The language of design

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Lately, online design conversations tend to focus on tools, influencers and mental health. However, people seem to be missing out on an important and much more fundamental part of design, which is how design is talked about. I've been thinking about it for a while and I've gotten to the point where I can break it down into two main categories:

1. The language we speak to ourselves

No industry is impervious to jargon. It’s a necessity of working life that, along with acronyms make you sound like an absolute spanner to anybody that doesn’t share your career path. However, as design can potentially touch millions of people very quickly, we need to carefully consider the words we’re using and how they can affect people when deployed at scale.

The first word that springs to mind is the word “User” Every time I hear someone spouting the brilliance of human centred design while also referring to humans as users, I can’t help but laugh. To me a user is an un-romanticised name for someone unfortunate enough to be addicted to heroin. It’s a deliberately dehumanised way of referring to a human being; One that the global tech industry has made commonplace. One of the reasons for this is that it's an easy catch-all term that almost blends into any conversation.

Another slightly more sinister reason is that it strips away any humanity whatsoever and converts a living, breathing person into a data-point on a dashboard. It's a sort of verbal diffusion of responsibility that allows us to mentally seperate the task we're doing from the people it's affecting. It’s deeply ironic that designers will wax lyrical about how they care about the people using a product and then refer to these people as users. It's all a bit too robotic for me to take it seriously.

If you’ll allow me to go off the deep end, I’m a heavy believer in the Theory of linguistic relativity, or as it’s also (somehow more pretentiously) known, the Sapir-Wholf hypothesis, which states:

“...That the grammatical and verbal structure of a person’s language influences how they perceive the world. It emphasizes that language either determines or influences one’s thoughts.”

With this in mind, let’s consider this sentence:

If we push this design update, 5% of our users won’t have access to the app

That doesn't sound terrible. It's a mild inconvenience a best. Now let's go through the same sentence, but change one word:

If we push this design update, 5% of our customers won’t have access to the app

Now we can relate to these people as, well... people. I can tell you which one will get more resistance from a product owner. And this can be applied to any word in that sentence. For example:

If we push this design update, 5% of our customers won’t have access to the electricity grid

Now the sentence is given much needed context by humanising the language. This will allow for much more empathetic decisions to be made by the design and product team. This is only one example but you can easily see that changing the language we use to remove corporate jargon we can truly strive for a more connected, empathetic design process and also sound like less of a prat as we do it.

And now, to contradict myself;

2. The language we speak to others

I constantly see designers lamenting the fact that design doesn’t have a “seat at the table.” By this they mean that in the C-suite and boardroom there is very little design influence. I can think of two main reasons for this. Let’s get the easiest one out of the way with a handy image courtesy of my former employer. Let me introduce you to the Bain elements of value:

Design and aesthetics are one of 30 things that a boardroom or CEO care about. Most designers I’ve seen are super passionate about design, but have no idea the other 29 elements exist. I can tell you firsthand that they absolutely do and most of the time they can be leveraged to make a lot more money than design does. So with that out of the way, let’s move onto the language part.

Most designers I’ve met are completely ill-equipped to deal with a C-level conversation about design. They only know how to talk to other designers and have no idea how to verbalise the impact of design and its relation to a business. I’ve seen this range from confusing-at-best, to embarrassing-at-worst. When designers start spouting nonsense about heuristics and how a "user's experience isn’t a tangible thing, but more of a feeling" to a boardroom who only cares on the next quarters' budget, they’re actively alienating their audience. This helps ensure that not only does design not have a seat at the table, but it’s not invited into the room. 

If you truly want design to have a seat at the table, learn to speak like the other people you’re sitting next to. Only then will you make a difference on a corporate level. This is where the contradiction arises.

In summary

These two points seem at odds with each other, but we’re missing one important variable which helps define how and when to use these different kinds of language: Your Audience.

When you’re dealing with something that affects humans, try switching your language from the corporate dehumanised nonsense that you’ve been forced to use to something that actually treats your "users" like people. Take their persona off that whiteboard in the corner of your office and try to remember that the decisions you’re making affect actual people, not some synthesised best-case-scenario that's been visualised using the same photos from Unsplash that every other company uses.

On the other hand, when you’re speaking about businesses and their goals you need to speak the language of business, not the language of design. Naturally these business decisions will affect users too, but in order to get your point across in the first place, you need to communicate to them on their terms. Or, as Nelson Mandela much more eloquently put it:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

By combining these two ways of communicating, you'll have much more success both in your day to day work and also shipping products that people love.


If you like what you see or have any questions, get in touch. 

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