How to explain your product: Team vocabulary

A product vocabulary gets everyone speaking the same language when pitching your product. Here's how to make one of your own.

May 24, 2024

May 24, 2024

The longer your product exists, the more ways people discover to talk about it. Over time, this leads to fragmented vocabulary and confused customers.  Creating a product vocabulary is one way you can get everyone aligned when explaining your latest features.

Takeaways

  1. Creating a product vocabulary helps your team talk about the product consistently. It helps alignment with clear points of view on how to explain important concepts.

  2. Consistent language reduces complexity and helps discoverability. People find answers faster when they know which terms to search. For example, searching for “browser extension” might miss content that uses “plugin” or “add-on” instead.

  3. You can start small with terms for a single feature and expand later. No need to make an exhaustive list.

What is a controlled vocabulary?

“A controlled vocabulary is an organized list of terms, phrases, and concepts intended to help someone navigate a specific context.”
– Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess

To build your product vocabulary, we’ll use a tool from information architecture known as a controlled vocabulary. They define terms, and help internal teams develop a shared language for navigating a specific topic.

What we call “product vocab'' is a controlled vocabulary for your product. It is designed to align teams that talk about your product, both internally and with customers. It includes named features, concepts, and can extend to include things like actions people take in the product (“Users record their screen” vs. “Users capture their screen”).

Example terms from Rally's product vocab.

There are three parts to each vocab entry:

  1. Preferred Term

  2. Definition, or how you would describe it to customers

  3. Synonyms, including any old names if previously changed

Consistent language helps people understand your positioning

A good product vocab builds on existing mental models. It's much easier to describe a motorcycle if you already know about bikes.

Even though your product is unique, most of your vocabulary will use existing terms instead of inventing new ones. For example, at Rally we use “stories” to describe our mixed presentation format, like Instagram. Straying too far from known terms adds cognitive load that slows understanding.

Controlled vocabularies have a clear point of view about which terms communicate an idea best. They remap synonyms and replace technical jargon with approachable, consistent language.

An example from Shopify’s style guide on naming

An example from Shopify’s style guide on naming.

Mailchimp’s content style guide includes a specialized vocabulary page

Mailchimp’s content style guide includes a specialized vocabulary page.

How to make a controlled vocabulary for your product

This roughly follows the framework shared in Abby Covert’s book.

Creating a product vocabulary involves identifying key features, common misunderstandings, and preferred terms. Below are a few examples with both common B2B features and real world experience from past companies.

A few recommendations:

  1. If you aren't sure where to begin, start with a confusing part of your product or an upcoming feature launch.

  2. Put the language in terms your teammates can use, and show one or two clear examples of how to use the term in a sentence. Definitions should ideally match how you say it to customers.

  3. Get feedback from multiple departments. In most organizations, Product Marketing is a good owner, with input from Customer, Sales, and Product Management to stress test suggestions. Product vocab won't work if it feels like it only applies to certain departments.

  4. Keep your recommendations simple. Key terms should not change by department even though the level of detail might. For example, customer support uses more detail than sales in product conversations. The goal of a product vocabulary is to standardize, not direct the exact script everyone uses.

    1. If you have competitors with similar features, include their terms under synonyms.

  5. Think twice before rebranding existing terminology. Clarity is more important than clever phrasing. Favor phrases and mental models your audience already understands. New or branded terms are unlikely to be the best way to get folks to understand your product. Two signs this is worth doing anyway:

    1. There’s a strong tie to an existing mental model for your customers. For example, the “infinite canvas” found in Miro, Figma, and Canva builds on the concept of “canvas” in a design workspace.

    2. If you have a signature technology or transformative feature. For example, OpenAI branding “GPTs” with ChatGPT.

Example #1: Plugins and Platforms

A product with multiple components, including a mobile app and browser extension.

Example #2: Analytics

How a product with analytics features might start a product vocabulary.

Example #3: Abandoned Meetings

At Robin we had “No-show meetings, unbooked meetings, ghost meetings, zombie meetings” all referring to meetings canceled because people failed to check into the room by the time they started. Some of these phrases we used in the product over the years, and others came from competitors.

As part of our “Abandoned Meeting Protection” feature, we settled on calling these types of meetings “Abandoned” because it had a stronger mental model and required less interpretation. The team needed to be aware of the alternate terminology that customers might hear, even if we had a preferred term. This was a good use of synonyms.

Example #4: Premier Support

Our last example shows why you should also include historical phrases.

For many years at Robin, we had a “Premier Support” add-on for organizations who wanted direct phone assistance 24/7. Then we introduced a pricing plan called “Premier” which would have caused a naming clash and confusion about whether it was part of the plan.

To keep names distinct, we renamed Premier Support → Priority Support. It took a few months before most of the team was consistently using the new name. After that, new hires could also reference the historical names, in case it came up with longtime customers.

How to share recommendations with your team

A good product vocabulary is useful and usable. In most cases, the most important thing you can do is provide a point of view and structure for people to build on. If you get pushback from the team, it might be a signal to revisit which terms your vocab includes.

Add to your style guide or internal wiki

Product vocabulary can be part of your company style guide, and likely extends work you already have in place. Your style guide probably includes some communication guidance on how to talk about the product — including capitalization, terms to use, and which features to mention by name.

Make vocab part of feature enablement and training

Try a vocabulary with your next feature launch, as part of product enablement. Updates give you a clear milestone to incrementally make changes a few terms at a time. This keeps the work approachable, and avoids overloading your team with new training.

Internal training materials can include an abridged version of the product vocab, alongside any positioning, recorded product videos, or talking points you typically include in enablement.

Show do's and don'ts as part of enablement for your teammates.

Optional: Track adoption in recorded calls

If you have a call recording system like Chorus or Gong, you can set up keyword trackers to catch mentions of specific phrases. You can use these as a quick way to understand the phrasing people use today, without having to chase down and interview teammates.

For example, you can add mentions of “AI Recommendations” to a playlist automatically for later review. This gives you a good sense of which teams internally have adopted the phrasing, and which ones may need some extra help. At Robin, this was one of the most useful (and simple) tools for identifying sources of confusion and mismatched expectations.

Wrap up

If your first reaction is that this seems complicated, consider the cost of confusion among your reps. How often do your customers hear people from different teams saying the same thing in different ways?

A support rep might call a feature or workflow by one thing and then you have a customer success manager bring it up with completely different language in another call later that day. Meanwhile your customer has lost the thread and no longer tracks that you’re talking about the same thing. Messy, but avoidable.

Your customers and teammates will thank you.

Further reading

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