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Using Language to Improve Usability

From the Proceedings of Tekom 2004

A traditional view of documentation places it outside of the main user experience. In this view, there is a product, perhaps software or a web application or even hardware. It has a shape and form in its user interface. As an after-thought, there is the documentation, whose role it is to explain the complexities of the product. There is little connection between the documentation team and the product design team. Fortunately, this old-fashioned view is falling by the wayside.

Technical communicators have not only adopted usability methods, but have helped develop them. Site visits, goal and task analysis, user personas and usability testing are all popular part of the technical writer’s toolkit, just as they are part of the toolkit for an interface designer.

But what about the importance of technical communication in contributing to the usability of software applications and web sites? User interfaces, especially on the web, are filled with text as sites reach out to create a conversation with users. Even one of the most basic navigation elements in the web – a link – is based on words. The effective use of language to make the interface easier to understand is a critical factor for success in today’s web and application design. Clearly there is a role for technical communicators in improving the usability of the electronic tools that surround us at work, home and play.

Where are the words?

Let’s look at all the different ways that language is used to communicate. Maybe you shop online, bank on the web, access government services, or manage projects on your company’s intranet. Take a careful look at the screen. How many different ways are words used to help users find their way through the site to complete their tasks?

You might see the title of the page, an introduction to the site, instructions, menu labels, or other information. If there is a form on the screen, you might see prompts, field labels, warnings or error messages, or even choices in a drop down control.

Look at them again, thinking about the words. Are they chosen well? Does each word communicate clearly? Is the style of the communication appropriate to the context? Are there big, imposing blocks of text, or messages that are so terse that they are difficult to understand?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” the usability of the application or web site is diminished. Good usability brings together design, interaction and communications skills.

A user-centered approach

When a product is developed with a user-centered design methodology all of the aspects of the user experience are considered in making design decisions. This is in contrast to an approach that start from technical or functional requirements, adding design and usability only near the end of the development process.

The design process from ISO-13407 – Human-centred design process

The first step is to identify and understand the context of use. This includes business and environmental considerations, but also the people in the context. It is not enough to know what they will do with the product. Their context includes their goals, preferences, background, and even their definition of success. The next stage includes not only functional requirements, but usability requirements for how effective, efficient, and engaged users will be, along with how easy to learn and error tolerant the product is. These requirements are used to evaluate the user interface as it is designed. This cycle of information gathering, analysis, design and evaluation is repeated (or iterated) until the requirements are met.

Considering communication as part of the process

The use of words as a part of user-centered design and usability starts with site visits and other user research. User stories provide glimpses into their thinking and into the words they use to describe the tasks. This language can be the key to the labels used to identify functions or objects in the interface.

Some usability techniques, such as card sorting, not only help designers understand how users would organize information or features, but how they name them. Sometimes these distinctions can be subtle, with small differences in language having a big impact on usability. For example, a simple change in wording of a menu item or heading can mean that users find – or don’t find – the information they are looking for.

The most important use of language and communication techniques in the design process is to be able to provide just the right information at just the right time. The technical communicator’s can identify user terminology, information gaps and places where the task complexity can be reduced by instruction built into the interface. By asking, “What tips, hints or reminders will help prevent errors or avoid confusion?” this understanding can be used to answer the most important question before they are even asked.


A product that is informative, helpful and speaks in language the user understands will be easier to use. The same techniques can be used to create a user-centered interface, useful documentation…and to improve the user experience by building documentation into the interface. Usability and technical communication together are a powerful combination.


This article was published in for Tekom 2004 (Weisbaden, Germany), and accompanied a keynote presentation of the same title. The presentation slides are also available, and there is a related article that was published in the conference magazine. It is also available on the Tekom web site.

The URL for this article is: http://www.wqusability.com/articles/language-usability-tekom-proceedings.html.
Posted November 15, 2004

Whitney Quesenbery works on user experience and usability with a passion for clear communication. She is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience from Rosenfeld Media. Before she was seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer. The lessons from the theatre stay with her in creating user experiences. She can be reached at www.WQusability.com