Drop the glossary

Too many websites paper over bad writing with the introduction of a glossary of terms.

I hate websites that use a glossary of terms. In the vast majority of cases this is a lazy solution that makes the user work harder.

I accept that many sectors have their own terminology. These verbal shortcuts make it easier for specialists within the sector to communicate quickly and efficiently. I do not deny that this kind of jargon can be useful in certain circumstances. However generally speaking I do not believe that the web is one of those circumstances.

Using jargon does not take into account people new to the sector or simply unaware of the particular brand of jargon you use. It also does nothing to help those with cognitive disabilities.You do not wish to turn away a customer simply because they have dyslexia.

Zappos Glossary of Terms

Admittedly most organisations these days recognise that jargon is a bad thing. However instead of removing it they simply provide a glossary of terms that allows the user to look up definitions.This is bad for two reasons:

  • First of all it requires additional effort on the part of the user to look up these definitions.
  • Second, it requires the user breaking away from the page they are currently reading to visit the glossary of terms, look up the definition, and then return to reading the page.

That said I do accept that there are some circumstances where a degree of jargon is required. For example it would be very hard to talk about building websites without using terminology such as HTML or CSS. However I would argue that in such cases the answer is not a glossary of terms. Instead why not take a leaf out of Apple’s book. Under OS X it is possible to press a key combination and receive a dictionary definition of any word as a pop-up tooltip.

dictionary tooltip in OSX

It would be perfectly feasible to use a similar approach on your website. You could use JavaScript to scan pages looking for terms that appear in a database of glossary entries. When the term is found the JavaScript could add a pop-up tooltip that appears when the user mouses over the word. All that would then be required is a small piece of styling (such as a dotted underline) to indicate that a definition is available. This would completely remove the need for users to leave the page to find the definition.

However, I would suggest this is a last resort and ideally we should banish jargon and glossary of terms entirely from our websites.

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  • Rob

    I work in the legal industry, where it is so easy to fall into the jargon trap. So many law firm websites are written by lawyers as though they’re talking to other lawyers, and not to laypersons (who are also potential clients).

    My take on this is that if a glossary is needed for your audience to understand your content, it’s time to rewrite that content. I agree that in some situations it might be unavoidable (the HTML example is a good one), but in most cases a simple explanation should be enough – something like “HTML – Hypertext Markup Language, the predominant language used to create web pages…”.

    Tooltips can be helpful, but I agree should be used as a last resort. If you have a lot of terms the dotted underline (or whatever styling you use) can end up cluttering the page, and possibly even make the page look spammy.

  • Mark

    I’m sick of “I hate…” blog articles.

    This is the second time a link has landed me on this blog, and both times it has been nag articles. The last one was a nag about corporate ‘about us’ pages. Neither article was worth reading, or had any valuable substance.

  • Josh

    You could use JavaScript to scan pages looking for terms that appear in a database of glossary entries. When the term is found the JavaScript could add a pop-up tooltip that appears when the user mouses over the word. All that would then be required is a small piece of styling (such as a dotted underline) to indicate that a definition is available. This would completely remove the need for users to leave the page to find the definition.

    Anyone know where there is a tutorial on this? I run a pro audio site and the audiophiles (most of our customers) want all the uber-technical information and I am looking for a way to help some of the less technically inclined understand our product descriptions.

  • steve

    They exist for a reason.

  • John Benfield

    Oh dear, I am busy trying to get a glossary online. Not so I can be lazy and allow jargon to confuse the visitor, but because it is of an interest in itself. The glossary in question is of theatre-related words and terms. I hope that it will become a useful resource for those not steeped in the world ‘dark’ theatres and who don’t know their ‘get-ins’ from their ‘get-outs’.

  • This seems like precisely the sort of problem the acronym tag is designed to solve.

    • Absolutely! That is what I would use.

    • …not the mention the definition tag!

  • I actually almost added a glossary to my website, that is – until I read your post. I’ve got to say, I have started to check your blog and podcast before I do anything these days – You’re advice has saved me hundreds of man hours!

    Thanks for the positive and usable info – much success!

    @Josh – if you find a good solution, share it with us!

  • Hi Paul,
    I enjoyed your writing and I hate to be contrary, but it is hard to write on an industry-specific topic, designed around those that are IN the industry, and built FOR those that are IN the industry to be used as a resource (or possible meeting ground), and yet avoid jargon (and the resulting glossary). Sure, you could have some form of javascript, but then you have users complain of popups when they mouseover certain text… You could have common terms appear in the sidebar with definitions, but then you have un-necessary content duplication… you could re-write the articles for non-industry “laypersons”, but then you end up being overly-verbose… In the case of an acronym, it should be defined first, acronym in parenthesis, and then used as is (This is my acronym (TIMA). When I later use TIMA, you understand that I mean “This is my acronym”). This is English 101-type stuff, but unfortunately many sites fail at this (this IS one of my pet peeves).
    If a website is designed for public appeal, overall, then sure, ditch the glossary and write better (for the public!). But if your site is for the industry insiders, or your site is intended to attract potential clients (as in the law firm example, above), a little bit of jargon is almost required to add the mystique that is demanded of a more complex profession… if we all “spoke” legal-ease, we’d all be lawyers already! I expect, almost DEMAND to be confused a little bit when visiting a professional accounting, lending, lawyer, technology firm website. But confused in a way that makes sense for that industry :P Enjoyable read, and I hope you do not mind the contrary viewpoint.

  • Jennifer

    I would have to agree on the concept but disagree in practice for those industries that do in fact base themselves on specialized language. Though I agree that the writing around the terms should create a context upon which a definition can be derived, a glossary of terms can be a useful tool for those people who wish to do a little more digging.

    I work in the internet security industry with a company that serves both the home / casual computer user as well as enterprise IT managers and executives. The terms for our industry are pretty much jargon: malware, trojans, botnets, etc. So, we are in a position to educate the casual user as well as not patronize those with higher-level knowledge.

    Finally, the concept of the hot-key to get a definition bothers me in that it relies on users to know that such a function exists and for them to be capable of using them (some people hate hot-keys for their awkwardness). Plus, educating people that there is such a function could really negate its ‘savings benefit’ in reading a glossary.

  • The acronym tag is handled quite differently in various browsers, so the approach that we have taken is to use a span with a title in it (eg: Word). Check out an example of our implementation here: http://www.limpoporak.com/ . (this website was setup with the open source HatCMS that has an integrated glossary system – https://code.google.com/p/hatcms/)

    • Jason
  • Most clients love them. They serve as an excellent excuse to stuff together all kinds of keywords on one single page. I’m sure that’s the actual reason we see them so often :(