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If a person talked to you the same way user interfaces talk, you'd ignore them too

A standard trope in software is that, “Users don’t read”. This claim is often made after someone observes a user blow straight through an “Are you sure you want to do X?” dialog without reading it (possibly with some catastrophic result). There’s plenty of usability research showing that users do indeed scan text instead of reading it, which has resulted in some good recommendations for writing for the web. But I think most of that discussion overlooks the fact that much UI text is almost pathological in its lack of empathy, failing to consider the situation from the user’s perspective.

Let’s consider some situations you might encounter in UI text, then consider how you would view similar behavior in a human conversational counterpart.

Everyone, whether speaking with you, or writing to you through UI text, gets to choose their words. The existence of that choice allows you to infer the emotional state and intent of your conversational counterpart. While it’s impossible for an app today to “speak” with the same understanding of the situation as a person, or to accurately reflect that understanding through the nuances of its words, it is nevertheless eminently possible to improve a user interaction by writing UI text with more empathy for the user.

Again and again, my standard UI text exercise is to envision those words arising in conversation between two people. If I’m playing the role of the app, and the words I’m saying sound obtuse, insulting, superior, or disinterested, then those words must be rewritten, or the UI refactored to avoid the need for them.