Semantic Environments

Media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003) said communication happens in semantic environments. This is a useful concept for us to understand how people collaborate meaningfully. Let’s look at what these environments are and how they work.

Many of us think communication is something that happens like a game of table tennis: One person says something, another person listens, processes what has been said, formulates a response in their mind, and then utters the response. This restarts the process: the other person listens, processes, formulates, responds. Back and forth, over and over again.

Instead of being like table tennis, Postman says, communication is something that happens to us, much like growth happens to a plant when it’s exposed to an environment that includes sunlight, water, and nutrients. You can think of those things as the plant’s physical environment, which makes its growth possible.

Communication, too, requires an environment that has particular features. They include the social relations between the actors that participate in the communication, their goals in the interaction, and the particular vocabulary they use in that situation. Postman calls this set of conditions the semantic environment the conversation happens within.

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“Information” in Navigation Labels

One of the most challenging aspects of designing a navigation system is finding the right labels for its links or buttons. The words we use for these labels must be recognizable while being distinctive. They must be specific enough that users will be able to differentiate between all the choices before them, but broad enough to encompass all the things they point to. They must be pithy; you don’t have space to ramble. They must also help create a sense of context; the understanding that this place is different from others. In short, defining labels is not a trivial task. We must be careful with the words we choose.

Look at this navigation structure:

Sign-In | Banking | Credit Cards | Loans | Investments | Learning

These labels give you a clear idea of the sort of place you’re in. (A bank.) Some are more specific than others. (“Credit Cards” is more specific than “Banking,” for example.) They’re all short and to the point. I think this structure works well for a bank.

Although it feels obvious, defining a simple navigation structure such as this one probably required many hours of meetings. I’ve often been in such meetings. Team members will go through many ideas, trying various terms to see how well they describe the concepts they’re pointing to and how they relate to each other.

One of the words that inevitably comes up in such discussions is “Information.” For example, while I don’t have insights into the particular structure above, I can guarantee the team that designed it spent many hours discussing the term “Learning;” I’d bet at some point someone suggested the label “Educational Information” instead.

I always probe such suggestions. “Information” is not a helpful term in these contexts. After all, everything in the app or website is information. It’s redundant. You could as easily say “Banking Information” or “Loan Information” — “Information” doesn’t add anything. At four syllables, it’s a long word for a navigation label — and remember it never stands by itself, but always as part of a duo. (“Educational Information” has nine syllables — much too long for a label in most cases.) Some folks try to get around this by shortening it to “Info” instead:

Whether it be “Info” or “Information,” you’re not telling me anything useful by including it. Whenever you hear it suggested for a navigation structure, take a step back and examine the overall organization scheme. The appearance of “information” may be a sign that you’re trying to do too much with that one part of the environment.

The Ladder of Abstraction

You may have heard that dogs and cats only see in black and white. That’s wrong; these animals are dichromatic, which means they have limited color vision. What is true, however, is that their vision is different from ours. Other animals, such as some bats and rodents, are indeed monochromatic: they only see in black and white and shades of grey.

Before you start feeling smug, consider the limitations of your own sensory system. Some other animals, such as boa constrictors, can see infrared light, which is invisible to you and me. And you know about dogs’ sense of smell, which is much more refined than ours.

The point is that we don’t perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as our senses allow us to see it. Our sensory system presents to us an abstracted view of reality. (This suits me fine; our sensory system has evolved to allow creatures like ourselves to survive and thrive in environments like ours.) And on top of this already abstracted view, we layer another abstraction: language.

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Metaphors Matter

The metaphors we use when we talk reveal a lot about how we understand the world. Those of us who design digital things have vacillated between two metaphors when describing the experience of using them: we talk of them either as publications or as types of places.

Tim Berners-Lee designed the Web to be a medium that would allow researchers to share their findings and collaborate dynamically. Thus, we call the basic node a web page which we publish on a server. These words point to us thinking about the system as a publication. However, we also use words that hint at our thinking spatially about the experience of using these things. We navigate collections of web pages and can go back if we need to. We refer to a collection of such pages as a site. The main page of a site is its home page. We go on Facebook, or log into our bank. (Think about that one for a moment!)

It shouldn’t surprise us that our language is muddled when talking about these things. Interactive information systems such as the Web are a new thing. Some aspects of these systems seem familiar, but others defy comparison to anything in our cultural memory. It’s easy to think of The New York Times‘s iPhone app as a publication, but this is less obvious for an app like WhatsApp, where we chat with our friends. The underlying technology accommodates both equally well regardless of how our language deals with the dissonance.

Metaphors have an important influence when we think of new uses and business models. If we imagine we’re building a publication, we will gravitate towards business models that have served publications in the past. Hence, many online ventures rely on advertising or subscriptions (business models from the publishing world) for their primary sources of revenue. These business models are not inherent in the technology; they are a choice we make, and the language we use influences our decisions.

If you work in the design or production of a digital thing, examine the language you use when describing it. What metaphors are you gravitating towards? What do they reveal about the way you think about the system? (And conversely, how are they influencing the way you think about it?)

Creating Context With Language

Many UX designers think the purpose of navigation systems and heading labels is so users can move around and find what they’re looking for. While it’s true that making things findable is a primary function of navigation and labeling systems, they also have another critical purpose: helping set the right context for the user’s interactions in the environment. Choosing the right words can make it possible for people to know where they are, and this changes the meaning of the words.

As a mental exercise, try examining navigation structures in absence of company or app names. How much do the navigation systems tell you about what the place is? How does this change what you understand them to mean?

Here’s an example:

Website navigation system

I’ve covered the logos on this website so you can’t tell which company it is. (Although if you live in the U.S. you may be able to guess from the colors.) Look at the words on the navigation bars. You don’t need to know anything else about this environment to guess you’re in a bank. One of the labels even says it outright: Banking. This changes the meaning of the other words there. For example, the label Learning could point to many things; knowing you’re in a bank helps you constrain the possible meanings of “learning” to something like “educational material for becoming more financially savvy.”

The words you use in the navigation systems and headings of websites and app have a special role in those environments: They not only help you find what you’re looking for; they also help you understand what you’re looking at. The two functions are synergistic and must be carefully considered when choosing labels.

Considering Category Names

Let’s say you manage a large family of products. This requires you define a categorization scheme that will allow people to find the product among the family that best fits their needs. For some products, the grouping may be obvious but the category names may not.

Take eyewear for example. Products in this space come in one of two categories:

  1. Those with tinted lenses that help people see better by reducing the amount of light that comes through the lens.
  2. Those with transparent lenses that help people see better by correcting their eyesight using prescription lenses.

What do you call these two categories? (1) is obvious, since we have an English word for it: sunglasses. But what about (2)? It seems we don’t have a common word for “eyewear that is not sunglasses”. Check out how various vendors and makers call this category:

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One of the most common complaints I hear from stakeholders in large companies is that their colleagues in other parts of the organization are working in “silos.” By this, they mean these people have their own goals, incentives, processes, systems, and structures that make it difficult for them to work together towards a common goal. By talking about “silos,” they are expressing their frustration about the differences between them. However, these different parts of the organization need different systems and structures; you don’t want all these groups to think and work identically since that would make them ineffective. What you want is for them to be in alignment.

The word “alignment” has roots in the Latin linea, which means “line.” When we align, we bring ourselves in line with each other: our trajectories become parallel. Note this doesn’t mean our lines become one: we still have different trajectories, but now those trajectories point in the same direction. We agree on the goal we’re striving towards, even if our methods are different.

Design can help different parts of the organization come into alignment. The way we most people communicate in business settings — talking about what we’re doing, perhaps augmenting the words with spreadsheets or presentations — leaves a lot to the imagination. We parse language through our own perspectives, which are shaped by our belonging to different groups. You and I may think we’re on the same page, but in reality, ​we have divergent expectations. Design helps make the impact of decisions tangible; it allows us to test scenarios. It’s difficult to misunderstand when you and I and end users can see and touch an artifact that embodies the direction we’re pointing towards.

Designers help create better products and services. But we also help organizations come into alignment. Currently, design is acknowledged in the business world for the former but not the latter. As designers, we haven’t done enough to emphasize the strategic value that comes with being able to simulate and test future states. It’s time we change that.

Your Attention, Please

Your attention is your most precious possession. Where you choose to spend it, and on what, will have a huge impact in the quality and content of your life.

I said “spend” above, but you do no such thing: Attention is not a currency you can borrow or take a loan on. You choose to focus your attention on something or other. It’s like a lens darting around a complex landscape, moving to this detail now, and this other detail next, allowing you to form a partial — but useful — mental model of the environment.

For our remote ancestors hunting in the savanna, focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time could lead them to being on the wrong end of the fork. We live in very different environments now, and have developed sophisticated techniques to manipulate each others’ attention for our own goals.

We interrupt this program to bring you this message from our sponsors.

Who controls what you focus your attention on? Is it you? Or is your attention being manipulated by others for their own goals? Are you consciously spending your time and attention on worthwhile things? The few minutes you spent reading this post are never coming back to you. One day you will not have any more attention to give. Will you regret having spent it to read this?

People, Not Users


Nobody comes to your information environment with the goal of “using” anything. They come because they want to buy an airline ticket, or transfer money from one account to another, or understand their medical bill.

The more specific you can be when referring to the people who will use the things you design, the easier it’ll be for you to empathize with them.