2 Meta-Principles for User Interface Writing | Targetprocess - Visual management software

There are some voices that urge to pay more attention to texts in user interfaces. I completely agree with Jonas Downey of 37 Signals who wrote the article "On Writing Interfaces Well".  Jonas argues that much attention is paid to graphic designs, while UI writing is neglected. Give me the shining armor and I'll join the army of UI writers clashing with designers! However, there's something more in this crusade against the overrated importance of the graphical bells and whistles, than emphasizing the challenges of writing for UI. It goes without saying that UI texts are the hardest to wordsmith, but I want to zoom out on clashes and challenges and focus on 2 basic meta-principles for UI writing. These principles are not only for writers. It's designers who allow space for words, or make text bubbles removable, OR design smart action flows that are eligible for less writing.

Previously, I've written on how people learn to use products, and classified new users as Explorers, the Confiding and Give-Me-Someone-Live's. A software product does not exist in a vacuum. The time when people are trying out a product or an app is the most crucial time of all. It can be compared to a mating ritual. If a product does manage to woo a new user, then they will marry and live happily together. But if the product will not do the woo, then all its great features will remain obscure and therefore unused. What can be more frustrating than working hard on a product feature only to find out that people do not actually use it because:

a) they don't see why they might need it;

b) they don't know how they should use it.

That's where we approach the first meta-principle for writing user interfaces. Since people are always free to go away from a new software, and since most of them are Explorers, as per my classification, the screens in software product need to have a few words about the "why".  For instance, they can be put in boxes that a user will be able to hide forever (the "I don't want to see this anymore" kind of thing).

Principle #1. If a user is new to a product, "why" overrules "how to"

A short note with "why" has to be right in the screen. Here's an example of the screen that lacks "why". The 3 filters marked by purple arrows are really powerful, but this is not evident right away.

3 filters no why

There are question marks, where a user can click hoping to get a clue on the "why", but this will only open up a bubble with technical how-to's:

the how to opens on question mark

A possible solution here would be to insert removable quick tips saying why those filters are helpful, and why people will want to use them.

On to the second principle. Product developers tend to be so immersed in their product, that they become blind to the flaws obvious to outsiders, or to some insiders who are not that soaped up.  These developers often think that their user interface is very intuitive, and it requires no written instructions at all. That's the case when the "why" is obvious but the "how to" is not explicit.

Principle #2. If all's OK with "why", give a clear "how to" right in the screen

The screen below has a clear "why" (the looks of a card and how it appears on a board are customized based on personal preferences), and an explanation of the card sizes, but the how-to is missing. Nothing is said on how one is supposed to put together a custom layout for a card:

customize cards no how to

As an insider, I know that this is done by drag-and-drop, and someone who is exploring a screen with their mouse will likely have figured that out, too. But it's psychologically more comforting, and less tiring to read a note that would say something like: "Use this box to search for the card elements. The list is too long to scroll. Then drag-and-drop these units to the card layout. Mind the sizes".  Then a shortcut will point to the info on which card size is recommended for what.

An example where "why", "what for" and "how to" are balanced is shown in the next screen. The "why" is clear, because a user will want to configure her Prioritization settings for a board, and the radio buttons come with brief explanatory texts:

prioritize why and how in balance

All the other principles, techniques and how-to's for user interface writing can be derived from these 2 meta-principles. Writing for UI's is a combination of  language skills and ability to empathize with users, intermixed with the feel for design, and sky is the limit when wants to tell about the nuances of UI writing. However, no writing will save a product feature with an inconsistent "why" message and a cumbersome actions flow.

Related articles:

Why People Don't Understand How to Use Your Software

Help People Understand How to Use Your Software

UX: The One-Stop Guidance Principle

Why People Are Reluctant to Upgrade

Do You Speak Human, Software?

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