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Published on August 7th, 2007 | by Rahel Bailie


Why semantics matter

In language, semantics is the branch of linguistics which studies meaning in language. In programming, it is the implied meaning of data, and is used to define what entities mean with respect to roles within a system. In other words, words matter because they carry weight and meaning. When the matter touches us personally, the semantics tend to become amplified in ways that might seem trivial when the matter doesn’t seem as critical. In fact, as someone from a writing background, I can say that the Yiddish idiom of adding “schm” (as in critical schmitical) is the tidiest diffusion to a semantic issue I’ve encountered.

All kidding aside, for a number of years, there has been talk of moving away from the term “user” to describe the non-development (and in there, I include all corporate staff, not just software developers) persons who buy, sign up for, interact with, or otherwise interact with a product. Keeping in mind that entire professions have been based on the term – user experience, usability, user testing – this is not a decision to be taken lightly. A mostly thoughtful discussion , started by Josh Bernoff, can be found on the Forrester site blog.

I’m staying out of the fray, but will weigh in briefly here. My personal feeling is that as times change, words become bogged down with meaning, and so new labels get attached in an attempt to change the semantics. I saw this in the periodic re-labeling of some visible minorities and sexual orientations over the last several decades – the intent was to break the negative connotations associated with the original term. In this case, I’m not certain that the semantics they’re trying to shift actually need to be shifted. People who use technology to achieve various goals (find information, complete a transaction, etc.) may change technologies and may change goals, but they will continue to interact (that is, use) whatever technology is provided by the organization mandated to provide it to them. If I were to change the semantics, I’d start at the other end, and relabel the jobs of the people who create the technologies. Developers, schmevelopers – model it after the public service sector. User servant novice class, user servant intermediate class, user servant master class. It will never happen, of course, but now that would be a major mind shift in the industry.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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