vocabulary and used it to help me think about information problems, I was always shy using it to communicate with others (because of the misconceptions above). After this realization I started to use it more consistently and I’m amazed with the results.

Reading this recent Digital Web article, makes me worry because I can see that the right sentiment is there, but qualifying things as bad or good is rarely helpful in improving communication (they definitely talk more about the relevant things, but I think this point on neutrality really needs to be stressed in this type of discussion). Acknowledging that the context of use is highly relevant to understanding and tailoring speech/writing to the audience are much, much more helpful than trying to restrain yourself from speaking the language you know.

It’s not you, it’s me

Public appologies to all whom I have not responded to in ages. I haven’t answered emails in weeks and I don’t think I’ll be able to deal with the backlog until a few weeks from now. ‘How can you live without email?’ some may ask. Well, I learned that it’s pretty easy. I almost remember a time when I didn’t use to have email. That does not mean I won’t use email again, I’ve just been really busy with some new exciting projects and travels that are keeping my hyper and busy all the time. Your time writing to me won’t be wasted, I’ll get to it. Eventually. :)