The language used in an application's user interface (UI) is a critical aspect of the user experience (UX), bit one often overlook. Des Traynor (@destraynor) brought this importance artfully to life at Refresh Dublin in his presentation on the Language of Interfaces. Well worth checking out, Des emphasized how language choice determines user action and engagement, with the simple choice of text for a button label or placeholder for status update making all the difference.
In Oracle Fusion Applications, for example, there's a big difference between the button labels Save, Submit, or Done, and the action that they imply to take on a page. Save implies an intermediate state during data object or process creation that the user will return to later before the task can be finalized. Submit is a final action, committing an object to the database or handing off a process, thus ending the task. Done is generally used to conclude the user review of a read-only page, closing it.
Google Wave's choice of Done however (as pointed out by Des) didn't help much with the puzzling concept of what anyone was expected to do with a wave to begin with. Language alone isn't going to save a rubbish UX.
Des used some great examples from social media to as examples. Compare the language and action implied of the Facebook friend with the LinkedIn contact or the contact categorizations of Google+'s circles. Determining the action should shift from a third-person to first person paradigm led Facebook to change its status update text to What's on your mind? Twitter switched from What are you doing? to What's happening?
Not every natural language follows the English direction however. What's up with that? And, what about the challenges offered by crowdsourced language (as in the Dutch version of Twitter)? Facebook's community translation feature, as I pointed out before, is as much a user engagement strategy as a way of obtaining translated UIs (but not help) very quickly for the local market.
This choice of evolving or action-intended words can be a challenge for controlling the action globally. My old friend Frank Dietz in Multilingual magazine tells of the challenge of finding German translations for gaming concepts (buff, debuff, kiting, toon hop, and so on) for example, having to rely on transcreation, Denglisch, or the English term itself.
What the presentation didn't cover was how the language in the UI drives the creation of language around the intended action within the user community too. Unfriend, for example, appeared nowhere in the Facebook UI, but is a well-established word now. ReTweeting (or RTing) was a term and concept that came from the Twitter community, before it was codified. Personalization features that allow users to control the language or add their own are critical UX features too, particularly in the mobile space.
As for the choice of squirting to convey the sharing of music in Microsoft Zune (see Des's presentation), well, nobody over the age of five should be squirting anything at anybody, should they? What were they thinking? And yet,they're back with internet charms...
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