Avoiding jargon may be harder than you think (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 28 Sep 2008

Avoiding jargon may be harder than you think

An interesting occurrence at a Toastmasters meeting last week offered a lesson in the difficulties of writing or speaking about technology.

The member who was running Table Topics had an interesting project planned: "Bookmarks". I thought, things you put in books to mark your place? Then I saw the three-page printout he had brought and realized that, duh, of course, he means browser bookmarks.

The task, he explained, was to scan his eclectic list of bookmarks, pick three, and tell a story about them.

Members reacted with confusion. Several of them said they didn't understand what he meant at all. Would he give an example? So he chose three and gave a short demonstration speech. But the members still looked confused. He said if they wanted to pick just one, that would be okay. Nobody looked relieved.

We did a couple rounds. I gave a rambling tale that incorporated three or four bookmarks. One of our newer members took the list, and wove a spirited story that used at least five (she eventually won the day's Best Table Topic ribbon). Then the bookmark list passed to one of the members who had expressed confusion.

She stared at the list, obviously baffled. "I still don't understand. What do they have to do with bookmarks?" "Browser bookmarks," I clarified, and a couple of other people chimed in on that theme, but it obviously wasn't helping. Several other members crowded around to get a look at the list. Brows furrowed. Voices murmured. Then one of them looked up. "Are these like ... Favorites?"

There was a immediate chorus of "Favorites?" "Oh, like in an Explorer window?" "You mean like on the Internet?" "Ohhh, I think I get it ..." Things improved from there.

I don't think the member who presented this project had any idea that a lot of people wouldn't understand the term "Bookmark", as it applies to a list of commonly-visited sites in a browser. Nor did I. I was momentarily confused thinking me meant the other kind of bookmark (the original kind, for paper books), but realizing that he meant browser bookmarks cleared it right up for me. A bigger surprise to me was that the word "browser" wasn't any help to half the membership -- none of them understood what a "browser" was any more than they knew what a "bookmark" was. "Like in an Explorer window?" or "on the internet" was the closest they got to the concept that they were running a specific program called a web browser.

These aren't stupid people; they just don't use computers much, and haven't ever learned the terminology for some of the programs they use or the actions they take. When you're still learning something, you fumble around, sometimes getting where you need to go be accident; you don't always know how you got there, much less the terms describing the steps you took. Even if you're an übergeek, I'm sure you have programs where you fumble about and aren't quite sure how you get from A to B.

You may sometimes be surprised at meeting people who still use Internet Explorer and haven't tried Firefox, let alone Opera. You may wonder if it's the difficulty of downloading and installing software that stops them. But the truth may be that questions like "Have you tried Firefox?" don't really mean anything to a lot of people; they're not really aware that they're using Internet Explorer in the first place. It's just a window they've managed to open to show stuff on the internet.

Avoiding technical jargon is sometimes harder than you think. Seemingly basic concepts are not so basic as they seem; terms you think are universal turn out not to be. You have to be careful with terminology if you to be understood ... and probably the only way to know for sure if you're using jargon is to try out your language on an assortment of people.

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[ 11:23 Sep 28, 2008    More tech | permalink to this entry ]