I am a persnickety person when it comes to terminology. I like to be accurate so people know exactly what I am talking about and so that it reflects that I know what I am talking about. I think it’s a good habit to have and hope it is reflected in my writing. Ambiguity in documentation can be frustrating and when trying to get a group of people from different backgrounds to understand each other, it is easiest to converge on the accurate terms.
One of my favorite examples to use is ‘Mac’ vs ‘MAC’. The first is referring to an Apple computer while the second is referring to a network interface’s MAC address or physical address. By being accurate with the details like capitalization, one is able to easily and reliably distinguish between the two and determine what the person is actually seeking. Another example comes from some co-workers of mine. They might talk about ‘Adobe Pro’ like it’s some sort of software title that means anything to anybody. It doesn’t exist. In this case, they are referring to Adobe Acrobat Pro. There is also an Acrobat Standard and a person could be confused to think about other Adobe products like Creative Cloud.
In my opinion, terminology is more important than most people give it consideration. There are two big reasons to pay it attention and work to make it a habit of being technically accurate, understanding the industry and understanding other people.
Understanding the industry
When learning new systems, being familiar with the proper industry-wide or vendor specific terminology can speed up the adoption of a new product or technology. This means having both the technical knowledge and understanding the proper terms. Additionally, it allows for a clearer understanding of expectations.
For example, if a vendor is trying to sell you on a new piece of software that will allow you to manage your desktop computers, what does that mean? Does ‘desktop computers’ imply the tower/monitor form factor while laptops and tablets are excluded even though they could be running the same operating system? Does it imply Windows PCs and not Mac OS X devices? Perhaps the vendor means, the software would work for all endpoints without any of the previous restrictions.
Another importance of terminology for industry comes to troubleshooting. Search queries in your favorite search engine become much less useful when you don’t know or don’t use the proper terms. The first steps of researching a problem can sometimes mean finding better ways or common ways to describe the problem. If you’re relying on finding information from a few others that have experienced similar problems, you had better hope you’re speaking the same language and explaining it the same way.
For an example, consider Microsoft changing Windows 8 from “Metro apps” to “Modern apps”. Say you are troubleshooting a problem with a modern app not showing up in the taskbar after the Windows 8.1 Update. If somebody describes the solution to a similar problem saying that the metro app is not appearing in the gray bar at the bottom. You are not likely to find the thread they posted their problem in because ‘modern app’ or ‘metro app’ and ‘taskbar’ or ‘gray bar at the bottom’ are different ways of describing the same thing. The importance of terminology is not only using the correct words but also knowing what words others might be using synonymously.
Understanding other people
Your users and your coworkers could be some of the best examples or worst offenders when it comes to using proper terminology. Should you standardize to their terminology or the industry terminology? You may not have much control over users expanding their vocabulary. You’re still going to get tickets for problems with ‘the doohickey on the side of the laptop’ and other things that make your job a guessing game sometimes. Part of the job of the Help Desk is to translate these terms into an accurate description of the problem so technicians don’t have to guess or don’t arrive on scene with different expectations of the problem.
When it comes to your coworkers, I would like to think that you can continue to have a positive influence on using the proper names for things, especially if they are fellow IT Pros. Perhaps share this post with them to strike up a conversation at your team meetings. From there, you might be able to resolve some of your favorite terminology conflicts and standardize on one. Think of it as branding for everyday words.
Dramatization of legalese meeting technical
For a fun example on the importance of using the words a corporate culture understands, see this video from a recent New York Times Op-Ed series called ‘Verbatim: What Is a Photocopier?‘.