Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I've been hearing this phrase a lot lately "words have meanings". I've also been reading more of Domain Driven Design by Eric Evans, in which he stresses the importance of Ubiquitous Language. When we communicate about our work, when we collaborate as social human beings (even the most antisocial rely on social networks for survival - see the NatGeo show Mick Dodge) we use language. It's what makes us human, its what makes us powerful. Our very fabric and existence is a product of our ability to communicate, coordinate, and work together.

So when we communicate, we are more effective when we do so effectively. We do so partially through word selection. Words do have meaning. And, they have meaning in context. In the past, I've been exposed to the usage of Unit Testing used where the word Functional Testing was more appropriate in my context. To me (and I assumed the rest of the world), Unit Testing is when a developer writes automated tests at the lowest level of code she owns. To the other person, it meant manually testing each functional unit as exposed to the user - which I know as Functional Testing.

Here was a case where we were working at cross purposes whenever we were talking about Unit Testing. She pulled rank and had the term redefined in her world so that context switching had to happen...for all developers on the team. When she uttered the phrase "do Unit Testing" our minds immediately went to thoughts about writing code with test doubles, scenarios, and defining test cases for each string parser and logical branch. But we had to go against what we know and live in this other reality for a bit - fighting our neurological pathways which were forged over the years.

Every conversation in which more than one term is used to describe the same thing and especially where one term requires special domain knowledge is going to see a reduction in effectiveness. Words have meaning in context. What do we do about this? Especially when the same word has meaning in different contexts...

I propose the following: Combine context with the subject so that ambiguous terms become less ambiguous. Instead of Employee say Payroll Employee. Instead of User say Blog User. Say Functional Unit Testing, Ad Campaign, War Campaign, Political Campaign, Shipping Container, Bank Account, User Account, User Role, etc. Use contexts as containers for the concepts in which the words have meaning.

One term came up recently...owner. Owner is such an abstract concept that it must be used with some subject to show context or there will be wholesale confusion, particularly when there is more than one owner context involved. Home Owner and Business Owner have very different connotations...think of how many just in terms of taxes. So what if taxes was the context? Might we say the Tax Homeowner or the Tax Business Owner? Or is it enough to imply tax is the context - depends.

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