Our Jobs In Cyberspace: Craft Vocabulary vs. Storytelling

AFTER ALL THESE YEARS designing websites and applications, I still don’t think in words like “affordance.” And when my colleagues use a word like that, my mental process still clatters to a halt while I seek its meaning in a dusty corner of my brain. (When someone says “affordance,” there’s always a blank where thought stops, and then I see a mental image of a finger pushing a button or stroking a surface. Somehow that one image stands in for everything I know about what “affordance” means, and I’m able to jump back into the discussion and catch up with everyone else.)

Should you ask B.B. King if the lick he just played was in Lydian Mode, he could probably answer you after stopping to think about it. But after all these years playing blues guitar, B.B. King doesn’t say to himself, “I’m going to switch to a Lydian scale here,” he just plays blues. Scales and vocabulary are necessary when we are learning the craft behind our art. But the longer we practice, the more intuitive our work becomes. And as it becomes more intuitive, it disconnects further and further from language and constructs.

This is why young practitioners often argue passionately about theory while older practitioners tell stories and draw pictures.

Of course any practitioner, green or experienced, can create a word to describe the work we are inventing together, just as anyone, young or old, can have the next great idea. And it is most often the young who come up with exciting new ideas in UX and design and on the internet—possibly because they are still exploring theories and trying on identities, while those who work more intuitively may shut themselves off from the noise of new ideas, the better to perfect a long-term vision.

But the nice thing about the experience arc I’m proposing is that it allows younger practitioners to use words like “affordance” when working together to create a website or application (and soon we will stop distinguishing between those two things), while the older, storyteller practitioners use simpler, down-to-earth language to sell the work to clients, investors, or users.

We need both kinds of practitioners—theorists and those for whom everything has become intuitive second nature—just as we need both kinds of communication (craft vocabulary and storytelling) to do Our Jobs in Cyberspace.™ Don’t you think?

Where are you on this arc? Are you the kind of designer who gets fired up from reading a new theory? Or do you sketch and stumble in the dark, guided only by some Tinker Bell twinge in the belly that tells you no, no, no, no, hmm, maybe?

26 thoughts on “Our Jobs In Cyberspace: Craft Vocabulary vs. Storytelling

  1. I like and use both. Often times a new theory is the impetus for a sketch, story, or a use case. There is both excitement regarding a new concepts and approaches, and the act of stumbling in the dark. What I do try, however, is to avoid using verbose terms like “affordance” and state things as simply as I can. Perhaps this is because I have the affordance to so – (dang! Just did it again ;)

  2. I fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum, myself. The core of the issue goes back to basic communication theory: know your audience. Younger and older practitioners alike have to deal with clients and peers, and levels of understanding will differ wildly even within those groups.

    In the UXD classes I took at my local community college, we certainly went over the industry jargon—affordance was certainly in the mix, and I’ve used it and its ilk on the deliverables (another 50¢ vocabulary word) I prepared for my class assignments. Do I sling the slang to my peers? Sometimes—it depends on their level of understanding, and I try to take the time to feel that out so I can communicate effectively.

    Dealing with clients (internal or external) is no different—in order to be effective, it’s best to gauge their level of understanding before risking talking down to them or flying over their heads. I usually do that by asking open-ended questions and letting them explain things to me; shutting up and listening has taken me far in life.

    Fluency in your industry’s terms can speed up conversations with peers (or not—again, take the time to know the person with whom you speak), but when dealing with industry outsiders it can slow things down considerably as you find yourself pausing to do your best Merriam-Webster’s impression.

    Long story short (too late): as long as your audience understands you, you’ve succeeded, regardless of the words you used to get there.

  3. For me it isn’t just a deepening in intuition as we get older it’s a deepening of confidence. Most of us spend the first part of our careers trying to sound bigger and smarter than we are and the second half just trying to do the work properly.

    I called my first company “Trans-Global Communications”. It was really just me and and a mobile phone the size of a car battery. But early on I was lucky enough to spend time sitting in on meetings observing lots of other smart young folks trying to impress each other.

    Time and time again I noticed that the people on both sides of the table were playing that same game of talking in buzz words that neither side quite understood.

    I found a very valuable role for myself, by being “the stupid one” and learning not to be afraid to say “Forgive me, I’m a little slow, can you break down exactly what we’re talking about here”.

    The relief on people’s faces when they actually started to understand what everyone else was talking about was clear. Of course sometimes you realize that people really have no clue what they are talking about, they are just stringing together the latest buzz words.

    So personally, I think it’s never too early to know enough about your craft to be able to tell stories and leave the dubious buzz words in the drawer.


  4. Keep it up, folks. These are great stories you’re sharing, and great points you’re making.

    Paul Magee, I wrote zeldman.com in the royal “we” for ten years, trying to make it sound bigger, and did the same with A List Apart back when it was just me. I’m glad we’re more transparent these days and also glad good clients no longer think bigger equals better. P.S. Love the cell phone description. P.P.S. Sazzy, Dan Benjamin and I talk about the “royal we” and embiggening yourself (or not) in the most recent episode of The Big Web Show: 5by5.tv/bigwebshow/44.

    Jesse Glacken, well said and true. Communication is almost entirely about knowing your audience. At An Event Apart we provide our speakers with everything we know about our attendees, so they can communicate effectively. I dread speaking at events where I don’t know who I’m talking to or what they came hoping to learn. It’s also why there’s risk every time we hire a new person or meet with a potential new client. The better we become at quickly gauging who we’re talking to, the more we can succeed together.

    David Sundrum, theories still excite me too. For me what’s exciting is shortening the gap between learning something new and making it part of myself, part of my practice.

  5. I’ve worked a couple of years in marketing and therefore playing as the client and now I’ve switched to the other side as a web developer.

    Having been on both sides, I’d say that as a client I felt that sometimes buzzwords were a way to avoid talking about the real work that was needed. Moreover, here in Italy we spend too much time studying theory (compared to the US) so fresh graduates have to face the fact (like I did) that there’s a lot that can be trashed and needs to be relearnt from scratch without buzzwords in the middle.

    As a developer I like to use correct names but I always take care both in explaining them and writing them down in the paperworks. That comes from a lesson learnt in marketing: you will always start by filling someone else’s shoes, so documentation is priceless.

    I’d say that words need to be used only if there’s real work to do with them.

  6. Affordance is not a word I’ve ever used, but it’s easy to quickly identify it as a word whose esoteric nature suggests jargon. Affordance affords its users membership in a select club. Don’t be coy: the reason to use “affordance” is not to communicate better — it’s to show off your credentials. Otherwise, can’t you just say, “Given what this is supposed to do, does it work?”

    Don’t get me wrong — sometimes you need to show off your credentials. Just be clear about what you’re doing.

    As for the lydian mode, it is likewise esoteric but has nothing to do with the sort of blues Mr. King plays. Friendly advice: if you ever get the chance, DO NOT ask B.B. King about the lydian mode. While he’s still likely to take the question better than, say, James Cotton, still, DO NOT ASK. It’s OK to make eye contact with B.B. and tell him how much you enjoyed the music, however.

  7. I’ve always been the type of person to feel things out first, naturally. This is how I approach design, how I play jazz, how I learn new languages (programming and spoken word).

    When I am formally trained in things, as opposed to self-taught, I end up losing myself in the jargon and technical mazes. As a result, I know less of Java (which I took a class for) than Python (which I learned from a “Python Phrasebook” and the wonderful online book Dive into Python). I remember less Spanish (which I was taught) than French (which I’m teaching myself).

    When I come across something new that I want to learn, I usually just dive headfirst and worry about how deep the water is later.

  8. What’s the TM doing after cyberspace, and are you describing yourself autobiographically in that last sentence or is it directed at all those close to or already over fifty?
    I guess my answer is that it’s all a state of mind. The web just keeps on charging along, continuously reinventing itself, and so remains too new to harbor much cynicism. Keeps the old folk on their toes.

  9. Like many of the folks that have already commented, I feel I’m falling in the middle of this “arc”.

    I think I’m still finding my own personal style (do you ever really find it though?), so keeping up with the buzz and not falling behind is very important to me. At the same time I feel a lot of my design ideology comes from experience and just stuff that’s in my head.. this, I think is how i keep my designer soul intact. I feel I have to because it’s why I got into the business.. to be creative and solve problems.

    I’m find it is also important to know what the hell you’re talking about and merely being creative doesn’t cut it in our business. You have to back up your understanding of UX to really be relevent. There needs to be reason behind a design and I don’t think that hinders your creativity, I work with some traditional creatives now and it’s been in interesting experience seeing the big differences in the two. I’ve also been tasked to help them understand more about how I work, and that is where being in the “middle of the arc” is coming in mega handy!

    Great post!

  10. I’m a musician before being a web developer, so since I reached 40 yo and studied music since I was 17, I can play my instrument guided by instinct without thinking about scales or arpeggios or other practice things. BUT last year I enrolled the Berklee College of Music for one-time course. Why? Because I would like to re-run some learning engine, or something similar.

    It was beautiful to study theory and practice exercises on weekly basis, delivering my home duties to the teachers. While I was playing parts following my teachers I was thinking about “wow, these things were buried in my mind somewhere, I know it!” all the time. And my playing it’s better now, even if I don’t think about lydian or locrian modes while doing a solo or a solid groove.

    I think it’s something to try, the instinct leads me again, as I’m seasoned, but re-learning is weird and something like nostalgic.

    In the web field I can’t really trying it. I attended the Usability Week (NN/g) in London, a few days ago, and I thought all the time “okay, all these I already know”, so any new concept I learnt was an amazing discovery, as if I were young.

  11. Great talking point, Jeffrey.

    At times I find myself on an “inverted” arc — the opposite of what you’re describing here.

    I found I had a knack for building websites back in 1999, when the web was finding its stride (the first one). I fumbled my way around designs, what I thought would work, what I assumed people wanted to experience online. I had no idea what words like “affordance” meant. I winged it. And I was successful most of the time. But like anyone trying to advance themselves and grow personally and professionally, sometimes I failed, too.

    As years passed, I’ve had several “ah ha” moments. These are moments when I read about theory and connected the dots to something I had done that worked (or didn’t). So theres’s something to be said on both sides of this within the context of experience and practice. But if you think about theory too much, you can unnecessarily confine yourself and stifle innovation. It’s when we dare to do something that might not work that creates the conditions for creativity, modernization, and even a breakthrough here and there.

  12. I wouldn’t overlook the role of incentive. Sometimes a new theory or technical term helps a person to say something that otherwise could not be said, or to tease out a distinction that established practitioners fail to see; the incentive in this case is to communicate, generally, or specifically to make an argument that without the new term could not be made.

    Sometimes the use of a theory or technical term is a means of exercising power over others or an attempt to gain power. I think this is well known, maybe not explicitly, to anyone who desires power or desires to keep others from having it. Not to suggest that either is unrelated to the prior point.

    Sometimes terminology is the key to a relationship of some kind, like the password to a private club. The key to my scoring an interview may well be my use of whatever terms give the impression that I’m already on board with a company’s goal or program, over and above my technical qualifications. This is really only a restatement of the last point about power, filed under the heading employment, subcategory company research.

    And sometimes practitioners just have a thing for theory and enjoy the enlargement and enrichment of their minds, as though learning were its own end. Again, related to much of the preceding, the “as though” not being unproblematic.

  13. Back in the day, I had a philosophy professor who defined “mastery” of a field as the state of being, “coincident with technique,” whether through practice or in-born ability. The challenge with that—and for us as practitioners in general—is that doesn’t always translate into the ability to articulate what you’re doing to others, be that for the purposes of pedagogy or gaining the trust of those we work with and for.

  14. Interestingly, David, what prompted this post was our dinner conversation Friday. You said “affordance” in the context of a discussion of the “Undo” feature in iPhone—a feature that fails because it provides no affordance.

  15. I figured. ;-)

    Oddly, I’ve run into the flip side of the scenario you described more often, where less experienced designers (operating largely on intuition) wind up talking about their design decisions more in terms of metaphor or direct demonstration because they lack the words to identify and articulate them with precision. I think it’s the first phase of the arc, and comes before the two you outlined.

  16. I first came across the term “affordance” whilst attending a University seminar a few years back. On leaving the award winning building, I was presented with a grab handle on a push open door. I smiled. Though clearly the word hadn’t entered either the architects or judges consciousness; it certainly wasn’t a bar to gaining a glittering prize. Still, it annoyed the hell out of me. It still does when I see such dumb design.

    It’s not a term I would personally use that much, yet given the right audience wouldn’t shy from it. Maybe if I get to meet a certain architect ……

  17. re: Max’s, showing off your credentials – there is clearly evidence that “talking in tongues” will impress some potential employers or clients. But I realized once, whilst sat with a group of smart women, how impressed they were with a gentleman who pulled up outside in a particularly nice car (before they’d met him). I guess the question on both counts is, are those the kind of people you want to get into a long term relationship with?

  18. I think, as you point out, that both kinds of speech are important to our discipline–and that we should use terminology that’s appropriate to the audience. We live during a time of discovery and apprenticeship that’s probably not so unlike the Italian Rennaisance. There were probably intuitive artists back then who painted convincing scenes without ever using the word “chiaroscuro” to describe what they did. And then there were those that learned it as a technical term–a technique even.

    Personally, I like to think in theoretical terms and constructs, but it’s not something I necessarily where on my sleeve (except in my writing). When I work, I’m definitely more intutive. There are people I admire greatly who have no affinity for theoretical discussion, and that’s fine. But if I use the word “affordance” to communicate why I think a link should be a button, I expect anyone that’s a practicioner at this point to know full-well what I’m talking about. That term, in particular, is just too great an element (especiallywith touch screens) not to be understood and widely socialized by all designers.

    Of course, not all theories will last. The ones that do should be used appropriately. And you can bet that they will all be found through intuition first.

  19. For years I edited reports for McKinsey & Co., the international management consulting firm. One thing I noticed was that the younger consultants used a lot of jargon and buzzwords; the older consultants tended to speak in plain English. I’ve seen it in other fields too — generally the less you know, the more you hide behind jargon.

    Jargon has its uses. Sailors, doctors and engineers all have their own vocabularies that are fairly opaque to outsiders. Yet those terms are useful because they describe specific things and actions succinctly. It’s much easier to say “halyard” than “that rope you use to hoist the sail”.

    Network information design is a relatively new field. Its vocabulary is still evolving and time will sort out the useful terms from the nonsense.

    In the meantime, when you’re tempted to unload a particularly pungent piece of jargon on a client, stop and ask yourself first, “Could this be said more clearly in English?”

  20. I usually start out from intuition, gradually trying to construct theories around that gut feeling.

    It’s an interesting way of challenging your own ideas. Making intuition concrete is often quite a challenge, as you’ll have to find ways to aptly describe what you mean. Doing that will often lead to weak points in your initial way of thinking, allowing you to sculpt your gut feeling into something that is more solid and grounded in justifiable proof.

    As someone who’s primarily involved in writing html code (and I mean really writing html code, excluding javascript and css) this is a challenge I often face. Properly naming an item on a web page, across multiple sites and projects, is quite tricky indeed. It usually starts off with a gut feeling that component A and component B (even though they might look wildly different) are actually the same, from there on I work on a way to construct unifying html code for these components.

    Then again, the web is ever changing and theories can lose momentum over time. For this I once again rely on my gut feeling, starting the whole process from scratch.

    How zen is that.

  21. I love this discussion, Jeffrey, in part because I see it through the lens of content strategy’s evolution. Just as you described the personal evolution from novice student to experienced practitioner–and, all too often, back and forth again and again–we see that in the evolution of the discipline.

    Ten or fifteen years ago, content strategy grew out of the intuitive, experience-driven work of smart copywriters and information architects. We established common practices, proven processes, and shared nomenclature as shorthand for the stuff we created and wanted to sell. And the arc repeats itself: instinct and muscle memory replace bookmarked style guidelines, until the Next New Thing reminds us that we need to embrace the role of novice yet again. Then, back come the post-it note reminders, technical names for new concepts, and long-form versions of acronyms.

    Jargon isn’t necessarily bad. It’s the secret password that can establish rapport with a new audience or the soundbite of theory before we “unpack” it and really learn through personal experience. In an industry like ours, with a breakneck pace of Next New Things, I like it. Technical terminology that precedes experience is a speedbump reminder that the arc and cycle have reset themselves.

  22. Great discussion. I’ve worked in the deign industry for many years and indisputably find myself in the second category from your last paragraph. I work in what I would call the ‘middle ground’ of design – the everyday territory occupied by most designers out there (as alluded to in your own ‘Style v Design’). As such, I can’t help but see a trend in the new vocabulary, no matter how sound the underlying theory may be, and trends can be polarising. So it is refreshing to read your take of peaceful co-existence between ‘old school’ and new.

    I am a huge proponent of the increasingly scientific approach to the craft of design. My concern is that when theory overtakes practice, we are in danger of losing touch. The bottom line is that clients don’t pay for theory. They pay for results.

  23. I am a web designer by trade and I have been working for the last 8 years in an IT department for a big company, surrounded by old school IT folks who all over use buzz words speak in acronyms, and worse still, use words that don’t exist. Here is my off-the-top-of-my-head list of pet peeves:
    Utilize (just say use)
    Irregardless (Not a real word but an amalgamation of regardless and irrespective, surprising added to the dictionary (God help us))
    Verbiage (when describing “the words”)

    oh… off topic a little, but I was at a meeting where a VP said:

    They are focused on focusing on that


  24. I think this is the real value of mentoring. In the process of learning, the student will be looking at methods and techniques in new ways, offering a fresh perspective on something that may be old hat to the mentor.

    It’s always the old dogs that don’t like when the all the new pups come along and new labels on things they created. Buzzwords are usually used by either those who actually think they are great new ways to describe things they are interested in, or people trying to confuse others for various reasons.

    Cheers from a new Zeldman.com reader, and fan of everything I’ve seen your name on.

    ~ Jeff Sebring

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