Tone, vocabulary and style can make the difference between ease of use and user irritation

Language is our most powerful tool. We use it to filter and define our world. It empowers us to make connections, get involved, and to influence each other. It also gives us the power to mislead, antagonize and irritate each other.

Speak to the User

Site builders commonly spend huge chunks of time defining architecture, implementing whiz-bang back-ends, and designing the graphical user interface. Rarely do they think about a site’s language and how it effects a site’s functionality and appeal to users.

Language (often referred to as “content”) plays second fiddle to interface design and (oh groan) spectacular graphics. Language is often underestimated and sadly undervalued.

Well-written sites speak the language of the user. Tone, terms, and word choice need to be consistent. Just as the graphic designer puts a great deal of creativity and sensibility into page layout, font treatments, size, color, kerning and margins, so too should the Web writer manage the language of a site on a global level.

Beware Pitfalls

It takes a watchdog to maintain consistency in tone, terminology, and word choice. A site whose content is written by someone who understands and speaks the user’s language can suddenly sour if other writers write too many updates. One solution is a Language Czar. This is the person whose word is law. Everyone producing content for the site passes copy through the Czar’s editing process.

Language is a critical part of the site metaphor, the user interface, and the user experience. It includes vocabulary, word choice, punctuation, and synonyms.

A key element is guidance. Guidance text is a tricky thing. Too many “click here” statements can send a message to the user that he must be an idiot, or that your designer hasn’t a clue about designing and building. Conversely, a user who doesn’t get enough guidance on a page can become lost, or fail to achieve his goals. A consistent, intuitive navigation scheme is the solution.

Punctuation has its pitfalls. Do you use quotation marks or italics? When do you use the exclamation point? Your exclamation point might mean that you’re excited about what you’re just said. To the user it may make him feel like he’s just been yelled at. Capital letters make some users feel yelled at too.

Another key area is the terms used to describe the functionality of the site. In a shopping cart, what’s the difference between Order and Invoice? Find, Browse, and Search do not mean the same things. They each have distinct connotations for the user.

Category titles and headers should say what you mean. Leave the cute metaphors to the artsy types and their ego sites.

Language is extraordinarily flexible. With tone, vocabulary, and style you can make the difference between ease of use and user irritation. Language can make or break the user experience. Or it can be the great foundation of a user-friendly site.


  • Speak the user’s language
  • Assign a Language Czar
  • Guide users with link text
  • Avoid confusing metaphors