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One New Year’s resolution: Less Jargon, Unless It’s Useful

January 2, 2011 - 1 Comment

“WARNING! This is app is in beta!”
Hey how come all these apps for my phone say that.
Lol what’s wrong with that and what is it?

That’s the mobile phone text message that greeted me on New Year’s Eve and for a moment stopped me in my tracks. Then, I burst out laughing for a good 20 seconds.

The text was from my college age daughter, who is really smart and consumer-tech savvy, and knows pretty much everything there is to know about using consumer devices. Yet, I realized, she doesn’t really know the jargon of tech, and a word like beta is a mystery to her. And why should she know our strange vernacular? Why on earth would we in the tech industries expect her to understand an esoteric term like “beta,” which in turn requires at least a superficial description of the software development process to properly explain it?

(You twist down a path needing to explain that there’s an “alpha” that precedes beta, and before long you’re waxing poetic about the agile development movement, Scrum stand-up meetings, and pigs and chickens and how chickens can’t talk but pigs can. Not the kind of banter you really need when you’re trying to get something like Angry Birds installed on your new phone.)

So it got me to thinking: When is jargon needed and when isn’t it? It seems to me that words like “beta” don’t belong at all in the consumer world, even though some consumers are beginning to understand what the term means, at least with regard to their phones (mainly, I find that people think of a “beta” for phone apps as meaning “discounted price, but buggy”).

But sometimes jargon does fill a void and serve a purpose.

While having a spirited conversation with some younger indie/alternative music fans this past week, I was suddenly struck that they use a super-geeky standards term – MP3 — all the time without a second thought. Not only that, but it’s a nickname term with an arcane history, which emerged from the need to have sound accompany video (you might remember when Internet “movies” were created using sequenced silent JPEGs). The ISO standards organization’s Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) created multiple schemes (also called “layers” ) for audio encoding, and one of them, MPEG-1 (later 2) Audio Layer III, took hold for music. Since it needed a file extension definition, it naturally got .mp3, and thus the file extension name became the nickname for the format and was eventually baked into a million conversations about music that happen even day among ordinary mortals. I know our Cisco audience will totally enjoy reading an early RFC document so here is one: RFC3003

On the other hand, there is the FireWire story. There was a need to name the thing, but the official term, which is IEEE-1394, was way too geeky for consumers to swallow. That’s why IEEE-1394 got remarketed as “FireWire” by Apple and “i.LINK” by Sony. (Oh, for those who want the spec for bedtime reading: IEEE-1394-2008 IEEE Standard for a High-Performance Serial Bus.)

All of the above underscores how much worlds of Internet and other engineering standards and technologies have become the hidden underpinnings that make everything tick in our homes, from the video that is delivered on our TVs via cable or satellite, to conferencing technologies that bring us together like ūmi telepresence for the home, to how our music is delivered, to how our cooktops work, to how our electricity is metered. With all of these technologies and standards flying around, I think all of us need to be careful not to outright terrify people with techie names. So that is one of my jargon-related resolutions this year: Use jargon appropriate the to audience, and keep it simple enough that it doesn’t confuse or alarm.

Caveat: In the business and technology area, terms like IPv6, 802.11n, MPLS, SNMP, Multicast, WAAS, etc are quite necessary as a way to communicate about standards and technologies that are supported. As long as it’s the right audience, a rich alphabet soup of names on a page is wonderful.

That brings me, though, to the other jargon-related resolution I have for 2011, which is around jargon-laden navigation. Sometimes, I see us (and our colleagues in all regions of technology) taking shortcuts where we’ll invent new names to “make things simpler” and somehow hope that, though Jedi mind tricks, customers will magically understand what these names or labels represent, and be able to navigate through a forest of them.

I’m not going to give you any examples of this second sort of jargon terms, because instead I would like you to nominate your favorites. What names for things do you see deep in the web sites that you believe make your navigation confusing or otherwise disorient you? Comment on this blog, and I’ll then add some of my own favorites that we’re working on addressing.

Cheers, and Happy New Year.

P.S. Yeah, I just know one of the original MPEG group members is going to read this and call out multiple historical simplifications that I made. I will be honored to make any corrections needed.

P.P.S. By the way, Jennifer McAdams has interesting blog from last year about how Internet standards are born and how Cisco helps.

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  1. I won't embarrass myself any further in the techworld by listing any of the jargon that "disorients" me on the Cisco website; I'm sure it all makes sense to the informed visitor! Nice little history lesson though on the origins of mp3. Perhaps there were "historical simplifications", but I know more about it now than I did before and that's really what matters :-) Maybe you should write a blog on the beginning of emoticons! Who first thought of something so simplistically brilliant, anyway?