Is this my interface or yours?
A piece about perspective
The evolution of My Computer
Remember back in the day when Windows had a My Computer icon? It was a glorious little icon that represented all the stuff you had on your computer—all your programs, all your work, all the digital pieces of you.
In later versions of Windows, Microsoft changed the label of this icon to Computer, then changed it again to This PC. Did they change it because “my” was misleading? Inconsistent? Unnecessary?
This little change got me thinking about a bigger question: Why do products sometimes label things as my stuff, and sometimes label things as your stuff?
What do you call your stuff?
As you tap around from app to app, you’ll see that there’s no standard way to refer to the things that belong to you within an interface. Some say it’s my stuff. Some say it’s your stuff.
If you’re designing an interface, does it matter whether the words are written from the user’s point of view or the product’s point of view? I think there’s a subtle difference, and it all depends on how you want your users to feel while using your product.
“My” point of view
By using “my” in an interface, it implies that the product is an extension of the user. It’s as if the product is labeling things on behalf of the user. “My” feels personal. It feels like you can customize and control it.
By that logic, “my” might be more appropriate when you want to emphasize privacy, personalization, or ownership. And maybe that’s why My Computer worked well years ago. Back then, a computer was almost always a single-player experience. People usually didn’t share files, and all their stuff felt safe inside that one little icon.
“Your” point of view
By using “your” in an interface, it implies that the product is talking with you. It’s almost as if the product is your personal assistant, helping you get something done. “Here’s your music. Here are your orders.”
By that logic, “your” might be more appropriate when you want your product to sound conversational—like it’s walking you through some task. Whether it’s paying bills, scheduling an appointment, or filling out tax forms, many products help people do things faster, smarter, and more easily.
Nowadays, computers and apps are even taking on the persona of a personal assistant. They have names like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. They help you take notes, remind you to buy milk, and read emails out loud to you.
Many different apps, including Medium, give you recommendations. In my mind, I think of this like a personal assistant hand-picking stories for me to read today. I think this trend will only become more widespread, and we’ll probably see more and more apps using “your” instead of “my.”
No point of view
As with most things in design, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that works for every situation. But one thing that many products do nowadays is to just cut out words like “my” or “your” whenever labeling things that belong to the user.
And maybe this dropping of the “my” is the exact same approach that Windows took when it decided to change My Computer to Computer.
Unfortunately, cutting out “my” or “your” doesn’t work 100% of the time. Sometimes you really do need to differentiate the user’s stuff from someone else’s stuff. For example, in YouTube, you can’t just say “Channel,” because it’s not clear whether that’s referring to your channel, channels that you’ve subscribed to, or channels that YouTube is recommending to you.
And maybe, just maybe, this is why Windows eventually changed Computer to This PC. It was because Computer was too ambiguous on its own, and they needed to clarify that they were referring to this computer.
Putting it all into perspective
Up until now, I’ve mainly been talking about the things that belong to you in an interface. That’s just a small fraction of the words that you’ll come across as a user. What about things like button labels, instructions, settings screens, and so on?
There are widely differing opinions on this, but here are the general guidelines I like to follow:
- When to use me: Use I, me, my, or mine when the user is interacting with the product, like clicking a button or selecting a checkbox. But only add these words if you absolutely need to for clarity.
- When to use you: Use you or your when your product is asking questions, giving instructions, or describing things to the user. Just imagine what a personal assistant might say.
“Our” point of view
Before I wrap up, I have to mention one more point of view that‘s pretty common out there: our point of view. This is when products use “we,” “our,” or “us” within the interface.
By using “we,” “our,” or “us,” they’re actually adding a third participant into the mix — the people behind the product. It suggests that there are real human beings doing the work, not just some mindless machine.
If your product is selling people-powered services like cooking, designing, or cleaning, “we” adds a human touch. “We’re here to help.” “See our services.” Knowing that real humans are there, behind all those windows and boxes, can help the user feel a little more at ease.
On the other hand, if your product is an automated tool like Google’s search engine, “we” can feel misleading because there aren’t human beings processing your search. In fact, Google’s UI writing guidelines recommend not saying “we” for most things in their interface.
What’s your point of view?
I wrote this story because I’ve seen this question come up time and time again from designers, developers, and writers. Why do we use “my” here? Why do we use “your” there? And yet, I’ve seen very little of this documented externally in style guides.
Do you have your own guidelines for dealing with perspective in an interface? If so, I’d love to hear your point of view.