Word Choices and Language in UX, Part One: Introduction & the Meaty Bits

On November 28, I gave a presentation to UX Winnipeg on the impact of word choices and language on the user experience, and how we can create better user experiences through the better use of language. This is that presentation with a few tweaks.


Zama, by Antonia Di Benedetto / Translated by Esther Allen

Zama

We’re going to kick off by taking a look at this book, “Zama,” by Antonio Di Benedetto. This is a classic Argentine novel, recently translated from Spanish into English for the first time by translator Esther Allen.

This is the first line of the book in its original Spanish:

Salí de la ciudad, ribera abajo, al encuentro solitario del barco que aguardaba, sin saber cuándo vendría.

I can’t speak Spanish, so I’m not going to try to read it out loud. There’s one word that I’d like you to focus on: “barco.”

This word can be directly translated to “boat.” However, when Allen performed her translation, she chose a different word.

Ship.

This is the first line of Allen’s translation:

“I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.”

Allen’s decision to use the word “ship” was deliberate. She selected a word that shapes how we, as the reader, imagine the author’s words.

The term “ship” calls to mind centuries of nautical trade and adventure, a sense of vastness — the open ocean, the wind over the water, even pirates.

Illustration by Martin Deschambault.

The word “boat,” on the other hand, evokes something a bit smaller, a bit less vivid, and markedly less epic.

Source.

Translators work with many goals in mind. They need readers to understand a work that was originally penned in another language. They need to translate not only the words, but the emotion, rhythm, and flow from the original text into the new language. Every word is deliberate and purposeful.

As we work to create great user experiences, we must make deliberate choices about the words and language we use in our processes and products.

Every word has an impact. Good word choices and language result in a stronger information architecture, make it easier for the team to communicate, make it easier for us to empathize with our users, and create better usability.

Poor word choices and language create confusion for our users and team members, create long-term, hard-to-solve consequences, and result in poor usability.

There are two major areas where words and language affect the user experience:

Strategy & Processes

  • Information Architecture
  • Personas

User Interfaces

  • Labels
  • Messages

These areas are easy to think about, easy to act on, and will make an immediate impact on your work. As we explore each of these areas, we’ll look at some specific methods you can use to improve how you use words and language in your work.


The Meaty Bits

When I learn something new, I like to really dig into the meaty bits. Knowing the why gives me a better understanding of the path to the how.

When it comes to word choices and language in user experience, it’s easy to think, “Well of course language is important to the user experience 🙄.”

To really understand why word choices and language are so important, we need to dig into how our users are making their way around their world.

Our users have an environment. This environment might be physical, or digital. A physical environment could be the back seat of that Lyft, or their desk at work. Their digital environment could be your app on their mobile device, or the web browser on their MacBook. Whether digital, physical, or a combination of the two, our user’s environment is full of things.

To understand these things, our users are constantly building and evaluating mental models — whether they’re aware of it or not. Sometimes it’s a conscious process, like when you take a class to learn a new piece of software. Other times, it’s just happening in the background.

These mental models help our users figure out:

  • What’s my environment?
  • What’s my place in it?
  • What actions can I take?

To build these mental models, our users are leaning on something called the Perception-Action Loop. They’re constantly cycling between perceiving things, acting on the things, and perceiving the outcome of those actions.

Some of the things in our user’s environment have intrinsic meaning — meaning that’s inherent to itself. For example, stairs are stairs.

Source.

However, other things are symbols that represent some other meaning. Take, for example, an icon of a person walking up a staircase:

This illustration is a symbol that we perceive as representing stairs. If we see this on a door, we’ll judge that there’s a staircase behind that door.

People use symbols to give meaning to their environment.

But not all symbols are icons or illustrations. Words, too, are symbols.

More than that, words are exceptionally powerful symbols.

Words give us the power of evocative expression

Words have inherent emotional connotations. Take the word “cozy.” You might not visualize a roaring fire or cookies baking in the oven the same way I would, but there’s an emotional weight that you can feel when you read it.

Words give us the ability to categorize

Words help us understand how things are connected or distinct. Take the words “captain” and “players.” These two words help us distinguish the complex relationship between these two categories of athletes: their similarities, their differences, and even the power dynamics and behavioral expectations.

Words help us express complex concepts

We can use a single word to communicate complex ideas. We can lean on words to draw parallels in understanding and express new concepts or teach new ideas using existing knowledge. The concept of a “trash” or “recycling bin” on a computer, for example, was a brilliant metaphor for explaining a workflow where files could be deleted from the system, but remain temporarily accessible for restoration if necessary.


When you view words as really powerful symbols capable of evocative expression, categorization, and conceptualization, it makes sense that they have such an impact on the user experience.

In Part Two, we’ll explore word choices and language in information architecture and personas — and the trap.

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Quinn Keast is a UX Designer + Partner at Caribou, a user experience strategy and design consultancy in Winnipeg.