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The importance of defining terms on every project, and how to agree them

The importance of defining terms on every project, and how to agree them

8 minute read

The importance of defining terms on every project, and how to agree them

8 minute read

The importance of defining terms on every project, and how to agree them

Lizzie Bruce

Freelance Content Consultant

It sounds basic, but making sure everyone’s talking about the same thing is one of the most important and effective things you can do to increase both the efficiency of a project and the likelihood that it will produce good outcomes. 

But have you ever considered that while you and another person might be using the exact same word for something, the person you're speaking with might have a different understanding of it?

In this article I’m going to dig a little deeper into this idea, first illustrating this fairly conceptual point with some non-tech world examples, before showing how digital teams can benefit from an understanding of this and what we can all do to address it.

Learnings from language, literature and arts

During my English BA I chose to study a module on signs and signifiers, which introduced me for the first time to the arbitrary nature of language and how we’ve built our own worlds with the vocabulary we use. How a tree, for example, is only known as a tree because that’s what some of our ancestors decided to call it, and ‘tree’ is nothing more than the name-label we have ascribed to it. 

I’ve always thought that René Magritte accidentally creates a poster for this with his painting ‘The Treachery of Images’ – ‘La Trahison des images’, which could equally point out the treachery of language. The painting is of a pipe, with the words in French for “This is not a pipe” – “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Wikipedia’s copyright-free version, below, does not include the wording, presumably for copyright reasons.

Painting of a pipe.


Shakespeare goes there too with the well-known quote "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". This metaphor suggests the divisory power of the Montague and Capulet family names to be absurd, since they are just societal labels, whereas each human individual is their own person. But the metaphor used also highlights very well the arbitrary nature of language. A point which will also be obvious to anyone who has studied another language, and learnt its differing vocabulary.

Language is our approach to naming the world around us, and often reflects what we prioritise: what is most important, or relevant, to us. Famously, Icelandic has multiple words for snow, some say over a hundred. The Maasai people have no intrinsic traditional words for colours and instead delineated them in reference to something of that colour, for example ‘the colour of the sky’ for blue, ‘the colour of milk’ for white. 

As a final example from the arts: a whole passage from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera muses on the incompatibility of a couple based on their different backgrounds and experiences, not in and of those things themselves, but because of how their experiences affect the meaning each gives to words, and hence the different interpretations they have of them.

Meaning changes not only from language to language, Kundera argues, but from person to person as well. To further illustrate his point of the ambiguity of words, Kundera includes a dictionary of misunderstood words that pass between Sabina and Franz. The competing definitions of these commonly used words again suggest that meaning can never be completely fixed or certain.  
...Franz uses the word “betrayal” to express “the most heinous offense imaginable.” Sabina, on the other hand, sees “betrayal” as “breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.” To Sabina, venturing into the unknown is the most glorious feeling.
...Definitions are not fixed, so humans like Sabina and Franz can never reach universal understanding and agreement.”
Extract from LitCharts.com

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on classification and taxonomy, defining terms is also recognised as very important in science, as highlighted in this article’s response to another on 15 shark conservation terms.

Regional variation

It’s common for different regions who use the same language to have different names for the same thing. A recent YouGov survey investigated different names for bread rolls across England. ‘Cobs’, ‘rolls’, ‘barms’, ‘baps’ – even ‘muffin’, ‘teacake’ and ‘batch’ came up in the responses from just under 25,000 adults

In digital comms we know well the importance of localisation. We don’t use a regional dialect word when the audience we’re trying to reach is broader than that region. And we try to localise content, to increase its relevance to users, where the technology and budget is available to do so.

Applying this to tech projects

If you’re designing a shoe and you have a different interpretation of, for example, the term ‘contemporary twist’, than the shoemaker, then you could end up with a very interesting product. Likewise for a digital product.

It’s not only about being exact, having specifications and avoiding subjective technical descriptors like ‘fine’ – which could be ‘high quality’ or ‘very thin’. It’s about actually checking if you have the same understanding of a term based on everyone’s past experience of that term, which may vary greatly.

Case study: defining personal data terms, UK government

The last project I worked on at the Government Digital Service, in 2018, was around personal data. Subject matter experts from two separate teams who had not worked together before needed to join up for the project and work seamlessly together.

To help to that effect, we decided to create an internal glossary of personal data terms. One term was “attribute”. At first it seemed the various members of the different teams all had differing views on what a personal data attribute was. However, when I analysed their definitions, and demonstrated this to them all on a whiteboard with different colour marker pens to show similar language elements, it turned out they were simply using different words to describe the same thing. Importantly, we were then able to add agreed definitions of personal data attributes agreed across the teams to the project glossary. 

Sometimes it’s well worth stepping back and breaking down your definition of something to understand the essentials of what you mean.

Project glossary

All this leads up to your main takeaway: create an internal project glossary at the start of the project – not just adding definitions of terms but making sure everyone’s interpretation of the definition agrees. 

A good way to do this is to get team members to explain the term in other words and ways from what’s written up as the definition. In foreign language teaching we call this checking technique eliciting: asking students to describe their understanding of, say, “kitten”, or asking them to agree or disagree with qualities that might apply: “Is water dry?”

For the personal data project we agreed definitions of about 50 terms. Project glossaries help everyone in the current team, and also new members who join later. It’s worth everyone checking back to the glossary at different times through the project, to make sure no one starts projecting their previous understanding of the term.

The terms you decide to define in your project glossary, that you deem important for common understanding among the team, can apply not just to what the project deals with but how. An excellent article to read on how a team defined terms around government ‘services’ is ‘A common language to understand services’ by Kate Tarling.

Definitions: what else are they good for?

Internal project glossaries, including defining organisational processes or methodologies, can also help team members who are:

  • new to your area of the business or organisation
  • unfamiliar your style of project work
  • not yet fluent in your language: learning the project terms will be priority vocabulary for them

Some digital products include an external glossary. While it’s recommended digital best practice for usability and accessibility to define things in context, sometimes an index or glossary can be a good further tool to support user understanding. This can be particularly useful for medical, legal and financial products. The practice of law involves knowledge of ‘articles of law’: legal terms that mean very specific things.

Finally, keep in mind that colleagues and peers you meet – in passing, in the kitchen, at conferences, while networking, at a work event – might have different interpretations of the same vocabulary items. Don’t be afraid to check. Try “By X do you mean…?” or “Could you explain to me your interpretation of X please, as I know people may have had different experiences of that than I have.”

Takeaways

  • Define your project terms among your team, check everyone has the same understanding of the definitions.
  • Create a project glossary and refer back to it.
  • Check with colleagues and peers to gain an understanding of exactly what they mean.

Further resources

‘A common language to understand services’ by Kate Tarling 

‘The importance of defining terms’ by Matt Shipman

Glossary of terms, Public Health England

It sounds basic, but making sure everyone’s talking about the same thing is one of the most important and effective things you can do to increase both the efficiency of a project and the likelihood that it will produce good outcomes. 

But have you ever considered that while you and another person might be using the exact same word for something, the person you're speaking with might have a different understanding of it?

In this article I’m going to dig a little deeper into this idea, first illustrating this fairly conceptual point with some non-tech world examples, before showing how digital teams can benefit from an understanding of this and what we can all do to address it.

Learnings from language, literature and arts

During my English BA I chose to study a module on signs and signifiers, which introduced me for the first time to the arbitrary nature of language and how we’ve built our own worlds with the vocabulary we use. How a tree, for example, is only known as a tree because that’s what some of our ancestors decided to call it, and ‘tree’ is nothing more than the name-label we have ascribed to it. 

I’ve always thought that René Magritte accidentally creates a poster for this with his painting ‘The Treachery of Images’ – ‘La Trahison des images’, which could equally point out the treachery of language. The painting is of a pipe, with the words in French for “This is not a pipe” – “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Wikipedia’s copyright-free version, below, does not include the wording, presumably for copyright reasons.

Painting of a pipe.


Shakespeare goes there too with the well-known quote "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". This metaphor suggests the divisory power of the Montague and Capulet family names to be absurd, since they are just societal labels, whereas each human individual is their own person. But the metaphor used also highlights very well the arbitrary nature of language. A point which will also be obvious to anyone who has studied another language, and learnt its differing vocabulary.

Language is our approach to naming the world around us, and often reflects what we prioritise: what is most important, or relevant, to us. Famously, Icelandic has multiple words for snow, some say over a hundred. The Maasai people have no intrinsic traditional words for colours and instead delineated them in reference to something of that colour, for example ‘the colour of the sky’ for blue, ‘the colour of milk’ for white. 

As a final example from the arts: a whole passage from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera muses on the incompatibility of a couple based on their different backgrounds and experiences, not in and of those things themselves, but because of how their experiences affect the meaning each gives to words, and hence the different interpretations they have of them.

Meaning changes not only from language to language, Kundera argues, but from person to person as well. To further illustrate his point of the ambiguity of words, Kundera includes a dictionary of misunderstood words that pass between Sabina and Franz. The competing definitions of these commonly used words again suggest that meaning can never be completely fixed or certain.  
...Franz uses the word “betrayal” to express “the most heinous offense imaginable.” Sabina, on the other hand, sees “betrayal” as “breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.” To Sabina, venturing into the unknown is the most glorious feeling.
...Definitions are not fixed, so humans like Sabina and Franz can never reach universal understanding and agreement.”
Extract from LitCharts.com

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on classification and taxonomy, defining terms is also recognised as very important in science, as highlighted in this article’s response to another on 15 shark conservation terms.

Regional variation

It’s common for different regions who use the same language to have different names for the same thing. A recent YouGov survey investigated different names for bread rolls across England. ‘Cobs’, ‘rolls’, ‘barms’, ‘baps’ – even ‘muffin’, ‘teacake’ and ‘batch’ came up in the responses from just under 25,000 adults

In digital comms we know well the importance of localisation. We don’t use a regional dialect word when the audience we’re trying to reach is broader than that region. And we try to localise content, to increase its relevance to users, where the technology and budget is available to do so.

Applying this to tech projects

If you’re designing a shoe and you have a different interpretation of, for example, the term ‘contemporary twist’, than the shoemaker, then you could end up with a very interesting product. Likewise for a digital product.

It’s not only about being exact, having specifications and avoiding subjective technical descriptors like ‘fine’ – which could be ‘high quality’ or ‘very thin’. It’s about actually checking if you have the same understanding of a term based on everyone’s past experience of that term, which may vary greatly.

Case study: defining personal data terms, UK government

The last project I worked on at the Government Digital Service, in 2018, was around personal data. Subject matter experts from two separate teams who had not worked together before needed to join up for the project and work seamlessly together.

To help to that effect, we decided to create an internal glossary of personal data terms. One term was “attribute”. At first it seemed the various members of the different teams all had differing views on what a personal data attribute was. However, when I analysed their definitions, and demonstrated this to them all on a whiteboard with different colour marker pens to show similar language elements, it turned out they were simply using different words to describe the same thing. Importantly, we were then able to add agreed definitions of personal data attributes agreed across the teams to the project glossary. 

Sometimes it’s well worth stepping back and breaking down your definition of something to understand the essentials of what you mean.

Project glossary

All this leads up to your main takeaway: create an internal project glossary at the start of the project – not just adding definitions of terms but making sure everyone’s interpretation of the definition agrees. 

A good way to do this is to get team members to explain the term in other words and ways from what’s written up as the definition. In foreign language teaching we call this checking technique eliciting: asking students to describe their understanding of, say, “kitten”, or asking them to agree or disagree with qualities that might apply: “Is water dry?”

For the personal data project we agreed definitions of about 50 terms. Project glossaries help everyone in the current team, and also new members who join later. It’s worth everyone checking back to the glossary at different times through the project, to make sure no one starts projecting their previous understanding of the term.

The terms you decide to define in your project glossary, that you deem important for common understanding among the team, can apply not just to what the project deals with but how. An excellent article to read on how a team defined terms around government ‘services’ is ‘A common language to understand services’ by Kate Tarling.

Definitions: what else are they good for?

Internal project glossaries, including defining organisational processes or methodologies, can also help team members who are:

  • new to your area of the business or organisation
  • unfamiliar your style of project work
  • not yet fluent in your language: learning the project terms will be priority vocabulary for them

Some digital products include an external glossary. While it’s recommended digital best practice for usability and accessibility to define things in context, sometimes an index or glossary can be a good further tool to support user understanding. This can be particularly useful for medical, legal and financial products. The practice of law involves knowledge of ‘articles of law’: legal terms that mean very specific things.

Finally, keep in mind that colleagues and peers you meet – in passing, in the kitchen, at conferences, while networking, at a work event – might have different interpretations of the same vocabulary items. Don’t be afraid to check. Try “By X do you mean…?” or “Could you explain to me your interpretation of X please, as I know people may have had different experiences of that than I have.”

Takeaways

  • Define your project terms among your team, check everyone has the same understanding of the definitions.
  • Create a project glossary and refer back to it.
  • Check with colleagues and peers to gain an understanding of exactly what they mean.

Further resources

‘A common language to understand services’ by Kate Tarling 

‘The importance of defining terms’ by Matt Shipman

Glossary of terms, Public Health England

Webinar Recording

Avoid assumptions: Using research to define audiences in their own words

Learn how to build a more effective content strategy by using in-depth UX research techniques. Gain an understanding and empathy for user top tasks and motivations.

October 15, 2020

4:00 pm

Register now

Webinar Recording

Avoid assumptions: Using research to define audiences in their own words

Learn how to build a more effective content strategy by using in-depth UX research techniques. Gain an understanding and empathy for user top tasks and motivations.

October 15, 2020

4:00 pm

Watch now
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About the author

Lizzie Bruce

Lizzie provides content consultancy through Cake Consultancy Ltd. Motivated by creating user-focused, inclusive content she leads on Content Design London's collaborative Readability Guidelines project, and helps with content research, training and reports. She's also a freelance content designer at Scope, and writes for Prototypr and Digital Drum. With 17 years’ cross-sector content experience, including GDS, John Lewis and RNIB Lizzie's keen to share her learnings, and is currently creating a user-friendly intranet content resource.

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