A former colleague, a talented and accomplished user experience professional, recently wrote excitedly of her intension to attend an upcoming UX conference. It was a bit of a throwaway line, likely written in haste, but made in a public forum for consumption by contemporaries and customers alike. Her meaning was clear; the cringe from at least some in her audience equally so.
Errors in grammar and spelling, lack of clarity, the use of clichés, poor word choice, and incorrect titles or misspelled names, to name some of the more common affronts to effective communication, are not just minor annoyances to be glossed over—they can be costly. These mistakes potentially tell the intended audience that the perpetrator—often a person who is being paid for job, or who is seeking one—is either ignorant to the proper form or term, is in too much of a hurry, or doesn’t care enough to fix the mistake. Or perhaps all three.
In the world of UX, where branding oneself, story-telling, and convincing others to follow a specific path are paramount, this is not the message one wants to send.
Spelling and Grammar
“… with the use of fewer words, the greater the impact of their misuse…”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the reduced requirement for written communication—fueled by today’s era of PowerPoint presentations, 140-character limits, and platforms emphasizing graphics and video—has made good writing even more critical. While the trend toward less writing itself is easily recognizable, what is not always obvious to the communicator is that with the use of fewer words, the greater the impact of their misuse on the recipient.
A misspelled word in a long narrative, if it’s noticed, can be annoying; in the header of a presentation or short caption of an image, or advertisement, it can be a fatal distraction. Sometimes this occurs at the sub-conscious level—such as, perhaps, using “intension” instead of “intention”—where the receiver of the message knows something is not right, but cannot quite put a finger on it. Other times, the mistake is obvious, and can produce a laugh or, worse, disdain. Whether readily noticeable or not, the miscue invariably takes the receiver out of the story or away from the message the presenter is attempting to convey.
Similarly, but more egregious, the botching of a recipient’s name or the improper designation of an organization can be devastating to the presenter’s credibility. Whether it is the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles or the Motor Vehicle Administration means little to most people—unless one is pitching a proposal to the head of the state’s “Department of Transportation, Motor Vehicle Administration.”
Plain Language: acronyms, jargon, and terminology
Most audiences familiar with United States Air Force operations understand what a “vul” is—shorthand for “vulnerability period.” But for the uninitiated, even educated, reader, even that longer term is nebulous. Writers of the Air Force story, then, generally do not use the unintelligible shorthand, and must explain to their audience that the longer term indicates when an aircraft is over hostile airspace, or threatened by opposing forces.
Similarly, depending on the audience, user experience professionals should not use jargon unique to the UX field, and must be prepared to explain to potential customers what a wireframe is and does, what personas are and how they contribute, and the like.
The use of jargon is but one way to present an unclear message. Contradictory information or instruction is another. The presenter must put him or herself in the shoes of the person or group receiving the message. Objectively, does what I’m saying make sense?
‘Passionate’ Has to Go
Communicators of all stripes fall back on the familiar. Telling the same joke to open a presentation, using the same imagery, or using the same words time and time again; these shortcuts are products of a harried and frenetic world. Repeated humor can stay funny, photographs can evolve into icons, and some words and phrases can become buzzwords or clichés. Used successfully, these can provide the listener shorthand for a concept or an argument—“a picture is worth a thousand words” will forever communicate a desire for imagery over narrative description. But used unsuccessfully, buzzwords and clichés become trite and meaningless, or even worse, counterproductive.
For user experience experts attempting to describe or brand themselves to potential customers, overuse has caused a number of words to lose their meanings. “Passionate,” “creative,” and “motivated,” for example, have come to mean little; if everyone is passionate, creative, and motivated, then who really is? The UXer can illustrate their passion or motivation through examples of their work—as with any story, show, don’t tell. The use of the words themselves often amount to a lack of imagination. Those who describe themselves as creative, take note.
“… if everyone is passionate, creative, and motivated, then who really is?”
So what’s the cost of a few language errors? Unless it’s so egregious or prominent as to be unforgivable, a single error probably doesn’t mean the end of the world. Still, it’s difficult to quantify. No one is likely to actually say your proposal got shot down because you referenced Dr Smith of Ajax Widgets when it was actually Dr Smythe of Hey Jacks! Doodads, and nobody is going to say they gave your proposed course of action less credibility because you spelled it “coarse.” Even more difficult to quantify is whether one’s language skills prevented even the consideration of you as a candidate. Using language properly is an easy enough fix to ensure you are judged on your body of work, not because you did not notice auto-correct referenced your booty of twerk.
So be mindful of those supposably harmless typos, misnamings, and misuses. Irregardless of the UX professional’s best intensions, each degrades the pacific message of the messager, and more significantly, the professional brand it takes so long to build.