I’ve written quite a bit about why interface language matters, but I didn’t understand quite how much until my mom got sick in the summer of 2016.
Before her illness, I had a pretty typical relationship with the software and apps I used in my life and work. I used Facebook to stay connected to family who lived far away. I built up a network of interesting people to learn from on Twitter. I received job enquiries on LinkedIn.
I’d had some annoying experiences dealing with banks and utility companies, but I was usually able to find a resolution (sometimes after shouting about it online).
When my mom got sick in August she’d been training to do a half-marathon. She had just turned sixty and lived a healthy lifestyle. She taught yoga, ate her fruits and vegetables, and meditated.
As her illness unfurled, I realized in a more visceral way than ever before how much I rely on technology to navigate the world. I also realized how inadequate so much of it was, and how hard to use. The design was often clunky and inconsistent, with complicated, fragmented language that left me feeling like I was at a dead end, or stuck in an infinite loop. The more important the task, the harder it often was to figure out what to do.
When you’re in a crisis, things that were once a minor irritation suddenly take on a new level of urgency. All at once I found myself spending a good part of my days and nights trying to make sense of the many databases with information on clinical trials, all which categorized and classified my mother’s illness differently. When I wasn’t doing that, I was researching drug side effects, and trying to sort out how to navigate the health care system so that my mom could get the best care, not just the care that happened to be available where she lived.
When I started working on this book outline almost a year ago, I knew that content was a tool that could vastly improve digital experiences. I didn’t understand just how high the stakes could be or what it would feel to depend on them.
Every day, people rely on software, apps, and websites to do things that matter to them. In rural or isolated communities, sometimes the internet is the only way to access critical information and services. In an interface, words help people accomplish tasks and find their way. Yet it’s still so common for content to be considered last in product design. This is a classic example of form directing the shape of a product instead of function.
If you don’t like to write, or don’t know how language works in an interface where people are doing things instead of simply reading, the idea of being accountable for content may be intimidating. But using words as a building block for a clear, thoughtful digital experience is not about being a perfect writer. It’s about learning how to think about language and integrate it fully into how you build interfaces. My goal is for this book to provide readers with high level and tactical strategies for getting comfortable with words. It will also include reusable templates to help you write interface content that’s designed to enable your users to complete tasks and find the information they need to make decisions. If what you’re building matters at all, learning how to use language in your interface is your job whether you’re a developer, a designer, a product manager, or a founder.
My mother died at the end of October, just a few short months after her original diagnosis. I’m dedicating this book to her.
From button copy to bots: Writing for user interfaces will be published by Rosenfeld Media in 2018