If we were to write a dictionary, we’d be practicing lexicography, or collecting many meanings into a list. When we decide that a word or concept holds a specific meaning in a specific context, we are practicing ontology.
Here are some examples of ontological decisions:
- Social networks redefining “like” and “friends” for their purposes
- The “folders” on a computer’s “desktop” you use to organize “files”
- The ability to order at a fast food chain by saying a number
To refine your ontology, all you need is a pile of sticky notes, a pen, and some patience.
- Find a flat or upright surface to work on.
- Write a term or concept that relates to your work on each sticky note.
- Put the sticky notes onto the surface as they relate to each other. Start to create structures and relationships based on their location.
Your ontology already exists.
Ontology always exists, but the one you have today may be messy or nonsensical. If you were trying to understand the ontology of your grocery store, your map might look like this at first:
By asking your customers for words they think about within a grocery store, your map could grow to reflect overlapping and related terms.
If you were choosing words for the aisle and department signs or the website, this exercise would help you along.
Design with, not for.
It’s important to discuss and vet your ontological decisions with stakeholders and users. Talking about language choices gives you a chance to test them.
It may sound obvious, but it’s quite common to think something is clearly defined before talking about it with other people.
A good starting point in exploring ontology is to bring everyone together to make a list of terms and concepts. Ask each person to share:
Go through each term as a group and use this as a forum for educating each other on what you know about language and context. Don’t “uh huh” your way through words you’ve never heard or don’t understand. Instead, untangle acronyms and unfamiliar phrases.
If someone uses a different word than you do, ask for clarification. Why do they use that word? Get them to explain it. Complexity tends to hide in minutiae.