Requirements definition – something’s missing from online and embedded dictionaries

Online and embedded dictionaries fail to deliver the same features as their printed predecessors. They’re brilliant at quickly providing a definition, but that’s all they do.

In defining the original requirements for these dictionaries, it seems likely that only those features directly relating to the specific application were implemented (ie providing a definition for a selected word). Printed dictionaries do more than that though:

  • Printed dictionaries provide definitions of alphabetically adjacent words.
  • Printed dictionaries lend themselves to browsing.
  • Printed dictionaries reinforce the alphabet sequence.

Where online and embedded dictionaries clearly succeed is with their near-instant response times which cannot be matched by their printed versions. Their portability cannot be ignored either. Other enhancing features such as example uses and integration with online thesauri suggest that these dictionaries are here to stay.


Alphabetically adjacent words are important. Whether they are related to the selected word, or just alphabetical “neighbours”, they are the words we stumble upon when looking for a word’s definition, and in doing so they enlarge our vocabulary without much effort. Coming across petiole and pettifog whilst looking for a definition of phaeton, we can’t help but retain some of this information for later mental retrieval. Online or embedded dictionaries don’t provide this service. They fail even moderately inquisitive readers. They only answer the specific question asked of them, without teaching anything else in the process.

Manual browsing is important. School pupils through the ages have learned new words this way. As a child learning English, French, German and Japanese languages I was encouraged to thumb through the dictionary and pick ten new words to learn every week. The result was an extended vocabulary which served me well.

Whilst providing undoubted benefit, the features delivered by new technology don’t lend themselves to learning in this way, and as a result pupils are being failed.

Possible enhancements:

  1. The online or embedded dictionary could deliver definitions for a greater range of words – perhaps 10 or 20 neighbour words either side of the required word. This would force the reader to look for the word.
  2. For every definition requested, the dictionary should offer definitions of other words – in a manner similar to that in which Tip of the Day is offered for many software packages.

It might be prudent to have this extended delivery as a user-configurable option, in order to cater for all users. There remain some immediate problems with this approach, however, including:

  • Some users won’t be happy. They will expect a definition of only the selected word – anything else will be regarded as superfluous information, with the potential to confuse.
  • The inclusion of a messy user-option will disturb some, who will consider that it ruins the elegant “it just works” nature of the service. I’d argue that it doesn’t work – it only delivers a subset of the features I expect from a dictionary.

These are not ideal solutions, and possibly even a little contrived. Other solutions doubtless exist though but they won’t become evident until the original requirement is reframed to recognise the wider scope of learning.

This is absolutely not about technology – only a Luddite would argue that we should stick with printed dictionaries forever. With the increasing ubiquity of eBooks and the web, online and embedded dictionaries are here to stay. And the technology is clearly here already; the question is how we utilise it most effectively.

This is about requirements definition, and it’s not easy. Online and embedded dictionaries are there to answer a specific question – what does this word mean? They’re not there to educate in the broad sense. So who should be defining the wider requirements and is there any hope that this will improve? Or perhaps this is just an unintended consequence of the way in which dictionaries are implemented, and the “missing” features described above are the latest unfortunate casualty.

What do you think? Please add a comment below. Or subscribe to this blog to automatically receive updates.

Other reading

You will note that the above websites relating to Dictionary Day all have one thing in common – they are about celebrating words and meanings, and about learning new words. In the light of my comments above, it’s ironic that one of the things they do least well is help with learning new words!


2 thoughts on “Requirements definition – something’s missing from online and embedded dictionaries

  1. That’s very interesting. As much as I embrace technology, and probably spend three quarters of my day using it, there are many occasions where I prefer a hard copy paper version of something to an electronic version. I can’t always articulate why, sometimes I have a vague notion that it’s about prefering something tangible, but I’m not quite sure why. What you say about dictionaries is very true, I hadn’t thought about that. You could also extend that to encyclopedias, and in fact any type of reference book – it’s all too easy now to enter a very specific question into Google, and find lots of different answers to that one question, but what else do we learn along the way? Anything? Browsing through paper encyclopedias, we invariably pick up other bits of knowlege. I’m doing a Masters at the moment, and a lot of the books and journal articles I want to consult have the full text available online, and often I choose that option for convenience, rather than having to make a trip to the library. With the online text I can search for specific key words or sections and just jump straight to those, so what am I missing along the way? A few days ago I went to the library and picked up a few books for the course, and it was so much more satisfying holiding physical books and turning physical pages – I’m pretty sure I take more time with it than reading online, and read more of it than I would, therefore I must learn more…perhaps.

    • Thanks for your comment, Vanessa. You’re absolutely right about encyclopedias – the effect is the same. With eBooks and tablets likely to become more evident in school classrooms, the problem is likely to get worse. I fear there is no way back and one day it simply won’t be possible to buy a printed dictionary. Eventually maps will suffer the same fate.
      By the way, I had intended to include reference to “Word of the day”-type apps but I ran out of time. I’ll update the post to include this. While they’re possibly better than nothing, they don’t do the same job as a browse through a dictionary.
      Yes, I’m sure you’re missing something by opting for the convenience of online material – but it is convenient and meets your immediate needs. Here’s another analogy: When you listen to music, you can select the music you want, perhaps a playlist, and hear exactly what you want. If you listen to someone else’s playlist (or the radio), it might not always be what you were expecting, but the chances are that you’ll learn something new from it. And when we learning something new, we grow.

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