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Passionate Users Talk Different


Listen in on a conversation between three airplane pilots, and--assuming you aren't a pilot--you might understand 50% at best. Listen in on a conversation between three software architects, and even a new programmer might not have a clue. Snowboarders have their own terms. So do plumbers, photographers, librarians, ministers, dancers, realtors, musicians, graphic designers, and filmmakers (best boy? gaffer?).

But there's a world of difference between a specialized lexicon of domain-specific terms and buzzwords.

Domain-specific terms compress information, while buzzwords often masquerade as information.

Buzzwords are often (not always) semantically empty while specialized domain lexicons are semantically dense.

Domain-specific terms are usually associated with passion, or at least expertise, while buzzwords are often associated with those who might be faking expertise, or who are using them simply to impress others.

ZYZephyr wrote a great post taking me to task for my buzzwords post ranting (half tongue-in-cheek) about the 2.0 buzzwords. He makes all the right points, and I agree with just about everything he said. Which tells me I didn't make my point, or that he didn't read my previous post about this topic ; )

My problem is not with the use of specialized language. On the contrary, in my earlier post on this I said (paraphrasing myself):

"When people are passionate (or even just "into") something, they have a shared lexicon that helps dinstinuish them from those who aren't.

Among other things, a shared vocabulary helps experts and professionals get a message across more quickly. But it also helps build their passion. Just figuring out the commonly-used phrases, words, names, stories, etc. are part of what gives people a sense of belonging. A sense of being a part of something special. A sense of having learned--and earned--their way in. So in this case, exclusionary isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Becoming a part of something new usually isn't that simple, especially if that new thing has real value. Pick an area where people are truly passionate, and there is virtually always a learning curve that includes new ideas, concepts, skills, knowledge and specialized terms. Most people have an "I Rule" experience in part because they've "crossed the chasm" and learned what the hell the experts are talking about."

Where this whole thing gets interesting is that many of the Web 2.0 buzzwords actually DO--for some people--compress and convey rich information. In other words, while I make a distinction between empty buzzwords and domain-specific terms, sometimes there's no clear line between the two. One guy's Web 2.0 empty buzzword is another one's meaningful addition to the emerging technology lexicon.

And that brings up the other thing I like about Web 2.0--that it has engaged so many people's minds in actively creating/defining/interpreting the meaning of the ideas, words, and concepts. Web 2.0 is both ambiguous and meaningful... but not for everyone. For many, the words are just useless marketing speak with no there there.

My problem with the Web 2.0 terms is not that they are meaningless. And my problem is not that they are too complex and should be dumbed down. My problem is that they are focused on the technology and the business model, rather than focusing on what those things will mean to the end-user. And when I say "mean to the end-user", I don't mean that the end-user cares about the words. The end-user cares about what WE--the developers/implementors of Web 2.0-ish products or services--are creating for them.

When I say that the Web 2.0 words aren't user-driven, I don't mean that the users should be driving or even understanding the words. But if a deep concern for users isn't driving the meaning of these words, we're in for a flock of crap products and services that implement 2.0 goodness but do nothing to inspire or engage users. Again, my problem with 2.0 words is not about what they mean, or how consice or confusing they are, as much as about what they're focused on.

So, back to the "specialized words" thing... in helping support or build a community of passionate users, I would not discourage specialized lexicons--even (or especially) if that specialized lexicon means separating the newbies from the experts. That's as it should be and is part of what adds value to becoming an expert in the first place--you get to have this rich, complex, efficient communication with others and, yes, you might also consider that a way to show off. And I am not about to moralize on this one and suggest that wanting to "show off" is a bad thing. It's a part of human nature to take pride in how hard we've worked to learn this much and get this good at something. It's human nature to feel good about, well, kicking ass. Being recognized as an expert is certainly not the main benefit (or driving motivation) for becoming passionate about something, but for many people--it's a nice little side benefit.

Think about it... come on, really think about it. Somewhere in your past (maybe even within the last 48 hours), you've felt that little ever-so-slightly-I'm-better-at-this-than-you feeling that came from being able to keep up with a book, speech, or conversation that had words and phrases not known to "the rest of us." ; )

OK maybe you didn't feel all superior, but you at at least have felt the energy that comes from engaging and communicating at that higher level of complexity.

Posted by Kathy on December 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Kathy, love the post, love the site. The bit about being user-centered is key. Not only do people not care about buzzwords, software, or developers, they usually don't even think about them. The idea that the average non-designer thinks about design is a figment of the designer's imagination. Instead, most people are off solving the mountain of problems that plague their own life.

Here's an example. I once saw a person shopping on Gap for a scarf. I was observing them go through the site, watching them click on this, read that, ignore the other thing, etc. I was thinking about the designers, the writers, the images, the content providers, all these things. And so I assumed that the person thought about at least some of this stuff.

There was a problem in checkout, some error having to do with their credit card. They got frustrated. Upset. Worried. I asked a couple questions about what they were thinking, expecting to hear that the user experience was bad, or the designers weren't good, or the checkout system had serious usability issues.

Nope, not even close. This guy was upset because his girlfriend wanted this scarf, and wouldn't be able to impress her if he didn't get it for her...

Posted by: Joshua Porter | Dec 11, 2005 7:36:18 PM


This is a great post. You're so perceptive about the difference between the words experts use among other experts, and the dreadful buzzcrud people use to try to sound like experts, when they're nothing of the sort. Buzzwords are terms drained of all passion and meaning through overuse and misuse. They become the equivalent of a smokescreen to conceal shoddy thinking and apathy.

That's why BS is often made up of 90% buzzcrud; and why it's about as interesting as watching your toenails grow.


Posted by: Adrian Savage | Dec 11, 2005 9:14:47 PM


Another fabulous post. How do you do it?

I loved your comments on Web 2.0--and found affirmation for my next column in gotomedia's "gotoreport" (not yet online but will appear at http://www.gotomedia.com). A preview:

"So I’m going out on a limb to say that Web 2.0 is really about users. It’s how developers emerging from cubicle cocoons admit what we user-obsessed sorts have long understood—that users rule. All that Web 2.0 talk of systems, applications and platforms is ultimately about empowering end-users to achieve their dreams on the Web without restriction."

It's no panacea, but if we designers grab the momentum generated by users choosing sites that let them kick ass (to quote a noteworthy author), Web 2.0 might turn out to be more steak than sizzle.

Posted by: Dave Rogers | Dec 11, 2005 10:14:37 PM

"..while I make a distinction between empty buzzwords and domain-specific terms, sometimes there's no clear line between the two."

The blurry line becomes more clear, I think, if you think separately about each individual usage of a term. The same word can be used to convey information or to sound impressive, and each usage should be judged separately - is it being used to communicate or mislead? I think there are two non-obvious directions you can take this idea:

a) Perhaps it's all a con game: if you are able to impress your listener you used jargon; if not, it's a buzzword ;)

b) More seriously, it's jargon if the listener understands you; if he did not, you just employed an empty buzzword. Even if your usage did indeed have content.

Posted by: Kartik Agaram | Dec 11, 2005 11:46:34 PM

Amazing post as ususal, it's a great pleasure to see another new insightful post. Perhaps my message here is an example of what you describe. I've been a newbie user for months of your Creating Passionate Users blog, and finally I feel expert enough to post something.

It's an interesting phenomenon about wanting to be an expert, wanting to be a leader. The user wants to be able to say "I rule". But over what.

It seems to be a natural part of human psychology to want a more secure position in the herd, and a feeling of "I rule" certainly feels more secure than "I suck". Yet perhaps there's a basic AntiPattern here. Rather than "I rule" being a side benefit for domain mastery, if it overrides the well being of the domain itself -- lingo and buzzword mastery start just becoming a tool of the AntiPattern, and the domain itself suffers.

A good steward of a domain builds the domain for the value the domain brings to all the users. A bad steward gains domain mastery for the purpose of compensating for a deep "I suck" feeling somewhere in life, by having an "I rule" feeling over the domain users. And the only way to do that is to shoot down (or flame) the competition!

It seems the greatest movements these days that promote creating passionate users, like this blog, like open source, are more about contribution to a domain, rather than ruling the domain primarily for ego gratification. People are starting to get wise, emotionally at least, to the empire builders who don't give a **** about the users, they just want the "I rule" feeling.

Posted by: Harold Shinsato | Dec 12, 2005 12:10:04 PM

I wouldn't buy something unless I knew how it could help me. If something was advertised using words like "uses web 2.0", I wouldn't know whether to buy it as this term means different things to different people, and my understanding might be different to that of the suppliers. If someone says "takes 2 seconds to load each web page instead of 5", I would be more impressed.

By all means use domain specific terms when talking to others in your field to save time, but only when these terms are going to be understood by them in a similar way.

Posted by: Richard Jonas | Dec 13, 2005 10:21:24 AM

I wonder if the distinction between jargon and buzzword hinges around whether the term describes something you want to implement for people, or something you want someone to implement for you (not quite whether you're a developer or a marketer but what your investment in the term is). Contribution cultures rather than exploitation cultures. Fascinating blog BTW - thank you!

Posted by: MaryPCB | Dec 14, 2005 10:09:49 AM

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