Buzz-y Bees


This month’s topic for the Astek team: an industry buzzword or bit of jargon that we particularly dislike.

I’m going to take a step back so I don’t just sound like a grouch. While sometimes jargon is a load of complete rubbish, it also has its place, and a quite important one at times. Randall Munroe did a wonderful job of tackling this question in the discussion around his book Thing Explainer; he uses the way the shape of the earth is described to demonstrate both the importance of jargon and the pitfalls of using it. In calculating flight trajectories, plotting orbits or planning shuttle takeoffs or landings, the earth’s shape as an oblate spheroid is critical. In general conversation, however, referring to the earth as a sphere is perfectly adequate, as there’s no need for precision in that context.

So how does this apply to the world of design and digital strategy? The lessons I take from Randall’s example are:

  1. Words or phrases that we think of as “jargon” can be important in certain applications (and therefore aren’t inherently BS).
  2. Not all contexts call for the use of these words, and sometimes (often?) their use is in fact gratuitous.

Distilling that down: jargon’s value lies in its ability to add precision for the members of the specific community that uses it.

Now back to the grouchy part. With this method of evaluating jargon and its usage, I’m going to pick on a particular word: learnings.

Prior to this context for evaluating jargon and buzzwords, I didn’t entirely understand why this particular term always sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me. It’s just a thing people say, and by no means the silliest or most pretentious of this industry’s jargon. So, Thing Explainer, why has it always made me so nuts?

It adds precisely zero value in terms of additional clarity or precision to the conversation, while also making it less accessible to the average listener. It’s used where “results”, “findings”, “data”, “information” or sometimes just “knowledge” are completely interchangeable and wouldn’t create any errors in our flight trajectory calculations. In short, it’s a term that exists only for the sake of sounding jargon-y without any inherent value.

So what’s the lesson from this?
Chances are, your clients aren’t as up-to-date on the industry as you are (then again, if they were, you might be out of a job). So even if you’re not ready to crusade against gratuitous usage out of pure zeal, consider accessibility when you evaluate your own use of jargon. I’d like you to ask yourself if you’re adding anything by using a buzzword, and use those learnings to adjust if necessary.

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