Drop the glossary

Paul Boag

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.