Empathy: the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings ~ Merriam Webster Dictionary

No matter your area of expertise, everyone tends to get caught up in their own industry-specific jargon. When talking about making a sauce, chefs blithely refer to “fond” instead of calling it “those crispy bits stuck to the bottom of the pan;” mechanics inform you that you have a “fried computer” instead of simply saying “you hooked your jumper cables up wrong and are now about to be thousand of dollars poorer.” So, too, people in the software industry often think that everyone must be familiar with things like ROI, microcopy, and breadcrumbs. And that’s a potentially costly misconception, an example of unconscious bias in action.

Speaking the language of insiders amongst fellow experts is fine -- but when you’re trying to communicate with anyone outside your inner circle, especially customers, it can lead to confusion -- and worse. As Amy Thibodeau says, “We are humans building products for humans. What we say and how we say it matters. How we make our customers feel through our language choices matter.”

Or, to put it another way: If your mom wouldn’t understand what you’re talking about, you're doing it wrong.

When you use dense technical language, jargon, unclear copy, “in jokes,” or acronyms, you’re doing more harm than merely being unwittingly confusing (which is already a bad thing). Such language can:

  • Alienate your customer
  • Make them feel unintelligent
  • Discourage them from using your product
  • Eliminates the personal touch
  • Fail to convey the value of your product

And all of those above scenarios can add up to one costly result: unwittingly pushing your customers towards a state of disengagement with your product.  

But where, you may be wondering, might you be guilty of peppering your communications with jargon? The answer to that is: anywhere you communicate! This includes:

  • Emails
  • Website
  • Advertising
  • Triggers
  • Microcopy in app
  • Onboarding copy
  • Conversations

So the trick is, you need to uncover your own unconscious bias -- and your team’s -- when it comes to how well you understand your own field and what knowledge you take for granted, and then mindfully foster the kind of empathy that will help you strive to be as clear, direct , and understandable as possible. And the best way to do that is with a jargon audit.

  • With your team, go through all written communication materials and identify any industry specific terminology you’re using -- if you’re in doubt, keep it in the list of possible jargon.
  • Identify all technical terms you use among your team and take for granted. How might you explain those terms simply? For example, don’t assume your clients know the difference between a wireframe and a lifelike prototype, or that everyone knows that “EDA” stand for “electronic debit authorization.” Ask what different words could you use when communicating with the outside world. Agree on this so you can be consistent.
  • Working from a master list of the jargon you’re using, break it down into simple language -- it’s helpful to pretend you’re explaining it to your mom or a five-year-old.
  • Cultivate empathy for your customers. Review who your customers are, what they need, and what their obstacles and frustrations are. What does success look like for them? Really get in their heads. Understand their level of expertise -- it’s probably far less than you think.
  • Rewrite jargon-filled copy with the customer in mind
  • Go over your triggers and microcopy with a fine-toothed comb. This is crucial in-app information and you can’t afford to be unclear or confusing. What are you trying to tell the customer? That they’ve made an error? That they’ve done something great? That further action is needed? Whatever is is, you have a very small space to get your point across so strip it of all excess verbiage and be clear and to the point. Also understand the psychology of what you’re telling/asking people to do. For example, one study found that saying “continue” rather than “review order” got people to check out and complete a purchase more often; while another case study found that when the line “there will be no additional costs” was added next to the "Total amount" line,  it helped boost conversions by more than 11 percent.
  • Make sure to maintain a consistent voice across all platforms -- when you choose a term with more clarity to replace jargon, use that same term across all written and verbal communication platforms
  • Test your new terminology with lay people -- does it make sense to someone with no familiarity with your industry? If not, go back to the drawing board and refine your message.

The bottom line is that if non-experts can’t understand you, you’re losing valuable opportunities to foster trust and increase engagement with your customers -- and eventually you may lose them because of it.