The Vocabulary Problem in Human-System Communication

George W. Furnas, Thomas K. Landauer, Louis M. Gomez, Susan T. Dumais


In almost all computer applications, users must enter correct words for the desired objects or actions. For success without extensive training, or in first-tries for new targets, the system must recognize terms that will be chosen spontaneously. We studied spontaneous word choice for objects in five application-related domains, and found the variability to be surprisingly large. In every case two people favored the same term with probability <0.20. Simulations show how this fundamental property of language limits the success of various design methodologies for vocabulary-driven interaction. For example, the popular approach in which access is via one designer's favorite single word will result in 80-90 percent failure rates in many common situations. An optimal strategy, unlimited aliasing, is derived and shown to be capable of several-fold improvements.


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