Does your labelling cause confusion?

I find it fascinating to watch users interact with navigation on websites. In particular, I am always interested in how users react when they encounter a term they do not understand.

Lets imagine an 18 year old visiting a University website. In the navigation they encounter a label marked Alumni. They don’t understand that the term refers to former students and that the content is therefore not relevant to them.

One might expect that when faced with a term they do not understand they would simply choose to ignore it. However, the reality is very different.

When faced with an unfamiliar term users feel a sense of doubt. This creates one of two reactions…

  • The sense of doubt leads to uncertainty and inaction.
  • They feel a need to understand the unfamiliar term and so waste time investigating the section in case it contains relevant content to them.

In either case their experience is damaged.

The lesson we take away from this is that all labels need to be understandable by all users even if the content contained is not relevant to them.

  • I would hope a prospective university student would know what the word “Alumni” meant or at least not be phased by it – and maybe even look it up.

    Your point is a valid one though. We should always strive for simple language in everything we do. There is often little need to write something in such a way that is is only understood by the lingual elite yet sometimes it is done to attempt to inflate importance.

    As with so much in web design, it is about knowing your audience and working to make their experience as smooth as possible. By that token, if you are building a site for English graduates and professors the use of the word Alumni would probably be perfectly fine. Whilst working towards simplicity we don’t necessarily need to dumb down to the lowest common denominator  if that visitor is unlikely to ever visit the site.

    • Anonymous

      Actually that was a real example. Many undergraduates do not know what the term meant.

      Paul Boag [ Web Guy, Writer and Polymath ]
      T: @boagworld
      M: 07760 123 120

  • While I agree with you, there’s the issue of finding labels that makes sense to four key audiences AND that all internal stakeholders agree on.

    • Anonymous

      I didn’t say it was easy :) If it was then people wouldn’t need to hire experts in the field :)

      Paul Boag [ Web Guy, Writer and Polymath ]
      W: (
      T: @boagworld (
      M: 07760 123 120

  • I totally agree with you. Good labelling is key also when translating a website. In my experience, I’ve found bilingual visitors (both new and returning ones) switching from one language to the other in order to check if the content is relevant or not.

  • When glancing through websites I have sometimes been thrown off when they don’t follow the status quo of labelling, and I can sometimes miss important stuff like share, comment and subscribe buttons.

  • All perfectly logical, but also in my opinion part of how vocabulary erodes. 

    Suppose you make that label “Former Students”, that perpetuates the ignorance of what “Alumni” means. People who don’t know what it means stay comfortable, and fewer people will learn the word. Eventually you won’t be able to use the word Alumni anywhere because it hasn’t been used anywhere for so long. Then “Former Students” might have the same problem. People mightn’t know what “former” means, so you call the page “Past Students” and so it goes…

    Language requires maintenance.