Wednesday Jan 08, 2014

Designing the Language Experience of the User Interface

When you think about any user interface (UI) guideline and you hear “language of the user,” what do you think?

  • I should be able to understand the words I see on the UI.
  • The words I see on the UI should be meaningful to the work that I do.
  • The words I see on the UI should be translatable and localizable.

The usability of business applications has evolved, and business applications have become more consumer-focused. The average user’s understanding of business applications has evolved as well. Technology and know-how now allow us to build contextual user experiences into applications and to design language experiences for the UI—with style, tone, terms, words, and phrases—that resonate with real users and their real, every day work experiences in the real world, across the globe.

For example, on the Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud My Details page, notice how the sections are organized, how they use real-world terms in headings and field labels, and how they use real content, such as personal and biographical details instead of placeholder text, which cannot be evaluated for its meaning or translation or localization needs.

Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud My Details page

Choosing which terms, words, and phrases to include on the UI is as important as choosing the right terms to use in code. In code and on the UI, the terms and words should be accurate in context and enable the successful completion of a task in context, whether the context is the processing of an event in the code or the user adding information to a contact record on a form in the UI.

37signals book, Getting Real, dedicates a short essay, Copywriting is Interface Design, to the importance of copywriting in UI design and how important every single word choice on is for the UI.

There are also numerous resources that support that choosing terms, words, and phrases for the UI that accurately represent real-world concepts in their source language often enables the translation and localization experiences. For examples, see Ultan Ó Broin’s Blogos entry Working Out Context in the Enterprise: Localize That! and Verónica González de la Rosa and Antoine Lefeuvre’s slideshare ‘Translation is UX’ Manifesto.

So how do we design a rich, context-aware UI language experience for today’s user?

  • We use accurate terms to represent concepts that are well-established in the real world by real users. These are the terms that users use frequently, terms such as team or shopping cart.
  • We use terms consistently to represent the same concepts across applications. We wouldn’t use location in one place and party site in another to represent the same concept, or save and submit to represent the same concept.
  • When we need to use these terms in context of phrases on the UI, we do so with a style and tone that resonates with users and yet is still translatable and localizable. This means that we don’t introduce nonsensical words or instant messaging-speak. We offer phrasing that is simple and clear: Add a new customer record.
  • We stop surfacing the language of the application on the UI, for example, code-specific terms. When we use a term like worker in the code as an abstraction or a superclass to represent the concept that a person can assume the role of “employee” or “contractor” in the system, this use makes sense in context of where and how it is used in code. When we surface the term worker on the UI to represent either or both roles, we introduce a context-independent use of this concept and one that when tested, we learn is not necessarily translatable or localizable in such a context.

Jakob Nielsen in his 1995 article 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design identified a need for this practice of using language choices that resonate with real users: “The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.”

A simplified UI is simple to build, simple to extend, and simple to use. Use and context awareness require us to build applications that focus equally on code, visual design, and language (UI) design. Every page that we surface to the user should make sense to the user in context of his work and the real world. The practice of designing the language that is used on the UI offers us an extraordinary opportunity to evolve how we communicate with users to enable their work everywhere.

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