Having immersed myself in the wonderful world of acronyms for a project that I’m working on at the moment, I must say I’ve never felt so passionate about the user experience of using acronyms.
I’ve been asking myself questions and answering them:
1) What are acronyms?
- Do they usually just take the first letter of each word it represents? I don’t think so, because some acronyms are invented to make something sound ‘better’ which means letters are thrown into the mix (or omitted) and some are purely the first letters of the words involved. Also, I realised that acronyms derived from a foreign language wouldn’t follow this rule after you translate them into a different language. For example, CURIA for Court of Justice for the European Union
2) Why use acronyms?
- Well that is simple. You don’t have to remember the usually long name that the acronym stands for. I don’t blame anyone for resorting to acronyms (as I realised I have started doing so myself 2 months into the project), but like a double edged sword, acronyms can both help and hinder the communication and understanding of a subject matter.
The use of acronyms is very common in certain disciplines – medicine, law, finance, and engineering just to name a few. In fact, just scouring Google Scholar for a few minutes returned several academic papers criticising the use of acronyms and taught me some new words – ‘acronymania’ and ‘acronymophilia’ to describe the manic use of acronyms; ‘acronymesis’ to emphasise the shortcomings of misusing acronyms.
One of my favourite quotes was from a paper criticising a medical paper which contained 27 acronyms. It nicely sums up why acronyms can sometimes hinder rather than help the communication and understanding of a subject matter:
“Although each acronym is defined when introduced (in the paper), few readers of this article will manage to remember the meaning of each while following the logic of the authors’ discussion. To do so would require immediate comprehension of 27 new terms, each used repeatedly but defined only once before its first use in a detailed, complex argument.”
Apply this scenario to a real conversational context – say a board room meeting with a group of multidisciplinary professionals (gathered together to create a better world). Will the communication during the meeting be as effective as it could have been if everyone actually conveyed exactly what they meant instead of using acronyms? Something to ponder upon perhaps?
Solutions to acronyms?
Surely there are ways to get around the manic use of acronyms where one can still cater for those who are ‘in the know’ as well as people who are ‘new to the field’?
- Know your audience – if you know you’re speaking to/writing for/communicating with people who wouldn’t necessarily understand the acronyms that you’re using, then use them wisely (e.g. by consciously providing explanations), or if possible, don’t use them at all
- Utilise the wonders of technology – a potential design solution in helping one to understand/learn acronyms is by displaying the explanations of the acronyms in context
- Minimise the use of acronyms in general – I believe that using acronyms is the same as using jargon – it implies a closed group of people would only understand those words. It is good to feel like one belongs to a group, but sometimes letting in new ideas can spark innovation.
Next time you’re tempted to use an acronym, try this little exercise and ask yourself how much you have learnt after finding out that:
- ‘LASER’ stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; or
- ‘SONAR’ for SOund Navigation And Ranging
… and my favourite so far
- ‘CAPTCHA’ for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
Last but not least, an acronym can also mean different things to different people, for example:
- A friend of a friend eventually found out that most people understood ‘LOL’ as Laugh Out Loud (not Lots Of Love) after he noticed unusual behaviour whenever he used LOL in his correspondences