Guest Post: Speaking Our Users’ Language

by Mary Pagliero Popp, Vice-President/President-Elect RUSA, Indiana University Libraries

My job revolves a lot around thinking about users and their needs.  But even after nearly 40 years in the profession (or perhaps because of that), I realize that what I know is a drop in the ocean compared to what there is to know.

Recently, my colleague Anne Haines has been talking about good practice for writing for the web.  It struck me that many of these same best practices—thinking about the listener or reader and the reader’s knowledge, being consistent in the language used to refer to common library services and resources, and speaking with a clear and unambiguous voice–apply to the answers we give to users at the reference desk and in email/chat reference contexts as well as in instruction settings.  We all need to be mindful of the words and concepts we use.

A recent post to the Web4Lib listserv (5-25-12 from Inge Kokidko) reminded me about a trusted source I had used in the past, the work of John Kupersmith on library jargon.   Kupersmith has recently somewhat updated his article about library jargon and library web pages.   He notes that his focus is on helping web developers “decide how to label key resources and services in such a way that most users can understand them well enough to make productive choices.”  He includes information from 51 usability studies evaluating terms used on library web sites, and suggests both “test methods and best practices for reducing cognitive barriers caused by terminology.”  The research shows that acronyms, brand names, and the words “catalog” and “database” are often misunderstood.  Despite the fact that much of the research cited is 5 or more years old, it still holds true.

The author makes several recommendations that will be of use to all of us in our work with users:  1) use natural language and words that users understand in their everyday contexts; 2) combine specialized terms with other words that help to explain them; and 3) be consistent in the use of terminology.   For those who are writing web pages, Kupersmith suggests testing the terminology on the web pages, being careful to use natural language words particularly on top pages on web sites, and explaining terms in a place where they are easy to see.

I urge you to take a look at the full article:  Kupersmith, John. “Library Terms That Users Understand.” eScholarship (University of California). 29 Feb. 2012. Retrieved from:


One thought on “Guest Post: Speaking Our Users’ Language

  1. Pingback: Why Use Reference Books? | Chasing Reference

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