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Language and the design of user interfaces. Tyler Schnoebelen Microsoft Corporation (Windows Live) Stanford University (Linguistics). “They can just go to Help”. How do you say it?. “Loading SimCity” versus Adding Hidden Agendas Aesthesizing Industrial Areas

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Language and the design of user interfaces

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    1. Language and the design of user interfaces Tyler Schnoebelen Microsoft Corporation (Windows Live) Stanford University (Linguistics)

    2. “They can just go to Help”

    3. How do you say it? • “Loading SimCity” versus • Adding Hidden Agendas • Aesthesizing Industrial Areas • Bureacritizing Bureaucracies • Calibrating Blue Skies • Charging Ozone Layer • Containing Existential Buffer • Deciding What Message to Display Next • Deleting Ferry Routes • Gesticulating Mimes • Lecturing Errant Subsystems

    4. The language in a UI needs to • Explain unfamiliar concepts • Give clear instructions • Leave out unnecessary information • Be consistent in terminology and personality • Work within the context it’s situated within

    5. Be skeptical • Each superfluous word steals attention from the others and from overall comprehension. • Who’s going to read all that text? • What’s the most important message based on what the user has just done and is likely to be about to do? • Don’t count on anyone going to Help. • Language problems are design problems and language isn’t the only way to solve those.

    6. A basic outline • Design • Some definitions • Writers and what they do • Language and linguistics • Words • Networks of sounds and meaning • Tools • Sketching as thinking • Sentences • Readability • Cognitive processing • Tone, personality, and context

    7. What is design?

    8. Some definitions of design • “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (Simon 129) • The world is “already crammed with people, artifacts, and practices, each with their own histories, identities, goals, and plans…design [is] an hermeneutic process of interpretation and creation of meaning, where designers iteratively interpret the effects of their designs on the situation at hand.” (Fallman 83) • “The guiding question is not, ‘How do you account for all human behavior?’ but ‘How do you design to augment people’s capacity to act?” (Winograd 192)

    9. The writer’s role • Here’s the scope of influence writers can have : • designing interactions that are easy to understand and which don’t need assistance • explaining what sort of things language can and can’t do • writing all of the text and errors that go with a product, conveying the right content in the right tone

    10. What’s linguistics got to do with this? • “Our principal theoretical claim is that human beings are fundamentally linguistic beings: action happens in language, in a world constituted through language.” (Flores et al 156) • Linguistics can • tell us what sort of communication is effective in different circumstances and why (it makes predictions for cases that haven’t been specifically studied) • help us analyze the cognitive processes that users employ in getting meaning out of the interface we’ve presented them

    11. Words

    12. Some words about flowers • Geranium • Coxcomb • Pansy • Morning glory • Flower • Inflorescence

    13. Some words that don’t work in UI • Kill • Leverage • Utilize • Input • Generate

    14. Words • The sounds of words trigger some reactions, their meanings trigger others. • A word activates other words—both words that sound similar (“horse” activates “course”) and words that are somehow related (“horse” activates “barn”) • Words activate emotions and memories, too—the sounds, the particular word, the meaning all evoke past encounters • Words are related to one another as part of a vast network.

    15. Tools for thinking about words • Reliable • WordNet • Search engines • Suggestive • Edinburgh Association Thesaurus • Rhyming dictionaries

    16. A quick intro to WordNet • WordNet is a super-thesaurus from Princeton’s Cognitive Science Lab. • It is inspired by “psycholinguistic theories of human lexical memory.” • English nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are organized into synonym sets, each representing one underlying lexical concept. Different relations link the synonym sets.

    17. WordNet

    18. Some basic features • Assess familiarity/popularity • For example, “ice” is common as a noun, rare as a verb. • Find synonyms • It finds antonyms for adjectives, too. • Find related words • Hypernyms (a generic term used to designate a whole class of specific instances—‘insect’ is a hypernym for ‘dragon fly’). • Hyponyms (the opposite of hypernyms: ‘icicle’ is a hyponym of ‘ice’ because it’s a specific form of ice). • Holonyms (‘hat’ is a holonym for ‘brim’ and crown’) and the reverse (meronyms) • It finds words that are related by derivation (‘hat’ is related to ‘hatter’, for example.) • It finds troponyms for verbs (a way of doing the verb—‘march’ is a troponym of ‘walk’).

    19. WordNet: why? • It can help us come up with the right word—it has a lot more to offer than a traditional thesaurus. • Because it assesses familiarity of a word’s various uses, it gives us some metrics to back up our intuitions.

    20. Using search engines for writing • Search engines are great for assessing whether or not a term, a phrase, a construction, etc is known.

    21. Intuitions and terminology • A few years ago, I was working on a wireless networking feature for a relatively small product. • There are two different encryption methods used by wireless routers: WEP and WPA. WEP is the earlier of the two and it failed miserably in standardization; each router does its encryption key differently and calls it something different. • Our error messages needed to be router agnostic—and also agnostic about whether it was a WEP or WPA key that was going to be entered. For example: • Your Internet & Media Player could not connect to your home network because the {X key} was not accepted. Please verify that you've entered the correct key.

    22. Goal • Microsoft has a whole division of folks working on terminology, so I sent them the question. • The main question I was trying to answer is this: “What term will users recognize? Or if they don’t recognize it, what’s a term they can go figure out?” • Most users don’t have words of their own for this concept; this implies that we will want to go with whatever most router manufacturers are using. • Based on some informal investigations, “security key” seemed best to me; one of the developers was insisting on “privacy key”

    23. Even more answers • The terminology folks had even more suggestions but no consensus was emerging. In fact, there were even more terms to choose from. Soon we had to consider: • Security key • Network access key • Encryption key • Privacy key • Network key • Network security key

    24. The way to solve it? Search engines! • I did this sort of search for each of the terms. “Security key” far exceeded all of the other options. The key here was using quotes to keep phrases together and to use some other terms to make sure that we were counting the right pages. • Results from MSN Search (now “Live Search”): • [“security key” router] : 6,295 results • [“security key” WPA]: 671 results • [“security key” WEP]: 10,659 results • 17,625 total • [“privacy key” router]: 1,158 results • [“privacy key” WPA]: 120 • [“privacy key” WEP]: 515 results • 1,793 total

    25. (Yes, you can use Google)

    26. Success! • So our product decided to move forward with “security key”. • This sort of proof seemed to convince everyone on the terminology team in Redmond and indeed, several years later, you do see “security key” even in Vista.

    27. Edinburgh Associative Thesaurus •

    28. How can you use it? • Designing is sketching, sketching is thinking • What is sketching for a writer? • Your way to familiarize yourself with the material your working with • You’re reading and interpreting the language you’re sketching • Something like the EAT can enlarge your own word association network to consider aspects of a word you hadn’t thought of (because you’re not a student in a 1970s psychology lab in Britain) • Most tools can be used to help you this way • There’s a lot of advice out there on brainstorming, I’m not going to repeat it here. • But when you begin trying to label something, it’s useful to try to start with things that are far apart from one another—include some absurdities that have character, include some that are boring as hell

    29. Sentences

    30. Readability basics • Good readability scores mean that users will be able to process the sentences faster and understand them better. • In technology, we are often introducing people to unfamiliar words or concepts or telling them to do strange things • “Add a venue”? • It’s okay that people will sometimes need to pause and process difficult concepts. But we should work hard to minimize this. • It’s worth pointing out that people read differently on computers than they do on paper—it’s 25% slower to read online than on paper and there’s a lot more skimming than reading.

    31. Readability

    32. Cognitive processing (throw out your Strunk & White)

    33. Some basics on cognitive processing • People make split-second decisions on meaning, they try to match it to what they are encountering. • They’re usually reading about 150-180 words/minute; the average word takes 250 ms to read, but this is strongly affected by its frequency and how many letters it has • Sentence comprehension is incremental, flexible, and integrative. • Non-linguistic factors are important • “Listeners use many types of linguistic and non-linguistic information as soon as it becomes available to them, to infer the speaker’s intentions” (Sag and Wasow 5).

    34. The horse raced past the barn fell

    35. Try again • Gosh, I was out at Mame’s the other day and we watched the boys really galloping on their horses. The one they ran along the fence line just shot ahead, but the one over by the stream kind of stumbled. But the horse raced past the barn fell.

    36. How do people know what to do? • Frequency • The frequency of words and sentence structures helps us a lot—“flower” is easier to retrieve than “inflorescence”; the normal past tense of “raced” is easier than the passive participle • Which letter did the judge decide to send back immediately? > Which epistle did the magistrate opt to remand forthwith? • Plausibility constraints • If we’re already talking about horses stumbling, a fallen horse isn’t such a surprise • The evidence examined by the judge turned out to be unreliable > The witness examined by the judge turned out to be unreliable • Why no confusion with “the evidence examined…”? Because evidence isn’t capable of examining anyone. There IS a problem if you swap in something animate because that does introduce ambiguity

    37. Some other processing factors • In questions, bare WH-words are harder to process than which-phrases: • Which option did you want to select? > What did you want to select? • Collocation frequency (maybe the same as plausibility) • Which box do you remember whether you shipped to the dealers? > Which body do you remember whether you shipped to the dealers? • Similar items make it hard to keep track of what’s going on: • The doctor that some nurse with a limp consoled treated one of the patients > The doctor that the nurse with the limp consoled treated the patient. • Auxiliaries help out: • Wonder whether they had released…>wonder whether they released • (Actually, untensed verbs are even easier: “wonder whether to release”)

    38. Use natural language • Our tone guidelines are for warm, personal, natural text. • Everyone should aspire to “natural”, but “warm and personal” may not work for your product. That said, they may work better than you think. The best people to ask are your users. • Write like you talk. (Use short words and contractions)

    39. But how natural?

    40. Tone

    41. Connecting with users • Ask them how they want to relate to your interface, observe them using interfaces with different personalities • Usability tests in the lab • Field research at their home/office • You want to have context—just asking someone, “What do you think of X” leaves too much up to their imagination. And you aren’t testing X in a vacuum (or a hallway), you’re testing it situated in some particular product

    42. What is context? • Words exist in a web of association—so do interfaces themselves. • Context can mean many things; it might be the tasks that the system is being used to perform, the reasons for which the tasks are being carried out, the settings within which the work is conducted, or other factors that surround the user and the system. The context, though, is as much social as technical. (Dourish 56) • Many factors play a role in how something will be interpreted. • Language occurs as part of visuals, in the midst of an interaction, which is itself situated somewhere in the user’s life.

    43. Final thoughts • How users behave and what they do is important. • But so is what they experience. • How does an interaction fit in their lives? • How does it affect their thoughts and emotions? • Words activate other words and these associations help shape the user’s interpretations. • Because of this, our designs are approximate, improvised, provisional—we can’t eliminate or stabilize the messiness and the fluidity. • We can guide people, though. To be effective, we need to sketch with language, come up with many possibilities and then interpret and question how these work.

    44. Thank youtylersc@microsoft.com