If a person talked to you the same way user interfaces talk, you'd ignore them too
June 27, 2011
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.
- UI text is highly redundant. A page or dialog may state its main question or point multiple times. If a person stated the same point to you three different ways, you’d either think they were stupid, or conclude they thought you were stupid.
- UI text can be highly predictable. Suppose an app displays a confirmation dialog every single time you perform a common action, perhaps an act that is universally confirmed. A typical example might be a dialog intended to prevent accidental deletion. A person who asks you such a near-pointless question signals a lack of interest in the interaction, and in you as a person generally. (How did you feel when airline ticket agents used to ask questions whether you were carrying weapons or whatever?)
- UI text doesn’t address questions from the perspective of the your task. If an app, say, focuses on some technological detail rather than the user’s goal, the app sounds more interested in itself than in you or your goal. This sort of behavior in people is characterized as narcissistic.
- UI text uses jargon. By using words you are unlikely to know, the app signals more than disinterest in you, it places itself in a superior position as it pushes you down. In a human conversational counterpart, this behavior can be placed on some continuum between obtuse and elitist.
- UI text may bury the lede in a UI interaction, that is, fail to draw your attention to the larger point. Someone who claims to give you the information you asked for, but deliberately obfuscates the crux of the matter, could be viewed as passive-aggressive.
- UI text can be abrupt and negative. The canonical example here might be form validation feedback that rejects your attempt to enter data: “Error: Invalid email address” or such like. There are nearly always softer terms that could convey the same meaning as harsh terms. If a person deliberately uses negatively charged words like “invalid”, “incorrect”, “missing”, or “failed” to discuss you, your goals, or your acts, you could reasonably assume they felt disappointed or disgusted with you.
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.