Usability and design

Acronyms – why you should not use them

Receiving emails from mailing lists (both internal and of national organisations), it became apparent to me that contrived acroynms are still on the rage. This post is an exploration of my views on the use of acronyms.

Receiving emails from mailing lists (both internal and of national organisations), it became apparent to me that contrived acroynms are still on the rage. This post is an exploration of my views on the use of acronyms.

Acroynms are word-based shortenings of a string of words. Acroynms may be formed by the abbreviation of a string of words, or their initial letters. Either way, acroynms are commonly used to identify organisations, projects, groups and technologies. Indeed, there are dedicated acronym databases and search engines on the web (e.g. Acronym Finder). Some acronyms are famous, e.g. NATO, ASAP, others are a little more contrived. It’s these contrived acronyms and initialisations that I want to challenge the use of. In particular I want to advise web authors not to use acronyms as navigation links on websites, section titles or within content for general public consumption.

Stop publishing acronyms on websites

Particularly in the public sector and service (tertiary) sector, acronyms pop up all over the place. From government departments (e.g. DEFRA or DCSF, Department for Children, Schools and Families, now thankfully renamed Department for Education) to small working groups that pepper the elearning community (I won’t name and shame), there are a lot of contrived acronyms. By this I refer to the acronyms that have been created as a brand name, formed of specially chosen, normally buzz-words, arranged in a particular order to create a catchy title. These brands are then banded around, but really don’t give any indication what the project, group or organisation is about unless you are clued up on the inner workings of the project, group or organisation.

With this in mind, publishing and consistently refering to these sorts of acronyms on webpages and in public communications is both confusing to users and alienating. If users are confronted with terminology they don’t understand, they may question whether the web page, email or publication was intended for their consumption. Even worse, the underlying message is lost in this confusion, users don’t know the acronym to search for it, or users can’t navigate their way around. In this case, where an acronym has been created purely for the purpose of promotion, it is often self-defeating.

Stop the internal focus and be descriptive

Acronyms arise out of internal short-hand communication in projects. That’s not a problem, however as soon as communication goes external, to people outside the project, group or organisation, acronyms need to be dropped. Expand the acronym in full, or even better, rebrand to a descriptive and meaningful project title. Having a full or descriptive name, removes that extra second’s worth of thought process needed by users to decode an acronym.

A lot of acronyms also develop as a result of short-hand references to organisational departments or groups. Arguably, these are the worst sort of acronyms, as most websites sadly still follow the organisational structure, rather than user-centred, user-goal/task-based structure. This results in users needing to navigate websites based on a knowledge of institutional acronyms in order to complete a task or find the information they need! Again, this is very easily corrected by restructuring a site based around user needs and the terminology that users are familiar with in order to complete their tasks, rather than forcing them to learn and adjust to an organisation’s representation of internal structures and terminology.

The web doesn’t support acronyms (sort of)

My final argument is that the web doesn’t support acronyms. Yes, we do have a HTML (web coding) mechanism for labeling acronyms, the <acronym> tag. But, it is not fully accessible to all browsers, screen reading technology and all users (e.g. in some browsers it requires a mouse-over event). Try it for yourself on this: HTML in acronym tag and HTML in abbreviation tag. Were you able to discover the full name? What about without using the mouse? Did you notice some presentational formatting automatically applied perhaps? What about on mobile devices? The <abbr> abbreviation tag is just as bad, with inconsistent browser implementation. The latest standard, HTML 5, has even dropped <acronym> from the specification, but included <abbr> even though the two have different meanings (acronyms are speakable words, abbreviations are spoken letter-by-letter). 

What is strongly recommended when an acronym or abbreviation is used, is to put the full expanded name in brackets afterwards: HTML (HyperText Markup Language). This benefits all users, whether using screen reading (text-to-voice) software, printing the document, or reading it off screen. All users are clear to the meaning, and we are not dependent on browser implementation.

Quick summary where you can and can’t use acronyms

Obviously, it is beneficial to use acronyms, abbreviations and initialisations in some cases, e.g. in a lengthy document which refers repeatedly to an organisation or technical term. However, acronyms should not be used as the primary means for navigation, identification, or where the user is substantially disadvantaged in interpretting the text content if they are not aware of what the acronym means. Finally, avoid coming up with cutesy acronyms for the sake of project branding, as more and more projects develop, trying to keep track of what acronym each one refers to can get quite complicated!

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