I recently spoke at the Content Strategy Forum in London about the importance of which words used in an interface. The difference between Facebook’s Like and Google’s +1 seems superficial, but ends up influencing the behaviour of the users. Choosing the words you use to define actions in an interface is the most important part of interface design. In “Getting Real” Jason Fried wrote that Copywriting is Interface Design, yet five years later copywriting is almost always where interfaces fall to pieces.
Clear first, Clever Second
Clarity is best achieved through words. Icons are a tricky beast to work with. They can be literal or metaphorical. A magnifying glass can mean zoom, or search. A down arrow can mean download, save, or simply “drop-down”. A back arrow doesn’t say for sure if changes will be saved. X is one mans close, another mans cancel, and someone else’s delete. A recent study shows that if you go beyond the standard formatting icons that MS Word introduced the world to, you’re already losing people left right and centre.
Nothing says Send Message, like the words “Send Message”. You can play with envelopes and arrows all you want. That’s not to say that icon-only interfaces are bad. They exchange initial clarity for long term beauty. It’s a choice you sometimes have to make.
It’s only words
Ogilvy once said “By the time you write your headline, you’ve spent 80 cents of your dollar“. This is as true in interfaces as it is in advertising. This is why I’m sometimes baffled by discussions on Dribbble. I see beautiful buttons or drop-downs, or even new UI components that the Web Has Never Seen™. I am not a graphic designer, so I can’t advise on their global light source setting, or where their should flip their gradients. My thoughts jump immediately to clarity. Everything that isn’t content in an interface is either a control (e.g. button, dropdown, navigation), or a representation (e.g. a label or icon). These need to be clear. When I look at Dribble, all I ask is “Is it clear what this thing controls, or represents in the interface?”.
The Dribbble for Words
Dribbble is a community site for very talented graphic designers. It’s not their role to debate these details. I would love to see a Dribbble for writing. A place where I can post the latest Intercom broadcast, email, even a sentence from the interface and get feedback. “You can strip the word currently there.“, “The important word here is buried in the middle of the sentence!“. “The message makes sense, but what I am supposed to do next?“.
Slides & Video
You’ll find the slides and the video from my presentation in the follow up post “Writing an Interface“