Why Service Designers should run a vocabulary session

If you are a proactive design team member or a team lead, proposing a quick session that identifies your most strategic/common use terms is a great way to calibrate alignment for short, medium and long-term goals.

While most design workshops are events to structure creativity, this one is more about bringing to surface the business thinking that goes often unnoticed by design teams. The result is quite substantial: individuals are able to self-assess, bring to surface and formalize ideas of their own. In the best scenario, you will start the workshop with a variety of creative voices, and end it with what starts to resemble a finely attuned choir.


This need may not be evident, and the reason is commonsensical, yet very pervasive:

  • Presenters are unlikely to explain what their key terms are, afraid they may underestimate their audience,

  • People will never come up and say they don't know what a term is, especially during a joint session,

  • Actions start to be taken with different terms in mind, leading to confusion, lower productivity and plain misalignment, until someone says "ahhh, that's what you meant".


The first thing I have realized is how people understand terms quite differently from one another. Ideally, each company will have their own definition attributed to a certain term. And, ideally, these are synonyms with common sense or bigger organizations that work with these same terms. That is rarely the case: every office I have stepped in had their own definition of "goal, "sprint", "value track"; "stream" and so forth. Consider that most companies never hold a consistent communication of what these terms mean, and that the influx of new people makes it even harder to keep them clear. This workshop can help to alleviate that problem.

The KPI workshop starts by defining with absolute clarity what each term used in the whole process of measuring design performance means.

Step by step:

  1. Compile a list of terms that are used to evaluate performance. Consult with Management and Analytics if necessary. I offer in the downloads section an initial framework that has been quite useful for me.

  2. Give 5 minutes for participant to read the terms. Yes, that simple. It's amazing what participants will learn when they simply take the time for them to read and assimilate the information.

  3. Ask participants to mark with dots which terms are the least clear. I always state how the definitions there are not entirely polished, and they could challenge them if they see there is a better one. Start by stating which one you understood the least, and explain it out loud.

  4. Discuss the terms, explain their intended meaning and iterate, if needed, for a new definition.

  5. Ask where could the terms be published so that people will remember. The idea is to get the team ownership of the vocabulary definition, and get ideas of where to push them so that it's reinforced or remembered.

Here's an example of a workshop I ran in Sweden, in a government agency. We were defining KPIs for the website team. In a non-transactional website (that is, not an e-commerce), it's quite difficult to understand what are goals and what success looks like. So we needed to start from the basics and go building organized knowledge, until we align on a deeper level:


The opportunity goes beyond simply using definitions that people half-know, and at times, fully know.

The opportunity here is to create clear definitions and, at the same time, discuss the status of your organization. When you define what a goal is for the design team, you may start discussing what are the team's current goals. When you define what a strategic objective is, you start to push the need for a clear strategy from management, if that is not clearly communicated, for example.

Furthermore, when you select which terms need a definition, you immediately select which terms are important. When you discuss goals, you signal that the teams need to be aware of those, and possibly do some homework to understand what are, in practice, those goals.

A common vocabulary is, undoubtedly, the solid groundwork for transformation. Service Designers are operators of thought and creative processes. So consistently bringing them to life is serious work.