Confused at an electronics store – two lessons for naming components

3 March 2011

When I recently went to buy a HDMI cable, I was confused. I saw what looked like a HDMI lead – same shape, right connectors – but the box was confusing. It called the cable a digital monitor lead. This wasn’t helpful – HDMI cables are used in monitors, and they’re digital to boot. If I hadn’t passed a store assistant, I’d have wasted £20 on a useless cable.

There are two lessons here. One comes from my (assumptions) about the way Maplins labelled their products. I suspected an engineer took a spreadsheet of products, and assigned a name to each. Knowing the names of each product, s/he knew another item was named a HDMI cable, so wouldn’t have seen how ‘monitor lead’ was ambiguous – all other cable types were accounted for with the other products. The key lesson: you already know the names of each function and component of your product, so for you, the name ‘X’ doesn’t have to specifically say ‘not Y’ – you already know Y is something else. Your reader, however, does not have that luxury.

The second: don’t always make a semantic-field-specific term resemble a natural language phrase. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s sometimes better to call a cable an ‘RX-59’ than a ‘digital monitor lead’. Make it clear that you’re using a piece of jargon, a word that refers to one particular thing in one particular field. As a bonus, your term will now be unique enough to be searchable in Google and the like (if you intend to throw your online help to the spiders).