As an experience designer, you need to understand the power of words.
You don’t need to become a copywriter and you definitely don’t need to become a novelist (unless you want to, of course). But what you do need, is a solid grasp on linguistics and an understanding of what the words you’re using actually mean.
It’s crazy how subtle changes to the language in a product or experience will entirely change the way users feel and react. In fact, understanding the connotations behind certain words (including when they should be used and when they shouldn’t) will make your job and ideas easier to implement.
Not convinced? That’s fine, I was skeptical too — let’s change that.
The difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’
This is a great example, because it’s one that’s easy to relate to.
Picture yourself back at school. You’re in maths class and you’re desperate for the toilet.
You raise your hand up and the conversation goes something like this…
You : “Excuse me [Teacher Name] can I please go to the toilet?”
Teacher : “I don’t know…can you?”
This used to get me every time (and really wind me up).
What most people don’t realise is that when you’re asking someone if you can do something, you’re asking for more than permission.
You’re asking if.
If you have the ability to… If they have the ability to… If something is actually possible and if so, how?
Can makes questions vague and adds contextual variables that distract you (and users) from their goals.
Now, take the above sentence and replace can with may.
The word may (logically) only has two outcomes — yes or no.
Next time you ask a question or seek permission, use the word may and watch how the responses change. More often than not, you’ll get a yes or a no. In fact, as long as what you’re asking for isn’t ridiculous, the weight will always shift closer towards yes.
As experience designers, we know how important it is to remove ambiguity from our designs. More clarity brings better experiences and happier users. Simple changes to words make everything clearer.
When most users are using apps, products, or websites ~90% of the time they’ll be doing so using the left-side of the brain.
The left-side of the brain is linguistic and logical, it processes information in logical patterns and is literal with both words and meaning. This means that users will see, react and respond to exactly what’s in front of them, based on how their brain comprehends it.
Better language makes it simple for the left-side of the brain to give correct instructions, and to see/act logically. Heuristics (cognitive bias) will also play a part here, but we can look at that another time.
For now, let’s run through more weak words that should be avoided in your designs.
The paradox of ‘Try’
Try this… Try that… Maybe try…
The problem with the word try, is that the state of trying doesn’t exist. You either do something, or you don’t. Try creates a state of limbo that holds no logic and provides no outcome.
Think of it this way, you’re in your kitchen and your best friend says…
Best friend : “Hey [Your Name] try and pick up this chair.”
There are only two outcomes when you go to pick up that chair:
- You pick up the chair
- You don’t pick up the chair
When you walk to the chair to pick it, and the chair rises, then you have lifted the chair.
When you walk up to the chair, attempt to lift it and it doesn’t rise, then you have not lifted the chair. There is no in-between state.
Try creates a horrible state of cognitive dissonance that shouldn’t be present in your experiences. By all means, use try in your day-to-day vocabulary, but keep it away from your products and users.
Only Knights can be ‘just’
Over the years, just has slipped its way into our everyday vocabulary.
If something is truly just, it is righteous, honourable and venerable.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely used in this context and instead, just (as a word) now has a horrible focus on something being almost there. Which as descriptive as it may sound, ironically, tells us (and users) nothing.
Just gives no meaningful feedback.
It’s infuriating to hear the word just, because fundamentally it skirts around issues and hinders improvement. If something (or someone) misses the mark then there’s a reason for that.
Using just acts as a mask for the truth. Either your brain is too lazy to think of (or give the reason why) or you can’t think of a decent way to articulate your thoughts — that’s where just comes in.
Pretend a user is playing a game and they miss the top score by 17 points. Rather than saying…
“You just missed the top score, keep going!”
“You were close to the top score, next time focus on improving your reactions.”
Now users get actionable feedback, know what to do to improve and have a goal in sight. You’ve essentially saved them the energy of trying to figure out why they didn’t quite make it.
Only be ‘Sorry’ when you need to
Being sorry is absolutely fine.
In fact, it takes a great leader to admit that they’re wrong and to create a plan of action to rectify problems.
Unfortunately, a lot of apps, websites and experiences have sorry plastered over every 404 page, error state or slight blip in the radar.
Let’s be frank, the more you say sorry, the less it means to someone. The more users see that you’re sorry, the less they feel you care.
Sorry isn’t a plan of action, it has no focus and it doesn’t fix anything. For the most part, sorry is the easy way out because by saying sorry, we feel as if we’ve ‘fixed whatever the issue is’.
If something’s gone wrong with your product or experience, own it and decide where and when a sorry is needed.
Most of the time, a careful plan of action will make a world of difference. Guide users with a clear set of actions they can take to fix the mess that you (or they) have got themselves in.
If you feel like your experience needs the word sorry in every error state, or minor issue, then your experience isn’t good enough yet and it needs more time and work.
‘Very’ is never enough
This is more of a pet peeve than anything else, but there’s merit in including it here.
Very implies that there’s a lot of or an abundance of something. Whether that’s cake, happiness or zebras, it doesn’t matter.
- This cake is very delicious
- I am very happy today
- This zebra has very soft skin
All very tells us is, is that there’s more. There’s more deliciousness to this cake, there’s more happiness inside of me and this zebra has more softness than I thought.
Every time you consider using the word very, ask yourself, is there a better word for what I’m trying to say? 99 percent of the time, there is.
- This cake is exquisite
- I am ecstatic today
- This zebra has velvety skin
Suddenly, what you’re saying is powerful and visually descriptive in a specific way.
Remember, the focus here is on clarity and the way your experience feels.
Using more powerful words and descriptive words (that are contextually correct) will enhance your message, your experience and user interactions.
What Even is ‘Stuff’?
Now that’s a good question.
Stuff is… well nothing.
Let’s play a game, I’m going to list some words, and using your imagination picture what comes to mind when you hear them:
My guess is that it took less than a few seconds for you to picture every word in that list other than the word stuff.
If you did manage to create an image for stuff, then it’s likely to be a jumbled mess that’s completely different to another person’s image for stuff.
In contrast, there’s a good chance that most people will share common images for the other items mentioned in the list.
Stuff has no immediate recall value (visually or otherwise) and it’s by far the most vague word mentioned here.
Stuff requires too much effort to become contextually correct. So much so, that’s it’s not worth using. Instead, be clear and concise on telling users what stuff is.
Clarity is gospel in experience design.
Clarity will always add the most value to your user’s lives and will make your experience exponentially easier (and more interesting) to interact with.
I’m still a long way from eliminating all weak words from my vocabulary, but with practice I’ll get there.
If you take only one thing from this article, remember that words matter in experience design. Focus on using clear, concise and powerful words to articulate your message.
It’ll make a world of difference to your experiences and your mindset.