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Design for How People Think by John Whalen

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Chapter 5 Language: I Told You So

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Language: I Told You So

In Voltaire’s words, “Language is very difficult to put into words.” But I’m going to try to anyway.

In this chapter, we’re going to discuss what words our audiences are using, and why it’s so important for us to understand what those words tell us about how we should design our products and services.

Wait, Didn’t We Just Cover This?

In the previous chapter, we discussed our mental representations of meaning. We have linguistic references for these concepts as well. Often, nonlinguists think of a concept and the linguistic references to that concept as one and the same. But they’re not. Words are actually strings of morphemes/phonemes/letters that are associated with semantic concepts. Semantics are the abstract concepts that are associated with the words. In English, there is no relationship between the sounds or characters and a concept without the complete set of elements. For example, “rain” and “rail” share three letters, but that doesn’t mean their associated meanings are nearly identical. Rather, there are essentially random associations between a group of elements and their underlying meanings (see Figure 5-1).

What’s more, these associations can differ from person to person. This chapter focuses on how different subsets of your target audience (e.g., nonexperts and experts) can use very different words, or use the same word but attach different meanings to it. This is why it’s so important to carefully ...

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