A while back, I tried to log-in to a website that I hadn’t visited in a while, but came to a stopping point where it asked for my “Member ID.” Hmm. Is that like a User ID? Or maybe it’s an account number assigned to me when I first signed up? In 1998? Whatever the answer, I knew that I didn’t know. And I knew that they didn’t know that I didn’t know.

It’s like when I’m in France: it’s really hard to get directions because it takes so long to teach the locals how to explain them to me in English. And it doesn’t even matter how loudly or slowly I talk, or how often I repeat myself. In fact, the more I try to help them, the less they seem to appreciate it.

The labels we use on our websites can have a huge impact on user acceptance. When we use terms that are not familiar to our users, we can make them feel like outsiders, and make our web content look more difficult than it really is. When we use terms that are inherently clear and understandable, it empowers users to complete their tasks without reticence or confusion. As a result, they are more likely to feel understood. Literally because everyone is speaking the same language.

Imagine there’s a French university called “FU” – and I think there may actually be one, because some French people used this phrase several times when I was asking for directions (indicating that they clearly do know some English). And say they had a student portal called “FU Zone.” They could offer a link with the words “FU Zone.” This would be convenient for the internal community but totally unfamiliar to outsiders. They could say “FU Zone Student Portal.” This adds enough to make it understandable, but makes it awkwardly long for a navigational menu. They could say “Student Portal.” This is self-evident to newcomers but doesn’t leverage the familiarity to insiders. Or, they could change the name of the portal to something like “MyFU.” This takes advantage of the familiar “My” prefix to strongly suggest a portal. And in the case of the mystery “Member ID” I was looking for, it turned out to be my email address, so “Member ID (your email address)” would have done the trick.

There are no hard and fast rules to ensure that your users will always understand what you’re saying; it depends on the context and the users. So we need to talk to them, learn their language, and test the wording – not just the design and functionality – of our webpages.

When we commit to using familiar, self-evident terms in anything pertaining to the way finding of our websites, we can ensure that users feel welcome and we can get all things done together. And if I learn to count a little more heavily on my phrasebook when in non-English speaking countries, I might actually be able to ask for directions once in a while. Not that I would…


  • Expecting people to learn your jargon is a poor substitute for using theirs
  • Label things according to what they really are, not what you and your co-workers might call them
  • Learn to recognize the phrase “stupid American!” in any language so you’ll know when to stop talking altogether