Schrijven voor het web

Language:The Ultimate User Interface

Language is the tool we use to filter and define the world. It’s our first and most powerful tool, and separates us from the armadillos of the world. Language enables us to make connections, build complexities, and to influence each other.

It also has the power to divide us: it crystalizes our differences, and helps us antagonize and irritate each other. Even in its distilled form (commonly known as “content”) language is often under-estimated, under-valued, and under-funded. How many times have we seen companies import bland, cheap information instead of hiring talented, knowledgeable writers to write fresh, original, interesting content? (Why are editors the second ones to go — right after the writers?)

Why do we — as web-builders — overlook even the most basic aspects of language so frequently when we build our sites? Is language so transparent in our lives that we fail to recognize its importance? Do we even think about it at all? If we do, who manages the language in our sites? Too often, the answer is “no one.” No one manages the language from a global level, but a lot of people decide what the language will be for specific parts of the site. This is problematic on multiple levels.

Language is a critical part of the site metaphor, the user interface, and the user experience.

Guidance text is a tricky thing. Too much of it can mean that you think the user will be unable to use the site due to his idiocy or your incompetence in designing and building. A user who doesn’t get enough guidance on a page can become lost, or fail to achieve his goals (or yours).

Error messages are even trickier. Some sites don’t even bother, relying on the web or application server to throw up its standard — and uninformative — messages. A good error message tells you what went wrong, why it happened, and what you can do to fix it (if anything).

Punctuation is one of those areas few people think about. You come to the end of a line and boom! Punctuation. There are pitfalls here, too. Do you use quotation marks to set off special things that you or your clients have defined, or does that evoke the sarcastic, much-mocked air quotes? When do you use the exclamation point? Another key area of concern are the terms used to describe the functionality of the system. There are many sites that will rename their “shopping cart” with a cutesy topical monikker, but won’t bother to clarify their menu items.

What’s the difference between “order” and “invoice”? Although some sites treat them exactly the same way, “Find”, “Browse”, and “Search” do not mean the same things. They each have distinct connotations for the user.