What’s in a name?

“That which we will call a…” Hey, just what are we going to call it?

Nomenclature, terminology, labels. What we call things and the names we use are very important, and deciding upon the “perfect label” can often be more difficult than we anticipate. As information designers and architects we are tasked with not only organizing information, but also often with naming it.

Sometimes the exercise is quite straightforward: developing a product catalog for an online toy store may be more an exercise in deciding whether building blocks are categorized as “puzzles” or ” learning toys” than in naming them “building blocks.” In either case, the label for the toy seems obvious. After all, we would not change the name from “building blocks” to “plastic construction units.”

But sometimes the nomenclature exercise is not as easy or straightforward. Sometimes we struggle with what to call something, especially when we are trying to decide upon a site’s navigation and interaction terminology, headers, subheaders, text links, and buttons. For example, should we call a section “Online Learning Center”, “Training Services”, or “Guides and Documentation”? Although each of these options conveys a similar type of content, each creates slightly different expectations about what information will be presented, the format of the information, and the extent and form of the interactions possible.

The labels and terms we use are very important, because they assist, guide, and inform visitors to our site (or users of our applications) and help them work efficiently and accurately. Poor nomenclature:

  • is ambiguous, incomplete, or even erroneous.
  • causes confusion.
  • causes frustration.
  • increases abandonment.
  • decreases credibility and trust.

Good nomenclature should go unnoticed, because site visitors do not have to stop and think, “What does this mean?”, “Where will this take me?”, or “What is going to happen?”, because it is immediately obvious and meaningful to them. There are a few practices we can put in place to help us develop better labels and more useful (and usable!) nomenclature:

  1. Use active language (e.g., “See the Ford Model T Specifications”) and avoid passive language (e.g., “More about the Ford Model T may be found here.”)
  2. Use familiar terms that are meaningful to the target audience, and try to avoid internal, (company or product specific) terminology (e.g., “Mental Health” rather than “Psychopathology” on a community health web site.)
  3. Use directive language that sets accurate expectations for the reader about what will happen and what will be presented when they follow the link or press the button (e.g., “Download the Update” communicates that the download will begin right away, whereas “Get the Update Here” is somewhat vague and may either start the download or take the visitor to another page.)
  4. Be concise. Long labels are more likely to introduce ambiguity, and there is almost always limited screen real estate to work with. Tooltips that show up on mouseover are a nice way to include additional, explanatory information if necessary. Also, eliminate any unnecessary words, for example, use “Read the full article” instead of “Click here to read the full article.” There is no need to write “Click here to…” as long as the link looks like a link to the visitor. If it does not look like a link, then make it look like one – do not fix it by adding “Click here.”
  5. Be consistent. The terminology, tone and voice, and grammatical structure should be parallel across the navigation system. If you are using active verbs in the navigation, then all of the navigation options should include them (e.g., “Search for Music”, “Listen to Music”, “Share Music”, and “Buy Music.”)