I’m not saying that such discussions aren’t worthwhile. Testing our self-labels can be useful. For example, we may learn that the working definition of interaction design has changed substantially over the past five years. Or the European and North American definitions of information design differ more than we realized.
But these discussions draw off an incredible amount of creative energy from a brilliant community of thinkers and practitioners. I like to think there are more fruitful communal pursuits, such as finding better ways to market ourselves, organizing ever more outstanding conferences, and setting up local professional groups for networking and commiserating.
Worse, these discussions are ultimately pointless if we hope to determine singular labels and definitions. That’s not how language typically works anyway; synonyms and homonyms exist for a reason. Context ultimately determines what our labels and definitions mean, but all too often these discussions take place in the same context over and over again via a handful of discussion lists. In this context, we’re simply talking to ourselves, and we run the risk of monoculturing how we describe ourselves and define our work.
So I’d like to suggest that we introduce the following basic issues into future discussions of labels and definitions, wherever and whenever they may take place:
- What exactly are we trying to label and define? The field? The profession? The practice? The practitioner? The community? The methodology? The deliverable? These are not one and the same thing.
- Who is the audience for our labels and definitions? Each other? Co-workers? Customers? The web industry? The broader world? One’s grandparents? Different audiences necessitate different labels and definitions.
Does this seem obvious? I’m sure to many of you it does. Of course, common sense is always all too uncommon.
Do you think that singular labels and definitions are feasible and practical? Then try responding to these questions to see if you use the same answer for each question:
Self-test of labels
- What’s your job title?
- What would your ideal job title be?
- How would you label what you actually do at work?
- How would your teammates/colleagues label what you do at work?
- How would your manager label what you do at work?
- When you attend an established professional association’s conference, how do you label what you do?
- When you attend a conference of practitioners, how do you label what you do?
- How do your closest professional peers label themselves?
- When you are selling your services to a potential client, how do you label what you do?
- If a reporter happened to interview you on the street, how would you label yourself?
- What do you tell your uncle or grandmother you do for a living?
Self-test of definitions
- How do you define your field?
- Is your definition different than it was two years ago?
- How do the people you work with define it?
- How does your manager define it?
- How is it defined by your professional association?
- How is it defined in academia?
- How do the analyst firms define it?
- How do the marketing departments of your industry’s big players define it?
- Are there different definitions out there that you’d consider valid?
Labels and definitions inevitably vary from context to context. But is it unethical to consciously provide different answers to the same questions? No, but it is a bit two-faced and can sometimes make one feel a bit uncomfortable. Just remember: we’re always speaking different languages in different contexts. It’s simply a requirement for effective communication.
For example, if a prospective client asks me what I do, I couch my response in the language of solutions to her problems, rather than waste her time with a term such as “information architecture,” which she might find meaningless, jargony, or pretentious. If I’m talking with an old friend of my dad’s, I might say I’m a web designer; that’s all the other person really wants to know, and he’s probably had too many martinis to care enough to learn more. Regardless, I’m still the same person, I still do the same work, and I’m still just as committed to my field.
So let’s pick the best labels and definitions to get us over whatever conversational pickle we find ourselves in and look for opportunities to educate afterward. This approach should work well for information architects, experience designers, knowledge managers, interaction designers, usability engineers, CRM specialists, information designers, content managers, user experience specialists, or whatever we’re calling ourselves…at the moment.