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Having worked as a software developer for a long time, I'm out of touch sometimes with whether a word would be considered jargon.

I am adding something to a user interface where a name is given, and a type. The type would be one of Number, Date, or 'String'. I'm just not sure if 'string' in the technical sense is a term that is in common usage, or if it is still considered jargon.

'Text' sounds mildly inappropriate to use, because that implies a length (to me at least), whereas this would be something short.

So, is there a better word I can use?

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Google Forms uses Text to refer to a short string and Paragraph Text to refer to a longer text. –  nico Aug 15 '11 at 15:44
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Can you not detect the type automatically based on the supplied text? –  Graham Borland Aug 15 '11 at 16:51
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Should this be migrated to ux.stackexchange.com ? –  Marcin Aug 15 '11 at 19:06
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@Marcin: I would have voted to migrate, but the answers here are fine. –  Jon Purdy Aug 15 '11 at 20:44
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Definitely too jargony as you say. A string for everyday people is still a filament made up fibrous material, not a chain of somethings. Go for text, characters/letters, words/phrase or whatever vocabulary is used for describing this to kids in schools. P.S: You should take that programming hat off every now and then ;) –  James Poulson Aug 15 '11 at 22:50
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9 Answers 9

up vote 72 down vote accepted

String is probably still a bit "jargony" for many. Call it Text instead.

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Exactly! Expresses the same information in a less esoteric task domain. –  Andrew Neely Aug 15 '11 at 16:48
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+1 and to the OP's thought that "Text" implies length is generally only true for people working with relational databases. For normal people, "Text" doesn't imply any length, short or long. Users are more familiar with "Text Box" than string, and those are often single line inputs. –  Davy8 Aug 15 '11 at 16:58
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I'm not going to change my first sentence there, but on reflection I think it implies that at some point in the future, string may no longer be considered 'jargony'. Which I neither expect nor would wish to see happen. In reality the word is, and will remain, "jargon". –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '11 at 18:27
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Trivia (from Crockford on JavaScript, part 2) because I just have to share. This supports the idea that string should stay jargon, in my opinion. "Now, string. Ever wonder why we call them strings? ... Nobody knows. As far as I can tell, the first use of string to mean a data type in a programming language which is a sequence of characters was the ALGOL 60 report ... But they didn't explain in the report why they called it string, and there doesn't appear to be a good reason for it." developer.yahoo.com/yui/theater/video.php?v=crockonjs-2 –  zourtney Aug 15 '11 at 21:38
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@msh210: Remember this is in a context where the user has other choices called Date and Number. He's no more likely to think of the Gettysburg Address than he is to think Date = someone you take for a romantic night out, and Number = the haunting melody you smooch to later. –  FumbleFingers Aug 16 '11 at 1:31
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Does it have to be a single word? How about any string of characters or any sequence of characters? I think that'd do. My impression — nothing more — is that bare string is pretty jargony.

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Or just characters. –  John Y Aug 15 '11 at 22:15
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"Alphanumeric data"? Still kinda jargon-y, but more intelligible without context.

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This is not the best answer, but in my opinion it doesn't deserve a negative score. I think alphanumeric data should indeed be clearer to a layperson than string. Especially nowadays, with people being asked to provide passwords for everything, it is quite common to encounter the term alphanumeric, and it's not hard for people who have some sense of English but not computers to figure this one out. –  John Y Aug 15 '11 at 22:13
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Ooh! This is my field of expertise. =) Never use "string" to describe a series of characters, in any user interface element. The exception to this rule, is when the user is expected to be a developer (programmer, analyst, power user, etc.). If any, the user interface should use jargon with which the user is expected to be familiar. When using jargon in the user interface, it should not be so cryptic that a novice user is unable to easily interpret the meaning.

Describe what the string represents. The data type that must be provided should be enforced by the input capturing mechanism (text box, etc.), and/or inferred by the description. Use a date chooser for dates and a text box for names. Date choosers are important; because a date may be entered in various formats -- the date chooser returns a predefined format. If you are having trouble doing so, the user interface must be re-evaluated.

For example:

  • First Name (implies alpha characters)
  • Password (implies alphanumeric and common punctuation characters)
  • Message (implies alphanumeric and common punctuation characters)
  • Birth date (implies date format)
  • Hours worked (implies integral data)

The reason why "Number, Date, or 'String'" sounds correct, is because the meaning of string is contextual to anyone familiar with its correlation to "a series of characters." For everyone else in the world (likely 99.7% or so of world population), it means "a long piece of fiber".


Side note: Proper, modern software architecture, particularly MVP, MVC, and MVVM, accommodate interchangeable user interfaces. Using these architectures would allow the same application to have both a "technical" and "non-technical" interface. This is very useful, because the logic and data remain the same, and only a new user interface needs be built. Therefore, an application program could contain both expert and novice interfaces. This could be as simple as displaying definitions of jargon to novice users, and not to experts.

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+1 for the exception to the rule, though I'd expand it to include analysts, power-users, and others that have strong technical backgrounds but might not be programmers. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 15 '11 at 16:31
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner, I changed it to "developers", which includes all you listed. Thank you for the notice. –  Mike Christian Aug 15 '11 at 23:45
    
Actually, the analysts I was referring to were Business Analysts, most of whom don't know how to program but are familiar with the technical jargon that programmers use. And many power users aren't programmers at all. ;) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 16 '11 at 13:16
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We did some informal research on precisely this for the ConML modelling language, which is aimed at non experts in information technologies. We wanted a "string" data type but we didn't want to sound too techie. Our conclusion was to use Text as a data type name, and from our experience at teaching and using ConML, it is well received and understood.

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Just remember that string only makes sense to us as we're used to thinking about it as an array (or string) of chars. Unless this screen's audience is technical or at least considered a super user, I think 'text' is going to be most meaningful to the most people even if it's not 100% accurate.

To your point (and perhaps where you're having trouble coming to like 'text'), the word 'text' in my/our field, implies a different data structure, in that it's usually a LOB. But I say this to perhaps put a name to your hesitation w/ the word 'text'

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When using terms for non-programmers, one must try to see how the word will be interpreted by them. I once had a GUI which on which I had used the word "check sum" for a check-sum calculated from an order number (to catch entry errors.) I had clerks telling me that the software complained the check sum was wrong, but they had double-checked the amount on the customer's check (e.g. the check's "SUM"), and it was correct!

String is a bad choice because it doesn't mean the same thing you thing it does. To a non-programmer, string is a shoe strings or twine.

"Text" would be a good choice. Text indicates a alphanumeric data, and has no intrinsic implication of length. You said you thought that the word implies length, so a modifier may help be more specific. "Short Text", as a two-word answer, is a much better choice than "String."

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'Text' sounds mildly inappropriate to use, because that implies a length (to me at least),

Text is the standard for this kind of data, String will probably make no sense to someone without a programming background. I'm a native English speaker and have never heard that saying Text implies a length.

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A text does, though, I think. I wouldn't call someone's name a text, but I would call the Gettysburg Address a text. –  msh210 Aug 15 '11 at 23:26
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An extremely anti-jargony option is Any Characters, and seems not to imply length. It's better than String, however, I doubt it's better than Text.

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