Episode 133 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Elizabeth McGuane. Elizabeth is a UX director at Spotify. She’s also the author of the book Design by Definition, which is about the role of language on user experience. It’s a subject that’s close to my professional focus, so I was keen to discuss it with Elizabeth.

The gist is that language is a powerful force in shaping and defining designed things. But this is especially true of digital products, which are more abstract than physical products such as chairs. ‘Language’ here doesn’t refer just to content, but also the contexts created when we make and label distinctions between things.

Elizabeth raised a useful distinction between ‘everyday language’ and ‘system language’:

Those terms came from a colleague of mine at Shopify, Quentin. And I really loved it as well. I just lifted it wholesale. He had this idea of ‘everyday language’ and ‘system language.’ I really feel that system language is what I thought of as the conceptual model, which is the agreed-upon set of terms that we’re using to define a problem set, an area. And this would be maybe what you were saying earlier, the containers that the language sits within, that the experience sits within. These are the kind of container sets.

And then, everyday language can be somewhat fluid beyond that, and that inflects to meet the audience where they are. Because you do need, again, coming back to this idea of the digital reality is very ephemeral, you need a certain kind of grounding and consistency. If you’re gonna call an ‘article’ product, you’re gonna call it an ‘article.’ You’re not gonna call it a ‘page’ in another part of the product. You need sort of a system reality, otherwise, the whole thing starts to fall apart and feel quite different.

Modeling — particularly modeling distinctions, grounded as they are in language — is the central practice of designers working on complex digital systems. The goal: excellent user experience driven by conceptual clarity — one that can only be achieved through intent.

The Informed Life episode 133: Elizabeth McGuane on Design by Definition