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Aug 17, 2006: Never thought of this before

One of my clients wants me to meet with a group of stakeholders to discuss their organization's IA strategy. My client is a bit uneasy about it: many of the stakeholders keep bandying about the term "portal". You know, portal, one of those terms that can mean about sixteen different but frustratingly-related things? (By the way, I was once an expert witness on a case that hinged on the definition of "portal," but that's another story...)

Anyway, what should we do to keep this portal madness from throwing a monkey wrench into our meeting? It just occurred to me that we should simply ban the use of the term, flat out. "But Lou, we really could use a 'porta--" BZZZZZT! "No, no, no, stop right there, dirty word. What do you really mean?" And so on.

Have any of you tried banning an especially sticky or controversial term from a meeting before? Did the prohibition work? Did you get an understanding of what meaning really lies behind the jargon?

Extra credit: try charging a dollar for every time someone uses the verboten term. My folks successfully applied this technique to stanch the continual stream of expletives spewing forth from the mouths of their five darling sons, although back in those days the penalty was a quarter.

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Comment: Peter (Aug 17, 2006)

I've banned any discussion of the homepage for a client for the first 2 months of a project, with great success. It really helped a lot, I can recommend it ;) I say go for it.

So it wasn't so much that using the term was forbidden, it was more that discussing the homepage was forbidden. I just explained them that the homepage comes out of the rest of the site, and that's what we should focus on.

Comment: Melody (Aug 17, 2006)

Interesting! I have successfully kept that word out of most meetings, but the hazard is that we actually have software that has the word "portal" in the name.

The word that I have officially banned is "underleveraged" because we tend to use it when we mean to say "we're not very good at doing [blank]".

Comment: Peter (Aug 17, 2006)

But, if they've drunk the portal cool aid, be prepared for some heavy storms!

The portal salesmen have conferences, glossy folders, analyst reports, you name it. They'll throw the whole shebang at you. The only thing you have is experience and the context of this particular company.

A few well-placed horror stories might help too ;)

Perhaps you could frame 'portal' as a techology, then you could tell them not to discuss technology at this point.

Comment: Dave (Aug 17, 2006)

Hi Lou, I took a slightly different approach. What I did was, workshop the semantics of the term till the team actually agreed on what the term would mean moving forward.

I liked this approach b/c the term became a prototype to start from. It is very low-fidelity, but we were able to build on the fidelity of the semantic prototype over time and that fidelity turned into wireframes and even an interactive highly detailed visual prototype.

I think it is problematic to exclude words. I understand that you are trying to get them to describe what they mean, but they mean "portal". ;) The term is just a prototype and we should take it as a launchign point instead of a stopping point. I think you are doing that by asking, "what do you mean?" but I think you are loosing some opportunity by forbidding its use.

I know I also do correcting a lot if people use the wrong terms, or there is a more specific term, but that feels different.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Aug 17, 2006)

For some reason this reminds me of the first GopherCon, where participants held up signs labeled "Hairball" every time someone made a feature suggestion they considered unnecessarily complicated.

Comment: Karl Nelson (Aug 17, 2006)


I had pretty much the same experience when I started at my current job. Everyone used the term "portal", but everyone had a different understanding of what that meant. Some people just used it to mean "website". Others saw it as a single sign-on system. And so forth. I banned the word. (By "banned", I mean that I forced anyone using it to clarify what they meant.) Worked like a charm. People still throw me sideways glances if the term slips out...even after 2+ years!


Comment: Liv Labate (Aug 17, 2006)

I've banned the word user experience from discussions during project scoping and definition. I had noticed the inflation of meanings and the disconects it was causing, so I came to the team one day and asked for their definitions - once we shared the defintions and realized how different they were, it was easy to ask everyone to think of anothr way to express what they were trying to say.

Comment: Mary Jean (Aug 17, 2006)

The editor of the first newspaper I worked at banned the words "be," "been," and "being". If a certain metro editor spotted a "be" in your story, he'd stomp over to your desk, buzzing. Really.

The goal, admirably enough, was to ward off passive writing and its evil twin, lazy reporting ("Bombs have been dropped." Who dropped them? Oh well, doesn't matter.)

But I don't know if that goal was achieved, because "is," "are," and "were" WERE allowed. (And also because good writing and reporting takes perhaps a little more than merely banning three words.) Is "funeral services are scheduled for" so much livelier than "funeral services will be held"? I think it's just so much clunkier. And under this rule, "mistakes were made" would be completely permissible.

I think the Be Rule was good about 85 percent of the time; I was willing to fight to the death for the remaining 15 percent. Because by God funeral services WILL BE held. They will be, they will be, they will be forever and for all posterity. I still wake up screaming that sometimes, and It's been 12 years since I worked there.

So go ahead with the buzzer, but not to ban, but to force clarity. What do they mean by "portal"? Maybe, probably, another word is better, but if portal is indeed the best word, let it soar. Isn't the IA mantra "it depends," after all?

Comment: Lou (Aug 17, 2006)

(Spousal note: It's really not fun to be there when Mary Jean wakes up screaming. Trust me.)

MJ, if you're going to delve into IA speak, then you should realize that it's 80/20, not 85/15...

Comment: Jen (Aug 17, 2006)

One interesting tool is the "Bullfighter" - software that analyzes your writing, rates it on clarity, and points out all the ambiguous buzzwords you have used (mocking you a little bit in the process).

It's free at:

I've found it's a challenge to write about KM and still get a good bullfighter score!

Comment: Scott Mark (Aug 18, 2006)

Don't even get me STARTED on the word 'portal'!!! This is hilarious, I can't (actually can) believe the court case story. I like the banning idea. We have also required that people say something ridiculous instead of a buzzword, like foo or banana. Most people are too uncomfortable to use it, so they come up with something else...


Comment: Jess (Aug 18, 2006)

Yvonne, who works with me, lets the group fine each other (at a dollar a pop) if anyone uses a word or acronym that other people don't know. She's also been fined herself (for using AJAX in a conversation). I'm not sure if she's tried the same thing with banned words...

Comment: Deb Seys (Aug 18, 2006)

This reminds me of when my son was about 3 or 4 and he started the dreaded "Why?" stage of his life - it was making me crazy answering every "Why? Why? Why?" - and I felt guilty if I didn't because who wants to stifle their child's curiosity? Sometimes I'd start answering a "Why?" and realize that it wasn't the one that he asked... so I told him that the single word "Why?" wasn't enough of a question. I made him ask in complete sentences - "Why do I have to stop banging on this glass table top?" - "Why can't I climb on the car while it's backing up?", etc. It cut down on the number of questions I had to answer and kept him from being a lazy thinker.

I think you don't want to stifle stakeholders excitement and interest by not letting them say what they want to say, I just think you should ask them to be more rigorous in their communication - not so lazy - make them formulate complete sentences, so to speak...

Comment: Walter Underwood (Aug 18, 2006)

At least they don't call it "the intranet". That drives me up the wall.

Avoiding the word is probably best. Just changing words doesn't really help. Remember the fine example from Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Ford administration, "From now on, I won't use the word 'recession.' I'll say 'banana.' When I say banana, think 'recession'. I think we must be wary of the risks of a banana."

Comment: Walter Underwood (Aug 18, 2006)

After further research, the banana quote appears to be from Alfred Kahn, not Herb Stein.

Comment: James Robertson (Aug 19, 2006)

Great one Lou!

I've written a list of "banned" words for intranet teams:


(With the goal of getting them better at the "horsetrading" of which you speak.)

PS. we've also written two articles on portals that help to distinguish between portals "as a concept" and "as a technology":



I do think it's important for a real dialogue to be held around portals to ensure that the real objectives are identified...

Cheers, James

Comment: Karl Laird (Aug 20, 2006)

Of course the main danger that I've tended to find isn't in the tech buzz words, but in the business objects anyway.

Go to three different customer sites and get them to actually explain what they mean by an "order" - I've never found it to be the same thing twice and yet it tends to be an assumption for every business analysis...

Comment: Nick Finck (Aug 23, 2006)

We actually have a term or phrase jar here at blue flavor... well more of a recycled plastic jackolatern from Halloween, but the point is the same. Everytime someone uses declarative statments or specific jargon, the put a $1 in.. some people find they "have" to use the word so the put in $1 preemtivly.

So far terms like "the thing is", "web 2.0", "at the end of the day" etc are taboo. We've found this helps derail people from solutioneering (putting the solution before the problem has been defined).

Comment: Louise Hewitt (Aug 29, 2006)

$1 for 'solutioneering' Mr Fink.

'Plain English' and 'Jargon free' usually raise my hackles. I can't think of an instance where the client didn't immediately deliver reems of dry, indecipherable, corporate focused twaddle for their content. Albeit with every word less than three syllables.

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