Last week I was at a seminar where a fellow student was outlining some (very interesting) research about how to adapt ‘professional’ products to be usable by a ‘lay’ audience (what functions do you retain, what do you lose, how do you deal with different mental models? and so on)

He repeatedly referred to the importance of ‘user experience’ throughout the presentation, and it took me a while to realise that he was not talking about UX, but “the degree of prior knowledge/understanding a user has, having dealt with similar products/systems”. That made a whole lot more sense. Yet no-one else in the room – including a number of people with backgrounds in human-centred design – asked about or pointed out this (quite important) difference.

It made me think: how often in science, technology – indeed any subject – are people talking about very different things yet using the same terminology? Do they realise they’re doing it? And can this ever be used as a deliberate provocation tactic to generate new ideas or ways of looking at things? Can we think of third and fourth meanings for terms that might give us insights? (E.g. with ‘user experience’, can we think of the ‘experience’ a product has with a user – his or her quirks, errors, misperceptions and so on – rather than the other way round? Is that ever helpful?)


  1. I think Richard Dawkins said something in one of his books on how you can use a word any way you like, as long as you define your terms. Which in some ways if fair enough, although if you decide to use a word in a different way to its normal usage, even if you do explain this beforehand, you’re still asking to be misunderstood. And if you don’t explain, like this student seemed not to, you’re not provoking discussion or thought, you’re just causing confusion.

    Sometimes in science, arguments about the meaning of a word can waste time that could have been used actually talking about ideas rather than semantics – just look at the endless arguments between scientists and creationists about the use word theory as applied to natural selection. So I suppose it’s important not to get too bogged in the terminology!

  2. This happens all the time in all language use. Meaning is interactional and so only in use does any given sign have a meaning. Roughly ‘meaning = sign + use rule’ as Wittgenstein might have written if he was inelegant enough to mix words and mathematical notations.
    No amount of defining terms will help unless all participant are agreed ‘players’ in the same ‘language-game’. Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’ is coming into play in your example ( It is interesting that ‘the experience of the user’ and thus ‘user experience’ can mean something ‘prior to’ and something ‘at the time of’ but much more interesting that you object to the presenters ‘use’ of the sign ‘user experience’ because it is at odds with your own use of the same sign.
    Keep up the interesting posts.

  3. Rosie Hornbuckle

    I was having a similar conversation with someone recently… along the lines of how quickly terminology evolves, often losing original meaning and depth – especially in industry. We discussed the use of a wiki glossary to keep up with changes in meaning and understanding. Not exactly what you were talking about, but your seminar experience is something I frequently encounter in design research literature when authors don’t make explicit the type of design or the context they’re referring to from the outset. very frustrating.

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