When the “Wrong” Words Can Help People Find the Right Services

As part of efforts to apply a human-centered approach to service delivery, many governments have developed or revised content in a way that focuses on using plain language and avoiding jargon.

But sometimes, “meeting people where they’re at” can counterintuitively involve the use of incorrect terms! Let’s have a look at a few examples.

DYK the DMV?

Sometimes people know government services or agencies by names that are incorrect. For example, many Americans call the state agency that issues driver’s licenses the “DMV,” short for “Department of Motor Vehicles.” Yet in over 60% of U.S. states and territories, there is no agency by that name.

Pennsylvania is one of those states. The “DMV” is actually called the Driver and Vehicle Services Division of the Department of Transportation. Yet the footer of PA.gov’s section on top services has a “Find a DMV” link:

In fact, the agency’s website URL is dmv.pa.gov! The state government clearly understands that although there technically is no “DMV,” this is still a term many people use.

SNAP your fingers…or don’t

People may also know programs and services by their old names.

In 2009, the federal government’s Food Stamp Program was renamed “the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” in order to fight stigma. Nevertheless, the term “food stamps” remains widespread in public use. When trying to communicate with people about services that they might need, it can help to include references to terms like this even if they’re outdated.

For example, on GetCalFresh.org — a Code for America website that helps people apply for SNAP benefits in California — people are prompted to “Apply for food stamps in 10 minutes.”

Even though the federal program is now called SNAP instead of Food Stamps — and in fact California’s version is called CalFresh — the site attempts to speak to people in terms that are familiar. Don’t worry: It notes that “CalFresh is California’s food stamps (SNAP) program,” providing a reference to all three names for those who are confused.

Get your DD214

A related situation is that of using jargon, meaning words that are used frequently in specific communities that might not be well-known outside of them. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new VA.gov that focuses on marking “a visible shift from a process-focused organization to a user-focused one.”

You’ll note that the “Records” section on the home page includes the term “DD214” with the “Request your military records” link:

In a case like this, where the users of a website are part of a specific community (veterans), using jargon may make sense. Strategically mentioning certain specific terms that many people are scanning for can make for an easier user experience. 

Another example might be a website about taxes, where people are navigating for help with tax forms they’ve received or need to fill out. Here, mentioning terms like “W-2,” “1040,” and “1099” can quickly help people find exactly what they’re looking for, rather than having them parse through plain-language descriptions like “tax forms from your employer” or “tax forms for self-employed freelancers.”


But how do you know when it’s the right situation to “break the rules” and use technically incorrect terms, jargon, or slang in service of the greater good?

By learning about people’s needs, experiences, and knowledge, you can gain insights to help you in your decision-making. Code for America’s Qualitative Research Practice Guide offers a number of methods that you can use to discover this kind of information. You can also get an understanding of what terms people are using by looking at data that shows what terms people search for to get to your website.

Additionally, you can test out different language options — such as through A/B testing or qualitative usability testing — to see how people respond to them.

Using jargon, slang, and technically incorrect terminology can counterintuitively be useful in the right scenarios. With a little research and testing, you can see if this principle might apply to some of your services or programs.

Greg is the Associate Director for Human-Centered Government at Code for America, where he is leading efforts to support public servants with resources and training on the organization’s principles and practices for how government can and should serve the public in the digital age.

Screenshots from pa.gov, getcalfresh.org, and va.gov.
Top photo by Ivan Samkov at pexels.com

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