Selecting Great UI Text

Have you ever wondered how Microsoft feature teams make their UI text decisions?  Until I came to work at Microsoft, I certainly did. One of the most important word selections of all time was “Start”. Why didn't they choose “Go” instead? Raymond talks about this in his seminal post, Why do you have to click the Start button to shut down? The selection of the word “Microsoft” was another momentous decision.  I once heard a local comedian refer to Microsoft as the very, very small and not so hard software corporation. Chevrolet once made the mistake of naming a car Nova, which means “does not go” in Spanish. Oops.

The words, or UI text, that appear in your Windows and Web applications are as important as any other design element. Great UI text is the foundation of a usable, self-documenting user interface. Great UI text teaches the user how to do things on the sly, without insulting their intelligence. While no user interface will ever be 100% self-documenting, you can get pretty close.  Here are a few guidelines and ideas that might help you choose great UI text:

  1. Choose a BAD alternative and start coding already
    Don’t settle for okay!  If you choose an okay candidate for an important piece of UI text, you’ll probably ship an okay product. But is okay really good enough for you?
    True story:  until we chose a name for our unborn daughter, my wife and I referred to her as Placeholder Parnell. How readily would you deliver a command verb named Placeholder to market?
    By choosing a BAD alternative, you can delay making a decision on an important piece of UI text until the contextual framework in which it exists is more settled.

  2. Choose a unique placeholder
    My feature team chose h.exe (in honor of the project codename, Hatteras) as the name of its executable. When they change h.exe to tfc.exe or tf.exe or something else, imagine how difficult it’ll be to find and replace all instances of “h” with the new name.

  3. Think outside your language
    If your native language is English but think you might someday have Spanish, German, and French-speaking users, find a good bi-lingual dictionary online and investigate how directly a word translates from English into the other language. If a word for which few alternatives exist in English has 25 alternatives in Spanish, you can bet there’s not a single good alternative.

  4. Examine each word in context
    Once you’ve selected a superior candidate, examine it in the context of simple, end-user scenarios.
    Scenari “User wants to open a file to start editing it”
    Exercise: using the top level menu, click the most intuitive word and then find the most intuitive submenu word and so on until the task is successfully completed.  At each click, ask yourself, “In the context of the scenario, does the user know what to click next?
    Is File|View|File as intuitive and self-documenting as File|Open|File or File|Edit|File?
    For usability purists, this type of UI text review is referred to as a “Cognitive Walkthrough”.

  5. Solicit Feedback
    Ask your teammates. Ask your customers. The more eyeballs, the better.

  6. Involve a help writer in the process
    I once submitted a help topic for technical review to my feature team.  Ten minutes later the Project Manager sent me an an email at me that asked, “WHY IS THIS TOPIC SO LONG AND COMPLICATED :-(?“
    I responded, “If you change x to y, the topic will be one quarter of its current length.“
    If your HowTo topics are short and simple, there's a good chance your user interface is well-designed.

Comments (1)

  1. JV says:

    "Chevrolet once made the mistake of naming a car Nova, which means “does not go” in Spanish. Oops."

    Get your facts right.

    "…the phrase "no va" (literally "doesn’t go") and the word "nova" are distinct entities with different pronunciations in Spanish: the former is two words and is pronounced with the accent on the second word; the latter is one word with the accent on the first syllable. Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word "nova" as equivalent to the phrase "no va" and think "Hey, this car doesn’t go!" is akin to assuming that English speakers woud spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn’t include a table."

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