Fighting Insidious Business Jargon with Design

One of the biggest barriers to introducing new concepts to people is that they often have old, preconceived notions about those concepts that are just close enough to the truth to cause confusion. For example, my company recently started a sales program that establishes performance incentives by “vertical” — one of those vague business terms that could mean just about anything to anybody. Tracking such an ambiguous concept can cause a lot of angst when someone’s paycheck is on the line so it fell to me to come up with some ideas to help clarify the definition.

The first problem I needed to address was the fact that most people already thought they knew what vertical meant. When you try and find a definition online, you’ll usually come across terms like “vertical industry” or “vertical market” which both refer to groups of companies that serve specific, related  industries (i.e. a niche market). In contrast, a “horizontal market” refers to companies that meet more general business needs.

The differences between these two definitions are pretty subtle and, as a result, most people tend to associate the term vertical with almost any industry, departmental function or even groups of occupations. In our business, we need to keep such categories distinct so I decided to create a matrix that placed our two main areas of focus — jobs and industries — on two separate axes. This would provide a simple visual cue to the differences during future discussions and presentations. The basic distinctions are:

  1. Industry (based on the NAICS standard) applies to a company or client.
  2. Occupation (based on the SOC standard) applies to a person or individual.

Unfortunately, a standard table would still present the information in columns and rows — leaving the vague association with “vertical” unresolved. To address this, I decided to take a cue from a common Scandinavian holiday decoration and rotate the table 45 degrees. This eliminates all vertical and horizontal lines in the diagram and forces the observer to abandon the concept altogether. In the diagrams, the industry information appears in the orange axis, while the occupation appears in the blue axis.

 

Once this basic structure is established, unique industry/occupation combinations can be “mapped” to demonstrate situations that are familiar to the audience. These examples help reinforce the concepts while emphasizing the difference between the two categories. It can be particularly helpful explaining examples where industries and occupations share some elements in their names (i.e. health services vs. healthcare practitioners).

This is an elegant tool, and I congratulate you on designing it. Job seekers often face search forms that present the opposite side of this matrix. What *type* of job are you looking for – then what *industry*. Often, the industry is not as important as the *salary*, for instance.

Thanks, Jeff. I like the idea of using it for job exploration. There are a couple of possible next steps I’d like to try, including a more interactive design that would let people drill down into either the industrial or occupational hierarchies.

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