What’s in a term? A terminology standardization process
Let’s set the scene: I’m brand new as the first Product Documentalist at a promising scale-up. As I attend trainings and initial meetings, I hear a million terms (to be expected). It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that different departments used different terms to refer to the same thing, plus a single term could sometimes refer to different things for different people.
We discussed over a dozen terms during this iteration. For the sake of this article, let’s consider one example: the terms client, customer, brand, and partner. Senior leadership and sales used partner, marketing used brand, and everyone else used a mix of client and customer to refer to the same people. Simultaneously, some teams used the term client to refer to our client’s clients.
This left me, an L1 English speaker and documentation specialist, confused. I could only imagine how my fellow newcomers were feeling—until I asked them and learned that they felt just as lost as I did.
And so begins the terminology standardization project.
Terminology Standardization Process
I paired up with Leela Rasa, my colleague in UX research, to make this project a success. So, what did we do? After a couple of false starts, we came up with this process:
We could probably write a dissertation about the process, but that is outside of the scope of this article. Let’s go over a few key points from this schema:
Anybody from the company can identify terminology we need to discuss. The need might arise because a term is unclear, inconsistent, or simply no longer serves us. We’re in charge, not the words themselves.
The company had already tried to standardize terminology, so we gathered those resources.
We collected feedback through a company-wide survey and also through observation, written materials, and conversations.
All feedback was compiled and grouped into key learnings.
The committee consisted of people who provided thoughtful feedback, were open to discourse and represented a cross-section of the company.
All committee members, regardless of experience level, role, or years at the company, had an equal voice. We trusted everyone to represent the needs of their departments and users.
We held multiple video calls as a committee and limited discussions about each term to 20 minutes whenever possible.
We voted using an agree, agree with reservations, stand aside, and block metric as described by the UK organization Seeds of Change.
Not mind-blowing, but stabilizing results
Thanks to this process, we chose client as our term for customer, brand, partner, and client. We’ll use this term in all internal communications as well as throughout our user interfaces and documentation. We also defined a different term to refer to our client’s clients. Nonetheless, people are still free to use other terms as appropriate in external conversations; we aren’t trying to stop our CEO from talking with a big client and calling them a partner, if you catch my drift.
Is the term client new? Earth-shattering? Mind-blowing? No.
However, it is stabilizing. Company-wide, everyone now understands what we mean when we say client; we’re not losing time anymore asking for clarification. I chose client for this article because it is understood universally, but imagine this kind of standardization around what we call our actual product and our user groups. Standardization unites everyone at the same starting point so we can move forward together.
Implementing the new terminology
Now that we have our official term for client, how do we implement it into our daily work? We suggest setting expectations for company-wide participation. Ideally, everyone will transition to these terms verbally right away. Widely-used documentation and internal trainings will be updated within a few weeks. We have a plan in place to update all of our user interfaces by the end of the year. Other teams that require more hands-on work to implement the changes will come up with a plan with their management. We’re still in the implementation phase, so perhaps we’ll report back in a few months!
Use this process
Do you want to engage in this process yourself? Here are some tips based on our experience.
Have buy-in from senior leadership.
Have a two-person team leading & facilitating the process.
Consider all perspectives by collecting feedback in an equitable way.
Appoint the committee carefully—this will make all the difference!
Put in the time to prepare your committee materials well.
Share, share, and share some more about how the process is going. This will help with company-wide acceptance.
So, what’s in a term?
Stability. Unity. Growth. Vision.
Please let us know what you think, and report back with your experience if you use this process!