Speak Your Users' Language

Published on Nov 18, 2015

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The UX of Word Choice

how to Use your users' words
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made pancakes?

Who here has ever
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Halfway done?

What do you do when they're
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Flip them over?

What do you use to
Other than strong and graceful wrist action.

Show of hands: What do you call that kitchen implement?
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Show of hands: What do you call that kitchen implement?
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Show of hands: What do you call that kitchen implement?
Photo by rob st


Show of hands: What do you call that kitchen implement?
Photo by rob st

Sur La Table

Fancy cooking gear
For several years, I was the content strategist and UX team of one at Sur La Table.

If you're not familiar with Sur La table, they're the second-largest specialty cookware retailer in the US, after Williams-Sonoma.

So, not as big as Target or Bed Bath and Beyond or Amazon, but 100+ stores in cities across the US. Including Minneapolis!


ANYWAY, when I started at Sur La Table, we called them (internally and externally) "turners."

Because the people who make them tend to call them "turners."
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  • Spatula
  • Turner
  • Flipper
Note that "turner" is not the "correct" term. And, if you geek out about the history of the tool, a turner is just a specialized kind of spatula, which is why so many people call them spatulas.
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Mostly, they call it a
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But this what we meanT by


This and the pancake-flipping thingy are both spatulas, to a majority of customers.

which one do they mean?

WHEN SOMEONE says they want a spatula,

we used to keep spatulas and turners separate

Two completely different sections on the website. Spatulas here, turners here.

(Though they all lived under cooks' tools.)
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What do you call this cookware?

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dutch oven

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French oven

less common, but out there
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Le Creuset: French Oven

Specifically, Le Creuset, who are famous for their enameled cookware and a Big Deal in the cookware biz, used to call this product a French oven.

(Though I've noticed on their own website that they bowed to convention and now use the term Dutch oven.)
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Almost everyone else:
Dutch oven.

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Sur La Table uses their product name:

Le Creuset Signature
Round French Oven

When we're selling someone's product, who are we to change the actual product name?
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customers want dutch ovens.

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Make sure people find French ovens when they search for Dutch ovens.

Note: Le Creuset now uses "Dutch Oven" on their site.

I'm not privy to why, but I'd guess that at least part of the reason is they want the search traffic and recognized what terms people are actually using.
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You want to serve salt at your table.

Not in a shaker.

What do you look for?

Kosher salt and sea salt don't fit through the holes in an ordinary shaker, after all.

Any ideas what product you'd look for?

Untitled Slide

  • salt pig
  • salt box
  • salt cellar
  • salt keeper
  • salt container
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Manufacturers don't agree.

Dictionaries don't agree.

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It's salty anarchy

(Salinarchy? Salarchy?)
One thing about English: Sometimes precise definitions don't exist, and it's not worth forcing distinctions for their own sake.
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what words people use?

So how did I start figuring out
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Dictionaries & Thesauruses

Let's start low-tech: Dictionaries were great. Online dictionaries that allow you to search within definitions are even better.
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Slang dictionary

I love the Oxford English Dictionary, but when you want info on English as she is spoke, it's useful to look at more casual sources. Wiktionary, Wordnik, even Urban Dictionary. (Which gives you a whole different perspective on some culinary terms.)
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For us: Cooking guides and cookbooks. Most of the how-to books like America's Test Kitchen's guides or Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything have discussions of kitchen equipment.
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Dictionary of American Regional English

This is a super fun resource. Cooking has a strong regional component to it, so it's not all that surprising that there are regionalisms involved in cooking words.

I used an online version through the Seattle Public Library's subscription, and once again used the definition search.

harvard dialect survey

Related: Remember the amazing dialect test in the New York Times a couple of years ago? Based on the dialect survey.
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Pop vs Soda

For example
Sure, it's fun to mock people for saying "pop," but you don't actually want to make things difficult for them.
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frosting vs icing

For example
You can use a spatula! Yet another kind of spatula!
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More specific?

Can we get
Those resources all gave suggestions for words and terminology that people in general use. Could we bring that around to be more specific, focusing on Sur La Table customers?
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internal search data

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What are people searching for?

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(This is where I got the "spatula" data.)

"Spatula" was one of the top 50 searched-for terms on the website.

"Turner" was not.
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Listen to users

This means finding — or creating — places where they talk.
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User Surveys

We used a company that served random web visitors a survey where you can rank a bunch of questions from 1 to 10. (I know, I hate them too.)

I didn't love their quantification, but I was a big fan of the write-in fields. One of the many things you could find out: the words they used.
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Customer Reviews

We were lucky enough to get a steady stream of customer reviews on many products, and it was always interesting to dive in and read them.
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Customer Service

Online chat transcripts.

Direct feedback: "This customer said they couldn't find X."
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Usability sessions

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Story time

Remember the whole spatula vs. flipper vs. turner thing?

Because we were re-taxonomizing the website, we got funding for actual live usability sessions. (Our first ever!)

One task we asked people to perform was to think of something they'd shop for for their kitchen, then see if they could find it on our site without using search.

One woman said she wanted to buy a new spatula.

Because we were testing taxonomy, people weren't allowed to search.


At the time, we had a landing page for turners, and a landing page for spatulas, with completely different inventory. Turners had the pancake flippers, spatulas had the bowl scrapers and cupcake frosters.

This woman found her way to the Spatulas landing page, but she was looking for something to use to turn over hamburgers. Something we, unbeknownst to her, called a Turner.

She spent five minutes talking through how confused she was that we didn't carry many spatulas. (In a cruel irony, two turners had been included on the spatula page by accident, so there was just enough confirmation to really keep her fixated.)
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I was right!

Sing "Ode to Joy." Come on, James, do it.
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Miserable customers

are a compelling argument.
I had made this point, verbally, many times. People even generally agreed with it, though they didn't care much.

But watching a customer — someone who knew and liked our brand — obsess for five minutes about why we didn't sell spatulas made things change.

so what did we change?

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We combined categories. Spatulas and turners live together.

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internal search?

We also made some changes to our search thesaurus.
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try searching

for words that are synonyms
See how the results compare.
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Skillet or Frying Pan?

Maybe Fry pan!
Ideally, no matter what you call them officially (we went with skillet), searching for "skillet," "frying pan," or "fry pan" should turn up the same results.
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see if you can tinker with the
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So should "bain-marie" and "double boiler," or "flapjack" and "pancake," or "immersion blender" and "stick blender" and "hand blender" and "wand blender."

Note: We used Endeca to run site searches at the time. I won't go into details, because they're not the only internal search engine out there. I can't promise that it's easy, but if you can roll up your sleeves and tinker with the search thesaurus, it's worth it.
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for spatulas and turners and flippers?
It's a little trickier when the search terms are not exact synonyms.
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spatula equals turner,
but turner doesn't
equal spatula.

So when someone searches for the word "spatula," they'll see both bowl scrapers and pancake flippers.

But when they search for the word "turner" (or "flipper"), they see pancake flippers but not bowl scrapers.

Why? "Spatula" is a broader word, so we couldn't know which spatula people meant. But "turner" and "flipper" are both more specific — people using those terms knew they didn't want the bowl scraper. They had stuff to turn over.

Figuring out the logic of synonyms is one of the fun parts of this detailed vocabulary work.
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Better experience

through (copy) style

a copy style guide?

As in creating or maintaining one, not just consulting one.
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Good Luck

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(Or how to spell things)

This is another thing to keep an eye on in internal search data, by the way — how forgiving is the built-in correction? Test it out! And if it sucks, see if you can tweak it (or get a better search function).
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Pad Thai vs phad thai

A little secret: Our cooking program has a recipe for pad thai, but they spell it "phad thai" (with the H) because that's how it was spelled on the menu at the restaurant where they got it. No references pointing out the overwhelming popularity of "pad thai" without the H dissuaded them. So we made sure that searches for "pad thai" would turn up those classes and recipes.

Note that this kind of spelling behavior is something that Google does really well (surprise), and lots of internal search engines are pretty good at. But in this case, it didn't hurt to nudge it along.
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Click to Edit

It's good to figure out your own voice.
This is another thing to keep an eye on in internal search data, by the way — how forgiving is the built-in correction? Test it out! And if it sucks, see if you can tweak it (or get a better search function).

But you don't need to change your customer's voice


Look for contested words or insider knowledge
Have you argued about whether to use "soda" or "pop"? "Comics" or "graphic novel" or "comic book"? "Drinking fountain" or "water fountain" or the correct term, "bubbler"?
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attractions vs
trip ideas vs
see & do


When I worked on a web redesign for Travel Oregon, I noticed that the design team had distinct definitions for major parts of their site navigation: "See and Do," "Trip Ideas," and "Attractions."

When we asked actual Travel Oregon customers about these terms, though, many of them didn't see any difference between these terms. Maybe worse, the people who did think they were different didn't agree on what the definitions were. For example, some people thought of attractions as manmade, some as natural.

In the end we simplified the site taxonomy and got rid of many overlapping concepts as navigation elements.

vocabulary audit

I hereby declare this a thing
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Decide on the terms you'll use in-house
And in what contexts!
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Don't expect customers to know or use them
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fulfill the spirit of their inquiry, not just the letter
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Another story

A couple of months before I left Sur La Table, we had another round of full-on usability sessions.

This time, one woman said she wanted to find a hand mixer.
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hand mixer

This is what she found. But it wasn't what she was looking for.

Immersion Blender

This is what she was looking for.

Everyone in the room was surprised — it never would've occurred to us to confuse the terms. But once we found out we were able to play with the search thesaurus.

(Content marketers take note: We wrote blog posts about "What's the difference between a spatula, a turner, and a flipper?" and "What's the difference between a hand mixer and an immersion blender?" and they've both proved wildly popular, especially with natural search. People are curious.)

Learn your customer's language

Paying attention to the language your customers use — and what they expect from you — helps prioritize the stuff you don't need to do.

Here's what I mean.
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Why edit?

to avoid confusing readers
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That's good UX

(and good editors know this)
Editing is a user experience discipline. Or a reader experience discipline, if you want some more precise jargon.
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best practices

no match for a good blaster at your side
We all know how useful "best practices" are.

Better than nothing, but no match for a good blaster at your side. Or actual user data and experience.

But a lot of editing practices get handed down like old recipes, or the way "best practices" are passed around.

There's a famous bit of urban folklore. The story goes, a couple gets married, and the husband notices that whenever his new wife makes brisket, she cuts the ends off. When he asks why, she says it's because that's how she learned it from her mother. When she asks her mother, she finds out that she cut the ends off because otherwise her roasts wouldn't fit in the pan.

The habit made sense once, but could've been reexamined once the context shifted.

So ... why edit things
that aren't confusing?

We all know how precious editorial time is. Why spend that time on things that don't matter to your audience?
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widows & Orphans

For example.
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Wait. wrong kind.

Everyone know what widows and orphans are, from a typesetting perspective? Stray lines left dangling at the beginning or end of a paragraph.

Alex Cruden, a copyeditor for the Free Press in Detroit, tested copy featuring these and other bad breaks with readers — and the readers didn't notice.
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Eliminating widows & orphans wasted copyeditors' time.

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"No reader had any problem
with 'bad breaks.'
We had been laboring on
an imaginary improvement."
— John McIntyre

Of course, we work on the web, where fretting over widows and orphans is, or should be, a thing of the past, given how copy can look different on every browser and device.
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"New to the Stylebook:
over, as well as more than,
is acceptable to indicate
greater numerical value."

A similar story: The AP Stylebook decided, a couple of years ago, to change a rule they had about the use of "over". Previously, you could not conform to AP style and use "over" for numbers, and had to change it to "more than."
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there were over 111

horrified tweets
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it's a bogus rule

But ...
Where did this come from? Not from linguists, or even grammarians. It was a pet peeve of a 19th Century newspaper editor, who just degreed that "over" or "above" should be used with numbers, rather than "more than."
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experts say it's OK

But ...
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readers aren't confused

But ...

Why spend time making edits that don't matter to users?

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Spend time on details that matter.

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Spend time figuring out which details those are.

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Most of us who write or edit for a living have an opinion about serial commas — it's a sign that you care, man!

But I have yet to see any proof that customers or other users notice which way you go, unless you blindly follow a style guide. Pick your style, break it when necessary for clarity, and move on.
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not a grammar bible

It's called a style guide,
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Who are you editing for?

You, or your users?
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Ideally, both

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copyediting is a UX discipline

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the right word pays off

Happy users are satisfied users


James Callan

Haiku Deck Pro User