June 23rd, 2009

language, voyage

Transparency or opacity?

I've just come across two instances in two days of confusion caused by different understandings of the idea of something being "transparent".

If someone says to me, "This feature should be totally transparent to the user," then I tend to think of transparency in the sense of clarity, of having nothing hidden. Depending on context, I tend to assume that the intended meaning is either, "We should be really clear about explaining this," or "The user should be able to see exactly how all of this works."

However, I've just encountered two uses of the term where the important semantic quality of transparency that's being referenced is invisibility or the property of not impeding one's view through something. Used in that sense, "This should be totally transparent to the user," means something like, "The user should not ever notice that it is there," or "The user doesn't need to worry about that because we hide all of the details so that they can focus on what interests them." Which is very close to the opposite of the way that I was understanding the term. Minor hilarity ensued.

So, I wonder...is my understanding of the term idiosyncratic? Is it a cultural thing? Or just one of those inherently ambiguous words?