What to call them?

Subject: What to call them?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2001 14:18:40 -0500

Becca Price is documenting <<... an interface framework, from which you call
various mini-applications, each of which helps with some aspect of managing,
setting up, or designing your specific database installation. In other
situations, the mini-aps might be called Tools, or Components, or some such.
In our ap they're called Objects, because apparently that's the technical
term for them. I've also heard them called Forms, but only internally.>>

The question should be what the users of these products will call them:
"objects" may be technically correct, but if it doesn't match the user's
terminology, then you've failed to communicate. In effect, you're being so
technically correct that yo're no longer speaking in terms the reader
understands. (See http://www.inkspot.com/genres/tech/articles/accuracy.html
for a short discussion of a related topic.) Given that your internal users
call them "forms", that might well be the correct term to use because it
describes what these doohickeys most resemble--but be sure to verify that
your actual audience would use this term.

<<Five of these are called from the Objects menu. The sixth one is found
under the Activities menu. There is a minor technical and conceptual
distinction between this one and the others, but it looks and behaves just
like all the others.>>

If the user sees no difference in the use and behavior of the sixth item,
then it belongs in exactly the same menu as the previous five items.
Anything else represents a purely arbitrary design decision that ignores how
users will think about and use the item. Given what I've said in my previous
paragraph, all six of these items belong under a single menu named "Forms"
(or whatever the correct word is for your audience), not "objects" or
"actions". Realistically, you may be unable to persuade the developers to
make this change. In that case, you should probably call five of them
"objects" (since they appear under the "Objects" menu), and call the
remaining one an "Activity" (since it appears under the activities menu).
These may be a poor choice of names from the perspective of the users or
common sense, but at least it relates the names strongly to the interface,
and that's arguably every bit as important.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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