Design for People, Use People Language

Julie Zhuo
Aug 23, 2018 · 4 min read
People paintings photo by Robin Hutton

The first rule of building a valuable product is that it should be valuable for someone. Meaning, an actual, real-life person (or many such people) should have some problem or desire addressed because of your work.

This is pretty obvious. And yet, if you listen to the everyday language of builders, this isn’t always how we’re talking.

Instead, we take short-cuts in our language. We use industry-speak and expert parlance, sometimes for greater precision but most of the time to avoid using more words. For example:

  • How do we increase usage of this feature?
  • Why aren’t these two things consistent?
  • The CTR here is really low, likely due to prominence.
  • We’re seeing too much churn. What can we do to address that?
  • This design needs to be more breathable.
  • We should aspire for this to feel minimal.
  • We need to improve the metrics. The curves aren’t good yet.

Imagine your customer listening to this. Would they understand that your end goal was to create value for them?

The assumption when we use shortcut language, of course, is that we’re connecting the dots in our heads. That there is a shared understanding of what we really mean, a thread that connects one concept to another to another— like trains zooming past stations within orderly system— until we land at the platform of our people aspirations.

But in practice, two unintended consequences can occur.

The first is that when you speak with someone who doesn’t make the same connections as you, then they might not understand why what you’re saying matters.

For example, as a designer, when I say “why aren’t these things consistent?” the connection I am making is:

These things aren’t consistent => These things look similar, but one does A when you tap on it, and another does B => This will confuse users and prevent them from getting the greatest value from what we’re building.

Other folks well-versed in designer language will generally make the same leaps as me. For example, making something “minimal” is really about making it focused on the most important thing(s) so people can understand at a glance how to use it. Making an interface “breathable” is about making it easy and pleasant for people to read or scan.

But if you don’t make those same connections, you might wonder: why does consistency or minimalism or breathability matter ? They feel like arbitrary values. And you would be right — consistency for consistency’s sake isn’t important. If nobody in the world were confused about two things that looked similar but responded differently (presuming as well that there were no big costs on the development side), then it wouldn’t be a problem.

Many a partner in engineering or PM have told me that an argument to do something “because of consistency” doesn’t strike them as compelling. But when I say “the goal is that no one is confused,” that isn’t controversial.

The second unintended consequence is that using shortcut language can lead us to lose sight of what the real end goal is. You start seeing and responding to company problems rather than people problems.

For example, How do we increase usage of this feature? is not something any of your customers care about. Uttered in this manner, you’ll probably start thinking about solutions that are also company-centric, like making the feature more prominent, constantly reminding people the feature exists, etc.

These tactics only work if awareness of your feature is the main problem. But if usage of your feature is low, it’s more likely that the thing just isn’t valuable enough for people. But it’s hard to see that when you don’t ask the question in a people-centric way.

At the end of the day, language is a small thing, but I believe it matters immensely. Pay attention to the way you talk about the work you’re doing. If you design for people, use people language.

  • How do we increase usage of this feature? => What would make this feature more valuable for people?
  • Why aren’t these two things consistent? => Let’s make sure our customers aren’t confused by these two things that look similar but behave differently.
  • The CTR here is really low, likely due to prominence. => It’s possible people don’t realize this feature exists, because it’s easy to miss.
  • We’re seeing too much churn. What can we do to address that? => People who’ve tried our product aren’t coming back. Why is that?
  • This design needs to be more breathable => People should find the experience easy and pleasant to read or scan.
  • We should aspire for this to feel minimal. => People should understand at a glance what’s most important and what they should do. They shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by choices.
  • We need to improve the metrics. The curves aren’t good yet.=> Our customers aren’t yet finding our product useful enough to come back to it. So we need to improve the value we’re providing.

Looking for more? My book THE MAKING OF A MANAGER comes out March 19th, 2019. It’s a field guide on everything you need to know to be the manager you wish you had. Get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound. Or, sign up for my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer readers’ questions.