Reference Skills or Human-Centered Design: Towards a New Lexicographical Culture

Sven Tarp, Rufus H. Gouws

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


This paper deals with the design of digital lexicographical products. It introduces the philosophy of human-centered design, as explained in the work of Don Norman, and discusses central design concepts like affordances, signifiers, feedback, and other forms of good communication from lexicographer to user. The successful use of traditional dictionaries often relied on the presumed reference skills of the envisaged target user group. Especially in printed dictionaries with their space restrictions, lexicographers used condensed entries, abbreviations, and different types of structural indicators to save space. This often was to the detriment of the user who struggled to retrieve the required information from the data on offer. The digital environment has created new opportunities for lexicographers to assist their users in a far better way. Using principles of human-centered design, this paper shows the emergence of the application of some of these approaches in existing online dictionaries. Going beyond the scope of traditional online dictionaries, examples are taken from integrated e-reading dictionaries and lexicography-assisted writing assistants where even stronger user-centered design features come to the fore with regard to respectively text reception and text production assistance. Where the original concept of a dictionary culture was primarily based on the reference skills of the user, a new lexicographical culture is suggested that adheres to human-centered design principles. It places the responsibility on the shoulders of the lexicographer to design lexicographic products that enable intuitive use and ensure improved lexicographic success.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)470-478
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Reference skills
  • Dictionary culture
  • Lexicographers's responsibility
  • Human-centered design
  • Intuitive use
  • Affordances
  • Signifiers
  • Feedback
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration
  • New lexicographical culture


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