Hello, my name is sticker

What’s in a name?

I often have Chinese students who will introduce themselves something like “Quian-Fung, but I go by Joe because Americans can’t pronounce my real name.” My response is always something to the effect of “Please teach me how to correctly pronounce your name. You deserve for me to show you the respect of learning your name, especially if I expect you to learn what I will be teaching in the course.” The student invariably gets a big smile, stands up a little straighter, tries a little harder, and learns a little bit more during the semester. Just from this one little symbolic gesture. I have never regretted the effort.

This seems to me to be a similar practice to when we name items on the user interfaces we design using the term that is best for the user rather than what the organization calls it or the semantically correct technical term. This has been a best practice in human factors for decades. Second nature to most of us.

But the opposite happened in politics this past week. I don’t like to cover political issues here on the EID site, but in this case it highlights a real difference between the way that HF/E practitioners think and the public statements and actions of politicians. The story revolves around what term the government uses to refer to various terrorist organizations or acts. Do we include the name of the religion if the perpetrator(s) claim some connection to the religion, even if their behavior and beliefs are not accepted by the majority of the religious institution? The Obama administration wants to leave out “Islamist” or “jihadist” for the current activities in the Middle East because their acts are not in accordance with the real teachings of Islam. The GOP, particularly those running for President in 2016, think these words should be included because that is what the groups claim.

My Take

But it seems to me that we should not even be considering what term is more technically accurate or what the group claims. We should be using simple user-centered design. When our government is referring to the group, who is the user and what is the behavioral or emotional response that we want to evoke in the user? And then what term is most likely to get that response? For example, is the organization that is currently occupying much of the territory in Iraq and Syria “Islamic State” or “IS” or “ISIS” or “ISIL” or “Daesh”? To me, all of these are misguided for user-centered design. They all confer some kind of religious, national, or political legitimacy on the organization.

Alarm has grown as they have massacred hundreds of prisoners, sometimes with grisly televised beheadings, and hounded thousands of Christians and other minorities from their homes. Nearly everyone shares a desire to destroy this scourge, yet they cannot seem to agree on what to call it. The group has been variously dubbed ISIS, ISIL, IS, SIC and Da’ish.

I don’t have the geopolitical domain knowledge or wordsmithing skills to come up with the best alternative, but I think something more like “The al-Baghdadi Thugs” would be more in line with what we are looking for. If you don’t recognize the name, al-Baghdadi is the current leader. Who knows, maybe one of his lieutenants will want to get his own name in the news and will start an internal power struggle.

Your Turn

I am not looking for name suggestions here and certainly not any political debate. But do you see the parallel in my thought process? Does it make sense?

Image Credit: BeckySharper

One thought on “What’s in a name?”

  1. A very interesting topic. A lot of thought often goes into how to name things in the world of politics. A name is, after all, a brand. And a strong brand often is as important for a political initiative as it is for any product or service. A prominent example is the variety of measures that are brilliantly bundled under the term ‘Patriot Act’. Who knows what if it had passed with a less catchy title. But building political momentum against something called Patriot Act is not such an easy thing to do.

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