Years and years ago, I was working with someone on a project and they kept using the word deliverable. I had no idea what they meant.
But instead of asking, I just kept nodding my head. I was fresh out of university and didn’t really understand this type of corporate jargon, but I wanted to look good.
Eventually, I figured it out: a deliverable is just a piece of work that you provide at the end of a project or deadline. That’s it. And I didn’t even think to ask!
But maybe I shouldn’t have had to ask, and we could have just cut out the jargon.
Elon Musk sent a letter around Tesla back in 2010, ordering staff to stop using acronyms and jargon that make it harder for newcomers to get up to speed. He was pretty forceful in his derision:
“Excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication… Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees.”
No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.
Unfortunately, in UX and creative circles, we tend to use jargon more often than not. It’s getting in the way of bringing new people into the fold and collaborating effectively. Using shorthand is fine, but I fear we’re getting to the point where UX jargon is becoming a stand-in for actual knowledge.
Why is jargon so bad?
Corporate culture has had a love-hate relationship with buzzwords and jargon for years, with much of the backlash in the 80s. You’ve probably seen some of these words: breakthrough, transform, ideation, deliverable (urgh), synergy (classic!), and the big daddy, innovation.
None of these words are bad on their own, I guess. But jargon is deceptive, and there are four reasons why.
Reason #1: It’s exclusionary
Nothing is worse than thinking you have to speak a particular language to take part in a conversation at work.
It’s so frustrating to feel like you can’t contribute to whatever decisions are being made. To feel locked out.
“Nothing is worse than thinking you have to speak a particular language to take part in a conversation at work.”
Creative industries thrive on a diversity of ideas, and those ideas can’t be included if people don’t know what you’re talking about. Not only that, but some people purposefully use jargon in order to keep other people out. (Making yourself a bottleneck is never a good idea.)
Hiring from outside your own industry is a perfect way to expand your diversity. But that needs to come with the acknowledgement that jargon will likely be a barrier for them.
I’ve sat in meetings where people are derided for not knowing jargon like “WIP” or “GTM” (work in progress and go to market). Yet if people took a minute to actually explain those acronyms, they’d discover it’s not the name that matters—it’s the meaning.
You’ll find most people know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the name that’s confusing.
Reason #2: It creates inefficiency
Here’s a telling anecdote from HBR:
“Several years ago, I attended a corporate meeting where the vice president spoke about streamlining business practices in the coming year. During the talk, executives around the room nodded in agreement. Afterward, though, many of them discussed what streamlining actually meant. None of the people who had nodded in agreement could exactly define the mechanics of how to streamline a business practice.”
Says it all, doesn’t it? Too much jargon means you’re more likely to have people operating on different wavelengths. Just say it straight.
Reason #3: It makes employees feel unsafe
I’ve talked about this a lot in previous InVision posts, but your team should always feel psychologically safe. Safe enough to make requests, take risks, voice ideas, and more.
When you use jargon, it makes your team feel small and stupid. Some will have the courage to get clarification, but many will worry that simply asking makes them look incompetent. So they’ll stay silent, and that silence may trickle into other areas.
Reason #4: It’s harder to tell who can actually do the work
Ever seen a motivational speaker? They all use the same jargon, which makes it hard to tell who actually knows what they’re talking about.
What matters most is practitionership. Jargon tricks us into thinking that those who use it convincingly can do anything. But it’s the straight-talking practitioner you should be looking for—not the one who overuses acronyms but can’t run a simple user-testing session.
How to stop using jargon
It’s hard to get out of the habit of using jargon when it’s embedded in your corporate culture. And jargon differs from company to company, so a list of banned words won’t help.
Instead, here are some principles you can follow to make sure your words actually reflect the truth of what’s going on in your business—as opposed to just superficial stand-ins.
Start banning super specific acronyms
Take Elon Musk’s advice and recognize that not every acronym is bad. If it’s something that virtually everyone in your industry would recognize, it’s probably fine.
But within your organization, try to make them as infrequent as possible.
Usually, people harmlessly use acronyms as a way of shortening language. But if no one can understand what an acronym is when they first join, that acronym is useless.
Make names reflect their actual meaning
I can’t tell you how many project names, crew names, and team names I’ve seen that don’t reflect the actual meaning behind the name. If you’re redesigning a website, don’t call it the “Wizard” project or the “Beach House” project (two examples I’ve actually seen in real life).
Instead, call the redesign project, the redesign project. Or the new IA project, the new IA project. And if you’re trying to modernize your back-end, call it the back-end update project.
Stop making people do extra work when they’re just trying to figure out who does what. Normal company interactions shouldn’t be this hard.
Don’t be afraid to ask
If you’re in a meeting and people are using acronyms you don’t understand, immediately ask what they mean. Whether you’re leading the meeting or you’re the most junior person there, ask for an explanation.
Even if you do understand the acronym(s), but you recognize that other people don’t, ask the speaker to clarify—for their sake, not yours.
You might think this would work against you, but it doesn’t. First, people will see you as assertive and confident enough to admit you don’t know something. Secondly, there’ll be people in the room who don’t know these acronyms either, and they’ll be grateful.
Crack down whenever possible
Some workplaces have a swear jar.
You could use a jargon jar.
Stop using phrases that don’t reflect reality
For some reason, we start using phrases that make absolutely no sense. “Let’s take this offline,” is a good one. Why do people say that when they mean, “let’s talk about this later?” It’s a fancy way of saying nothing at all. Same with the word “piece.” “Oh, we need to think about that design piece.”
Again, no reason for that.
If you’re in a one-on-one conversation, avoid jargon as much as possible. This type of culture shift happens from the ground up, and the more you avoid it, the more others will follow your example.
Remember that not all jargon is bad
Look, industries have their shortform, their technical language. All that is fine.
But you should try and eliminate jargon as much as possible to make everyone feel welcome—because that’s the only way creative industries will improve. And it’s going to be the only way we can hire truly talented people who know how to communicate exactly what they’re thinking.
Patrick Stafford is an experienced digital copywriter and journalist, having worked at companies including MYOB, PwC and Private Media. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Polygon, and Lifehacker, among others. His business, Stafford Content, provides copy for many businesses including KPMG, SelfWealth and Data Republic. He doesn’t like coffee—but loves video games and books.