“Verbiage,” “Intuitiveness,” respect for language, respect for users
“Verbiage” is a derisive word describing prose that uses many words to say not a lot, or more particularly, prose that uses words carelessly, to create impressions without attending to what the words actually mean in a specific sense. For techies, “verbiage” is stuff that English majors add later for the benefit of end users, but doesn’t really matter very much. Verbiage is intended to sound good without taking care to convey clear meanings. Insofar as verbiage reflects a lack of care in the choice of words it represents laziness and a disrespect for language. In the way it shows an intention of “sounding good” and creating impressions it reflects a mass-media culture dominated by advertising. It is wording that “has to be there” but isn’t worth paying attention to.
So I break my pencil (if I used a pencil at work) every time I am in a meeting and a co-worker says, “Ok, so Annette will take care of the verbiage on that page.” I don’t know if you hear this in your workplace, but I hear it in mine a lot. There are people in libraries who use the word “verbiage” to refer to anything we write to communicate with our users in a textual way. Shouldn’t we have more respect for our users? (Our readers?)
Libraries, of all places.
I think the decline of respect for language is tied to the rise of non-print media, as well as the rise of the culture of BS that Harry Frankfurter so insightfully talked about in On Bullshit.
Words come into fashion and are used as mild doublespeak, in a process of mass self-deception. Take “intuitiveness” as the name of the desired quality of Google-like user interfaces. What “intuitive” should mean if it describes a user interface is that the interface clearly communicates the underlying functionality to the user so that the user doesn’t have to read manuals to understand what the software or database’s functionalities are and how to employ them. The way the word tends to be used most often, though, is to describe interfaces that are made less confusing by reducing the functionalities that are available to users, often with the addition of an AI-based search engine in the background whose functionalities are opaque and not possible to control directly or with any precision. Used in this way, the word “intuitive” is deceptive, because the user actually understands less of what is going on under the hood than before, and is less able to control the search. The user becomes dependent on the intelligence of the search engine to give him useful results. If it works as intended, the search engine itself might be “intuitive” if it accurately understands the average user’s desires, but its interface is unintuitive relative to an interface that provides greater control of the underlying functionality. Furthermore, its “intuition” is based on assumptions about users based on averages, which works for some but not others.
A question I am interested in asking more and more is about where control is shifting and how it is shifting. It is generally viewed as technical progress when we develop better AI for interfaces between people and systems, but if the result is a loss of control for users, is this really user centered? Where is the respect for users? And if the respect isn’t going to the users, where is it going? And where is the control going?