I worked on a software project recently where the interface was developed more by developers than end-users (you see this a lot, actually).Â In this instance, the application needed a phone number (but not a mobile number).Â Rather than asking for a land-line number (or just âPhone numberâ), the entry form asked for a PSTN.Â I was doing a usability review of the app and pointed this out– âWhat the hell is a PSTN?â
The IT head pointed out to me that a PSTN is the industry term for a land-line (it stands for Public Switched Telephone Network) and that, now that I knew this, it should make sense to me.Â I suggested he change it to âPhone Numberââsince this app was going to be used by the general public.Â He insisted that most people know thisâjust not me.Â I told him he should still change it.Â This advice fell on deaf ears, but we made some other good changes to improve the usability of the app.
My logic is (and continues to be)âif I donât understand a term, itâs too confusing.Â If I do understand it, would my grandmother? Â In my situation, there are still occasions when I don’t understand something because of cultural differences– like expressions used in the UK but I never grew up with. Â I still question them anyway.
This happens all the timeâtechies want to educate the non-techies on how to talk about technology.Â Sometimes, these arenât even terms in the technology industryâbut acronyms and abbreviations used in a specific company that everyone adopts.Â Iâve been in small twenty-person offices where you would think everyone went to school to learn how to talk like they doâeven the secretaries: âAre you going to de-duplicate the NOC node or shall I?âÂ Eventually, no one knows how to talk like a regular person anymore.
We techies love our lingo.Â In even smaller arenas (like a company or an industry) this lingo becomes even more precious. When we talk like this, we really sound like we know what we are talking about.Â It impresses people (or so we think).Â I can remember the feeling of working on a stock trading application for a major bank and talking about trade flips and different types of transactions and FSA systems and then stopping to reflect on how cool it must all soundâI was an insider.Â I wasnât a newbieâI sounded like an authority.
But all good software and hardware have the ability to take techie jargon and make it palatable to the masses.Â A good site or web application should not imply when you log in that you have no business being there because you donât know how to use it.Â If you donât understand the menu options, then you are in the wrong place.
In the future, people may look back at our gadgets today and conclude that Apple created the digital music player.Â The truth was that portable MP3 players existed a few years before the iPod, but while techie ruled this area (with Rippers, LAME codecs, etc), Apple made the whole process simple for those who didnât feel like pouring through thousands of forums and blogs to figure out who to rip a cd.Â Try explaining to your grandmother how to set up a podcast aggregator while not using iTunes and you can see how much they simplified this area.Â The term MP3 made it into the mainstream lexicon, but most of the terms of the early days did not.Â Today, you still hear people argue about the benefit of Ogg or Flac over MP3, and canât figure out why the mainstream hasnât switched from MP3 to the superior Flac.Â But the general public doesnât care about this.
Google is revolutionary and I love the company, but to read many of the books out there (like âThe Google Storyâ or âWhat would Google do?â) you would think that before Google, we were all randomly typing URLs into our browsers hoping to find something.Â Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, Lycos, etc were all there.Â But Google made it easy in addition to being far more efficient.Â One textbox, one button.Â It was easy to tell your grandmother how to use it.
In technology, especially when it comes to interface design or anything that requires us to interact with the public, the best skill is to be a layperson.Â Some people call this the âmotherâ test.Â If your mother came to this site, or used your application, could she figure out how to use it without calling you?
I think about every time I have to fill in my tax forms how lost I am.Â Even the âHow to fill in this formâ instructions confuse me.Â It makes sense to someone, but they are in love with their lingo too.