Chapter Seven Understandable

The English language has an incredible number of phrases that essentially mean the same thing:

  • Get my drift?
  • Did I make myself clear?
  • Are you with the program?
  • Are the dots connected?
  • Are we talking the same language?

In usability terms, when it comes to “understandable,” the answer to all of these colloquial questions must be “yes.” If not, there is work to be done!

Let’s assume that for any given thing, the engineer knows how to work the knobs and buttons, the designer knows what all the icons mean, the waiter knows that a particular dish is going to take 30 minutes to make. But if I don’t have a shared frame of reference with these folks, usability is going to suffer: I’ll push the wrong buttons; I’ll click around aimlessly; I’ll get mad because my meal is taking longer than I expected.

The concept of “shared reference” is really the only point I have to make in this chapter. On the other hand, it’s incredibly important. Moreover, if you start to look at things in terms of shared reference, you’ll find you can avoid an incredible number of dumb usability problems. Who knows—you might also see some of the earlier chapters in a slightly new light, too!

My Dad was an Austrian Jew who managed to escape his homeland in 1939. Here’s a copy of the annexation referendum of March 13, 1938—which leaves no doubt as to what was expected from voters—one of the more scary examples of shared-reference building.

What is “shared reference”?

In the most basic ...

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