When Words Disrupt Relationships: Library Jargon and the Collegiate Patron

WhenDisrupt RelationshipsLast week I had the opportunity to speak at the EBSCO User Group, which was such a treat. In addition to the fact that I like to nerd out with people about motivational design, I was pleased to get to hear a few other talks that sparked new ideas for me. One was from Debra Kolah of Rice University’s Fondren Library, whose efforts to redesign the library website with user insights have resulted in a clean, easy-to-navigate resource hub. Kolah (Twitter here) reports jargon was a problem.

The language librarians use to describe using a library, it turns out, don’t always resonate with users, especially if they aren’t experienced library patrons. Terms like “interlibrary loan,” “course reserves,” “hold,” and “recall” may not mean much of anything to someone who is stepping into their college library for the first time. Yet, as experts, librarians don’t necessarily realize that the jargon they use is obfuscating matters for patrons rather than clarifying them.

Kolah’s work has helped to simplify the language on Fondren Library’s website to better reflect the way people really talk about the activities they do at the library. She stressed that literally every word on the website has been tested with users to make sure it is understood accurately. You’ll notice that there is very little jargon on the page, and critical activities are front-and-center:

Fondren's main website as of May 17, 2016
Fondren’s main website as of May 17, 2016

Aside from an important usability lesson (which, if you missed it, is to test the heck out of your product with actual users), what interested me about Kolah’s talk was how word choice can facilitate or disrupt relationships. Knowing that relatedness is a critical component of motivation, and that educators have such an essential role in the development of human potential, it seems so important to hone our language to better reflect how people actually talk and listen. Jargon can cause someone to disengage before you have a chance to start a relationship with them. More approachable terminology may lay the groundwork to build it.