Once upon a time, there was a word. It was quite happy for about a century or so. After some time, however, it grew quite upset. No one paid it any attention. It didn’t do anything to deserve such neglect. It just kind of happened. People didn’t care. After a good run, it died. Or did it? A few decades later, it was resurrected. Not only did it come back to life, it took on new meanings. Eventually, the word became so common that neologists—the people who think about words—could not imagine life without this word! The word lived happily ever after in its little nook within the caves of our vernacular.
But not every word has such a fairy-tale story behind it. In fact, most don’t! According to Dr. Allan Metcalf, Professor of English at MacMurray College, forensic linguist, and author of multiple books about the English language, many thousands of new words are born every day. But only a few hundred survive, cementing themselves in our vocabulary and earning a page in the dictionary.
Think about some of the words you hear people use today. New words that people have invented as a result of the pandemic are great examples. Do you think words and phrases such as social distancing or mask rage will be around two or three years from now? As long as such words serve a purpose, they’ll persist. But, once our need for them diminishes, these words will become things of the past. In fact, such words play a role in defining our history.
Research on the use of words across centuries and epochs indicates that we can, with a high degree of accuracy, extrapolate when a language artifact originated based on the words its author used. Researchers have run experiments on examples of word usage over three major periods of time—the 19th through the 21st centuries—and found a wide variance between word frequencies for these different periods.
Words are a major part of a UX professional’s semantic toolkit in designing appropriate experiences for users. You might have an entire team within your organization whose focus is solely on crafting the right language for your products. They might be UX writers or content strategists who are responsible for articulating the right tone for your product or, for more complex applications, they might be technical writers.
But it’s not just these folks who are responsible for the words. UX professionals are users of language as well. Whether we are communicating ideas to our stakeholders or putting together a presentation to teach someone a new research method, our choice of language must convey our ideas to one another effectively. We have about 50,000 words from which to choose when deciding how to communicate what we need to say.
With so many words continually being born, but our using only a small fraction of them in our daily communications, this begs the question: what makes a successful word? What can we learn from these success factors to help us design and build better user experiences?
Let’s look at some examples and see what factors make one word’s life expectancy longer than another. Word authorities, language mavens, linguists, neologists, and others who think about words on a daily basis, have written much on this subject. However, before we delve into these factors—and hopefully learn a thing or two—let’s explore the purpose of human language. By understanding why we have certain words, we can better appreciate the power of these words and respect their place in our everyday lives.
Language Comes from Communities
According to linguist Dr. Anne Curzan, author of How English Works, human language is “a conventional system of signs that allows … the creative communication of meaning.” While there is much to unpack in this definition, for our purposes, the conventional and creative aspects of words are those that relate most strongly to their success or failure.
Convention comes about only through a word’s widespread adoption. If no one—other than yourself—adopts particular language, there’s little chance for that language to survive. Thus, convention depends on a community of adopters. Dr. Curzan suggests that the meaning of linguistic signs—that is, language components—depends on “a community of speakers” who share their understanding of their meaning. Human language exists when a group of people adopt language and normalize its usage within their community.
Language Provides Infinite Possibilities
Another key element of Curzan’s definition of human language is the phrase “creative communication of meaning.” We can assemble and use words in an infinite number of combinations to convey meaning—a capability that linguists call recursion. Even if we’ve never even heard of certain words before, because we understand their phonemes—chunks of meaning—we can make sense of novel language.
Consider the term appliance fatigue. Throughout the pandemic, I have been using this term incessantly to describe my more-than-usual frequency of appliance usage while I’m locked down at home. You’re probably familiar with the use of these two words separately, but when they’re cobbled together, they create a new meaning. With sufficient context, interpreting the term becomes straightforward.
You Can’t FUDGE Words’ Success
Words’ success does not come easy. If human languages—and, hence, the use of particular words—depends on the cultures and communities that adopt them, the success or failure of a word depends on whether all of us accept it through repeated use.
Dr. Allan Metcalf, who has written many books on word origins and also serves as the Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, devised a framework for predicting word success, which he calls FUDGE factors. Let’s look at some of these factors to see how they can help us improve the language we choose to use in designing user experiences.
FUDGE stands for the following:
Frequency of use
Diversity of users and situations
Generation of other forms and meanings
Endurance of the concept
Inspired by the Apgar scale, which Dr. Virginia Apgar used to assess the health of newborns—Dr. Metcalf’s framework uses a three-point (0—2) rating system for scoring each of these FUDGE factors. Points indicate the degree to which a factor is present—the higher the rating, the stronger the factor. For example, a word having a score of 0 for the first factor, frequency of use, means only an individual or a small group comprising family and friends use that word. Here’s a great example of a Level 0 score for this factor: My mother has a knack for concocting words for things that actually have real names—simply because she forgets their name. She calls such things whoozeewhatzees. There is a good chance that this word has and never will see the light of day beyond my conversations with her.
Words that get a Level 1 score for frequency of use are in use by a larger group of people, but have not been adopted by the masses. These might be words that you use within your organization. Take the word pivot. It’s a rather trendy word to use when describing a shift in strategy. Not a week goes by without someone in my firm using that term. Perhaps you, too, have heard or use this term. Were this word to spread like wildfire—beyond its current use within business contexts—it would likely achieve Level 2 status. As you can surmise, the higher the rating for each factor and the greater the sum of all these scores, the greater the chance that a word would be successful.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these factors and see how they might apply to the world of User Experience.
Words Thrive When Diverse Users Adopt Them in a Variety of Situations
According to Metcalf, when a diverse group of users uses a word in a wide variety of situations, there is a greater chance for it to succeed. This is the D in FUDGE. A great example of this is the word spam. Think of your own circle of industry colleagues. Who doesn’t know this word? Anyone who uses email knows the word well. Widen the circle to include family, friends, and others outside your inner circle of industry colleagues: Do they know what spam means? Chances are good that the answer is yes. As you might imagine, this was not always the case. Once, only computer and technology nerds used this word, which is now in wide use—and probably not by just your colleagues and friends, but your grandmother as well! As general audiences have adopted the Internet and email, the word spam has moved into broader use.
Don’t Assume All User Groups Would Understand the Same Word
The D in FUDGE is a reminder to pay close attention to the words of different user groups who use your products. When I worked as a UX researcher within the human capital–management industry, we drew sharp distinctions between different groups of users: employees who used the software and the HR managers who administered it. If you asked an employee who uses HR software when their off-cycle payroll periods occur, there is a good chance that they would give you a funny look. The concept simply manifests differently for an employee versus an administrator. Rather than an off-cycle payment, for employees it would best to describe this as “an additional check that’s not part of their usual pay.” Whenever you’re endeavoring to understand your users’ language, be sure to define the language that various user groups use, and don’t assume that one group would know the same lingo as another.
Some Words Represent Enduring Concepts
According to Metcalf, certain words may live on, but take on different meanings over time. She describes the term heads up as an example. In the mid-twentieth century, if someone shouted “heads up!” it usually meant to look out for something dangerous overhead. Now, we use the term in a different context, and it has shifted from being a verb to a noun. You may have heard this term at work. Perhaps a coworker intends to refer another colleague to speak with you. Your coworker, as a way of letting you know that someone is going to be approaching you soon with some questions, might give you a heads up before that happens.
What makes heads up such an enduring concept? Perhaps it is because it uses a physical metaphor to which we can all relate as humans. (After all, we all have a head!) Or, maybe, as inherently social beings, we’ve always had a need to make others aware of something that is impending—whether the need is fight or flight—for example, a bear about to attack you or a colleague approaching you to ask whether they can steal your conference room for an important meeting.
Use Words That Stand the Test of Time
Which concepts might endure the test of time in the world of UX design? How about the word submit? Before the Internet, we filled out forms with a pen or pencil, then submitted them via snail-mail. These days, we still submit forms, but usually electronically. What would we do without some form of the ubiquitous submit button!? While the context of the term submit has changed, the concept of turning in a form has not. Back in the late ’90s, when I was coding HTML pages, leaving out the name of a form button would yield the default Submit Form button. Maybe, one day in the future, we’ll telepathically send information to one another rather than submitting it!
The beauty of a word such as submit is: not only has the concept endured, but it is also clear and unambiguous. People know what such words mean without much effort. Finding timeless words that endure should be gold for UX professionals. Your users would ultimately understand words that pass the test of time better than words that were dead on arrival. Imagine all of our digital experiences being so easy to understand that we could be parsimonious with our language without sacrificing clarity?
Some Words Are Unobtrusive
Metcalf reveals another important insight about successful words. Words that seem to enter our language without much fanfare are likely to be the most successful. This is the U, for unobtrusiveness, in FUDGE.
A great counter-example, a Level 0 word, would be a word such as tacangle. A tacangle, according to its creator, Rich Hall, is the position to which one turns one’s head while biting into a taco. If you grew up in the ’80s, you might recognize a word such as tacangle as a sniglet. These silly words describe real things, but are so conspicuous that the words never quite catch on.
According to Metcalf, words that blend in are more likely to live on. Even some words that prescriptivists—the language folks who balk at any term that breaks grammar rules—originally shunned have weaseled their way into our language. Take the term hopefully. While the term had been around for more than two and a half centuries, the term was improperly used in the ’60s and ’70s, according to word scholars—hopefully was an adverb modifying a sentence. While many language authorities despised its misuse, the masses adopted the word. It became a convenient way of simultaneously expressing optimism for a favorable outcome, while also relinquishing responsibility when the results were not so favorable. (All of that meaning got packed into one word!)
Stealth Words in User Experience
What words have surreptitiously entered our UX vernacular, without their use in new contexts somehow being recognized? How about the term agile? With the advent of the agile software–development methodology in the early 2000s, this adjective—whose original definition, according to the Oxford Dictionary, meant “able to move quickly and easily”—is now in common use by software-development firms as an adjective that describes their software-development process. The word’s original definition makes it convenient for people to use it in either context. How many times have you heard the following expressions? “We are an agile shop.” Or, “We must remain agile in our product strategy.” Without the increasing prominence of the software-development process, this word might have been left in the dust.
The success of stealth words reminds us that, when we’re designing user experiences, we can still be creative with our language—though not to the point of being cute. In the long run, cuteness does not win over users. But a scaffolding of familiar-sounding terms can make users feel that they never knew what they were missing. Just as human beings do, words have a fate that we can better understand through the lens of the FUDGE factors. As UX professionals, it is our responsibility to bring humanity to user experiences. Appreciating the successes and failures of words is one way of achieving that.
Curzan, A., and M. Adams. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011.
Hall, R. Sniglets: (snig'lit): Any Word That Doesn’t Appear in the Dictionary, but Should. London: Ebury Press, 1987.
Michael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. Read More