UX Vocabulary Inflation
Summary: The user experience discipline suffers from constant reinvention of the terminology used to describe our concepts, leading to confusion, miscommunication, and rework. Let’s stick to the established names.
By now, user experience is an established field. We know how to do good design, and user interfaces are better than ever. (Though still not good enough, and we have challenges going forward, needing to invent better usability for AI.)
In one area, UX is definitely not established but remains in highly unstable flux: the terminology we use to describe the concepts of the field. Our basic vocabulary is not settled but changes constantly — a phenomenon I call vocabulary inflation.
As a simple example, here are some of the main names used for the field itself since I became a UX professional in 1983:
Man-Machine Interface (MMI)
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)
User-Centered Design (UCD)
Usability / Usability Engineering
User Experience (UX)
Customer Experience (CX)
That’s 10 different terms in 40 years — only 4 years for each name for our profession. Ridiculous. How can we be taken seriously when we don’t know what our name might be 4 years from now?
After giving a speech about vocabulary inflation, I asked the audience which of these 10 terms they preferred. From the 458 responses, “User Experience” was the overwhelming winner with 64% of the votes. Runners-up were User-Centered Design with 16% and Product Design with 8% of the votes, and no other option scored above 4%.
Two other examples:
“User needs” (nice and simple name) vs. “jobs-to-be-done” (inflated term).
“Retrospective testing” vs. “cooperative testing” vs. “replay test” vs. “PEEP” (post-experience eyetrack protocol) vs. “self-confrontation.” All names for a tweak to standard usability testing where the user watches and comments on a recording of the session after having completed the tasks.
For the record, I prefer the term “retrospective testing” even though my father used the term “self-confrontation” for his Ph.D. thesis in 1962. 61 years is enough for some vocabulary drift and to absolve me from filial duty when my Dad didn’t pick that great a term.
Constant bombardment with new terminology reduces UX professionals’ ability to communicate and think clearly about their own field. (“Word influx” by Ideogram.)
Other fields don’t saddle themselves with constantly changing names. Psychology was named in 1748, and history has retained the same name since Herodotus wrote his book The Histories (Greek Ιστορίαι = Historiai) around the year 430 BC — meaning 2,450 years of vocabulary constancy which is 600 times better than we’ve achieved in UX.
Cost of Vocabulary Inflation
Unstable terminology imposes a huge cost overhead on our work. Most fundamentally, not knowing what something is called or what a newly inflated word means introduces confusion and causes people to talk at cross purposes. I say X, you say Y, and we have to spend time figuring out that X = Y. (Or, more likely, X is 99% the same as Y, but there’s a 1% difference. It would have been more efficient to simply say “we should do X but with this 1% change due to new circumstances.”)
Vocabulary inflation also messes up our job titles and the resumes of people who have worked in the field for a while. The title somebody had 10 years ago may make no sense to somebody who is familiar with current job titles. At any given moment in time, a plethora of different job titles are used to describe pretty much the same job function. The 2022 salary survey by the User Experience Professionals Association reported 18 job titles used by more than 1% of the respondents (plus many more rare titles covered by a catchall “other” that accounted for 8% of respondents). UX titles spouting like weeds are not happy for our profession.
A perennial social media question asks what job title UX professionals should prefer. My answer is that the title doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do. I used to work at the telephone company research lab where my title “Member of Technical Staff” covered anybody from the greenest Ph.D. to our Nobel Prize Winners. The abbreviation MTS was the sign of having joined the world’s most elitist research institution and that was enough for us. But if you must have an answer, I would say either a broad title like “UX Specialist” or the most appropriate descriptive variant, such as UX Designer, UX Researcher, UX Writer, etc. If you’re a manager trying to come up with job titles for a newly established UX department, resist fancy titles, because chances are that you will need to change them every few years.
Cultural transmission is invaluable for human performance: we take advantage of the cumulative knowledge of other humans rather than having to hold all possible information in our own head. Even the information we do have in our heads, was placed there through learning from other humans. Vocabulary inflation undermines cultural transmission. It’s not quite as bad as if a French-speaking person was trying to learn from a Japanese-speaking person, but maybe it’s as if both were trying to communicate through heavily accented high-school English. Nuances will get lost.
Not only is it harder to learn from others when we use different words for the same thing. There is also the risk of completely overlooking the lessons from history when the terms used in the past are different than the current darlings. A simple search won’t find any old articles written with the old terminology, though there is some hope that an AI assistant might do better. UX constantly reinvents the wheel, which keeps us from iteratively refining better wheels.
Finally, having many different words for the same thing is plain annoying and causes extra work for everybody.
Why Vocabulary Inflation Plagues UX
Why can’t we just have a single name for each thing when most other people are perfectly happy calling a spade a spade (and not a digging implement or an excavation solution)?
Ignorance. UX is populated with undereducated practitioners. In many ways, this is fine because you don’t need a Ph.D. (or any degree) to do great UX work. You need a small bit of theory supplemented with large amounts of practical experience that are best gained on the job, outside the classroom. However, when people pick up knowledge by assimilation and not through formal instruction, they often don’t learn the proper terminology. Instead, they think of something they believe to be new and coin a new term for it, even though it has a well-established name. This problem is exacerbated by the interdisciplinary nature of UX, because even people with solid training in one of the constituent disciplines will be ignorant of established terminology in neighboring disciplines.
Prestige Quest. UX has sadly been an oppressed field for most of its existence. This means that terms associated with our past can be tainted by the low prestige we used to have. For example, usability is a word much used in the 1990s, and for that reason, some people don’t like it today. They want to use more “modern” words that they hope will carry more prestige, and by association, label them as more sophisticated practitioners than ancient relics like myself who conducted usability tests during the dot-com bubble. (However, if you check my LinkedIn profile, you’ll see that I proudly embrace the description “Usability Pioneer.”)
Avarice. Consulting companies are often guilty of launching their own proprietary terminology in the hope of bamboozling clients. If Company X is the only place that offers UX methodology Y, you’ll have to buy from them. Unless, of course, you recognize that Methodology Y has a 99% overlap with the methods everybody else uses. But clients are ignorant by definition. If they were already experts, they wouldn’t need a consultant in the first place. (To give clients their due, they are certainly experts in other areas, they just don’t have deep knowledge about the topic they seek consulting about.) My advice to clients: prefer vendors who use standard language, because there’s some hope that they may be skilled at the methods that have proven themselves for decades.
Do fancy words make you feel like a brainy intellectual? Or does excessive jargon inhibit your capacity for genuine insight? The latter is more likely. Don’t embark on a prestige quest for new shiny terminology. Quest for clarity, which flourishes through universally recognized language. (“Overwhelmed by words” by Midjourney.)
Solving Vocabulary Inflation in UX
How can we eliminate vocabulary inflation? Sadly, we can’t. The three reasons listed above are too powerful to be defeated.
But we can certainly reduce vocabulary inflation, even if we can’t completely eliminate it.
I coined the term “vocabulary inflation,” so I admit to a degree of mea culpa in introducing new terminology. But in my defense, it wasn’t a completely new term, but rather an adaptation of the old and well-known concept of monetary inflation.
High monetary inflation severely damages the economy and requires central banks to fight back. But low inflation is not nearly as bad, and even has some advantages in allowing companies to adjust the relative cost of various economic inputs without causing the upheaval that might follow from changing nominal prices. (The ability to lower compensation for employees who don’t deliver top-10% performance is a great example: pay cuts might cause somebody in the top 30% to quit, which we don’t want, but giving him or her a lower raise than star performers works fine.)
The higher the inflation rate, the bigger your pile of money, without being worth more. High inflation damages the economy, whereas low inflation greases some wheels. (“Money” by Midjourney.)
Similarly, a creeping amount of vocabulary inflation can allow us to gradually adjust our language to be more precise or descriptive of the changing world. For example, when I started in UX in 1983, the term “Man-Machine Interaction” was in common use. Even I, who’s the least politically correct person you’ll find, cringed a bit in the 1980s that the field was still using that term from the 1950s. (Particularly iffy given that women account for about 2/3 of UX professionals.) A slight amount of vocabulary inflation would allow us to ease the original term into oblivion 30 years later without causing much upset. This is in grave contrast to the actual situation in UX, where many terms have a half-life of less than a decade. Fast change causes upheaval, communication problems, and loss of cultural transmission.
I have two proposals for reducing UX vocabulary inflation:
First of all, just say no. Any time you hear somebody introducing a new term for a 2% tweak to a well-known concept, complain and say, “You’re just proposing X with a small tweak. Let’s keep calling it X.” We all have a duty to our field to resist people who can’t stick to the standard vocabulary.
Second, education, of which I am doing my share. As I mentioned, the main reason people introduce new terms is that they don’t know any better because they are half-baked professionals without foundational training in UX, which would have covered the basic history of the field.
My plea to all UXers: don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t reinvent the term “user experience” or other established terminology. Dedicate your efforts to making better designs for our users, instead of wasting time nitpicking the vocabulary.
“Clarify, Don’t Mystify” is a key slogan for UX success. Unfortunately, we have forgotten to apply this insight to our own field, which is awash in mystifying reinvented terminology, hindering communication internally among UXers and the ability for outsiders to understand our work. The effect is like going down a black hole from which no insights escape. (Artwork by Ideogram.)
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About the Author
Jakob Nielsen, Ph.the D., is a usability pioneer with 40 years experience in UX. He founded the discount usability movement for fast and cheap iterative design, including heuristic evaluation and the 10 usability heuristics. He formulated the eponymous Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience. Named “the king of usability” by Internet Magazine, “the guru of Web page usability" by The New York Times, and “the next best thing to a true time machine” by USA Today. Before starting NN/g, Dr. Nielsen was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer and a Member of Research Staff at Bell Communications Research, the branch of Bell Labs owned by the Regional Bell Operating Companies. He is the author of 8 books, including the best-selling Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (published in 22 languages), Usability Engineering (26,152 citations in Google Scholar), and the pioneering Hypertext and Hypermedia. Dr. Nielsen holds 79 United States patents, mainly on making the Internet easier to use. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Human–Computer Interaction Practice from ACM SIGCHI.