Interaction Design & Written Language

by August 5, 2005

Many comparisons have been drawn between written language and interface design. That’s understandable considering both design and language are essentially forms of communication. The better at communicating we are, the easier it is for our audience to understand our messages and intentions, and the easier it is for them to use and appreciate our design solutions (be they Web applications, posters, maps, or more.).

“When you design an interactive product, you are creating the setting for thousands of conversations. You are creating the language, which will be spoken between product and person. It argues that when we do interaction design, we are creating the language which people will need to use if they want to converse with a product.” -Marc Rettig

"A user interface is a kind of language. Many of the operations within a user interface require both a subject (an object to be operated upon), and a verb (an operation to perform on the object). This naturally suggests that actions in the user interface form a kind of grammar.” - A Summary of Principles for User-Interface Design

As a result, the ability to communicate effectively with words (most notably written language) could be considered a key skill set for interaction designs.

“If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill your position, always hire the better writer. This is especially true with designers since copywriting is interface design. Interfaces are written. If you think every pixel matters then you also need to think every letter matters.” –Jason Fried, 37 Signals

Anyone who has observed even a single usability test knows the importance of the words used to label navigation, actions, and content for user comprehension and task completion. But a writer’s skill set extends beyond copywriting. When designing solutions for activities, it is especially important to understand that an activity, like a written narrative has a beginning, an end, and above all a point.

Leading users through a narrative requires maintaining enough context and information to communicate current status as well as enough interest and clarity to get them to the end. Likewise enabling activities through design requires the right amount of communication: some verbal and some visual. This wide definition of Design Communicator (DC) is reflected in the evolution of the role at Cooper:

“We originally started out thinking that DCs were either going to be like tech writers, or be junior Interaction Designers (IxDs) who would eventually move into the IxD role. As the role evolved, though, we realized that when we combined a visual, structural thinker (the IxD) with a more sequential, verbal thinker (the DC), great things happened. We could iterate the design and uncover potential problems very quickly, and the end result was better and more thoroughly articulated than it otherwise would have been.” -Kim Goodwin, Cooper