Content Design terminology

Designing with the right terminology

Using the right words is a crucial part of any customer journey. Whilst this shouldn’t be the total responsibility of content designers, we’re well placed to help nudge the rest of the design team toward the best choices. At Sage, I work within a close knit team of designers who are quite happy for me to explore word choice in the design process.

Licence versus subscription

A large part of our business is now in software as a service and this means a shift away from one-off purchases for software towards a pay-monthly option. As part of redesigns in this area, I was asked to review some screens from a content design perspective.

The screen I was asked to review contained the words ‘licence’ and ‘subscription’ in the same sentence which struck me as odd. I’d seen these words used interchangeably in our designs before and I wanted to ensure we weren’t being lazy with word choice.

The UX designer had included both words at the behest of the solution designer, who had included them because they existed in a previous iteration of the software.

Digged deeper, I asked both the UX designer and the solution designer to explain the difference between a licence and a subscription in the context of the screen I was reviewing. Neither had a compelling answer. One admitted to using both terms interchangeably depending on whom she was speaking with.

There was a can of worms here and I’ll admit to thinking twice before opening it.

Confirming the problem

My initial reaction was that if we weren’t sure of the difference between the words, then we were at risk of confusing customers. Many of these customers were transitioning from our desktop software, where licences were indeed bought for perpetual use, and moving to a subscription service. I wanted us to get this right to avoid any confusion as to what they were paying for. My gut instinct was we should be using the word subscription and could probably drop licence from our vernacular altogether.

But, maybe we were in too much of a bubble in Experience Design. Perhaps outside our department there really wasn’t an issue at all.

I spoke to a long time colleague in the Sales team.

‘I only ever use the word licence,’ she told me.

‘Never subscription?’ I pushed.

“Nope. Only licence. It’s what we’re used to.’


Researching options

I turned to online definitions:

Subscription – An arrangement by which access is granted to an online service.

Licence – A permit from an authority to own or use something, do a particular thing.

This led me to the example sentence:

When a client subscribes to product X, they have a licence to use that software.

So, we could still use both words but I didn’t think we needed to. In the context of many popular software as a service providers, they go out of their way to avoid even the word subscription.

  • Netflix talks about signing up for an account and cancelling that account rather than subscribing and cancelling the subscription.
  • Spotify mentions subscriptions in their help files, but not at the front end.
  • On the Microsoft Office 365 product page, the word subscription is only included as a footnote.

Do our customers care about this?

What do our customers think of our licence / subscription terminology? Was there any evidence that customers struggled with the terms?

I’ll admit to not following up this aspect of research at this stage. My advice to you would be to contact your Support and Sales teams and ask them this question directly.

Also look to any feedback mechanisms you have within the product to see whether customers have demonstrated any confusion.

My approach was to handle this in the testing phase once I’d firmed up my thinking and we had something to show customers.

Terminology expands

It wasn’t just a choice between the words licence and subscription. Within our product, we have a feature where one customer can purchase product units for their clients. Where a customer has bought multiple product units (aka subscriptions) for their clients, what should we call the ‘thing’ where these units are stored prior to being assigned to a client?

I dumped a lot of initial thoughts on a Miro board along with examples of how each word might be used in the type of sentences we were likely to need in help topics and the user interface. This gave my thoughts some shape and helped me understand what might be feasible.

Narrowing down the options

Language and emotion play a huge part in the customer journey. I needed to decide on a word to use for this collection of subscriptions. When a customer buys a unit for one of their clients but doesn’t assign it to them straight away, it gets ‘stored’ for them, ready to be assigned.

But, what to call it? Pot? Store? Pool? Bench? Archive?

I quickly dismissed Pot. It seemed too homely for the business scenario. Store was next to go because of its obvious commerce connotations. I seriously considered ‘bucket’, but I associate buckets with soil, and ‘building’, and dirt. Yeah, I didn’t like the dirt association. ‘Bench’ could have worked. I was thinking of the American phrase around benching players, but thought the phrase wouldn’t be obvious to most. That left me with ‘pool’. It’s not perfect, but subscription pool had a certain ring to it.

(I also invited others to suggest words, but no one came up with anything that wasn’t already on my list.)

Bringing stakeholders on board

As I was about to propose dropping one commonly used word from our development team’s vocabulary, it was necessary to start building up support. I work in a fairly small team of content designers in a much larger department of developers, solution designers, and product managers. Whilst I feel my work is respected, it can sometimes feel like shouting in the wind. I needed to amplify my message by finding supporters.

I’ve found visuals and examples the best way to bring people over so I created some before and after screenshots of designs impacted by the change. I use PowerPoint to create these fairly crude designs. I deliberately haven’t asked for access to more designery tools as I don’t want it to ever look like I’m trying to do the UX designers job for them. Instead, I want people to be able to focus on the word differences I’d introduced.

I met with the key stakeholders and outlined what I saw as the problem with my proposed solutions. It was rewarding to hear that stakeholders had recognised there was a problem but hadn’t been able to make moves to addressing it. I was given the blessing to carry on down my preferred route of simplifying by dropping licence from our designs.

With stakeholders on board, it was simple to work with the UX designers and arrange for my changes to make it into the latest round of designs. The UX designers were happy that the stakeholders weren’t going to be surprised at the next design review.

What do customers think?

We’re lucky that we have two dedicated user researchers who will put designs and questions in front of real customers. I’ve arranged for the latest designs to be shown along with some guidance that the researchers should ascertain whether the customers are clear on the subscription terminology.

This has been scheduled into the next round of testing (due after this article’s submission date).

We get good feedback through the user research programme and I’m optimistic that my recommendations will stand.

What I’ve learnt from this process

  • As a word ‘expert’ it’s always worth scratching those itches to see if word choice can be improved.
  • It’s difficult for people to object to evidence so user research is important.
  • A good relationship with stakeholders, especially UX designers, oils the wheels, making the content designer’s job easier.
  • Acting as early as possible in the design process will reduce friction.
  • Opinions matter but if you can provide evidence and demonstrate the value your recommendation will make, you’ll find supporters.

Why is this good content design?

I didn’t set out for this change because it irritated me. I did it because I was focusing on the user journey and how this particular word choice shaped many aspects of it. The most important of these relating to how much the customer would have to pay each month.

Working with other experience design professionals, particularly UX designers and researchers demonstrates how content design is a collaborative process and can’t work in isolation. As word ‘experts’ our teams are looking to us to solve these word problems for them, and expect us to help improve the customer journey.

Never be afraid to open the can of worms