If Hemingway Was a UXD

Story excerpt provided by Patriot Software.

Written by Kyle Dreger.

For the last few years, the developers and designers of Patriot Software’s accounting and payroll software have travelled down to Columbus, Ohio, for the annual Stir Trek conference.

Stir Trek, in case you don’t know, is a full day of presentations on timely software development topics ranging from UXD to server scalability, and everything in between. Even though the conference is in Columbus, it’s not uncommon to see companies from all over Ohio representing a vast and varied cross section of the Ohio software development industry.

At the end of every conference, all attendees have the option to stay for an early screening of a popular movie that will be opening that weekend. It’s great. Stir Trek is fun, informative, and I’m very honored to have been selected as a speaker for this year’s event.

For me, Stir Trek has always been a great place to go to learn and talk with other experts in our industry, and I’m very excited to bring a UX design-centered talk to this year’s attendees. My topic is: What if Ernest Hemingway had given up writing to become a user experience designer?

Is there anything we can learn from the terse, understated style with which Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea”? I think there is. Of course, I say this as a man with a peculiar set of degrees: Computer Science and English. I’ve found that both disciplines have roles in good design.

How Does Hemingway Relate to UX Design?

Where does Hemingway come in? Hemingway was direct, often in a way that makes his writing seem incredibly intentional. He created the bare minimum needed to support his point. To paraphrase Dieter Rams, the iconic industrial designer from Braun, good design is as little design as possible. With writing, as with product design, less is more.

Text is still the heavy lifter for web interfaces. If you strip away all the text from the Internet, you’re left with a lot of nothing. This isn’t going to change anytime soon. To that end, I believe that designers need to have an appreciation and understanding of what makes good copy.

Language is the Next Big Discussion for User Experience Design

Language is the first step to a good relationship with our end user. However, I think it’s also going to be the next major battleground of user experience design. Today, end users don’t just appreciate or expect good design, they demand it. Copy and language, temporarily relegated to the back seat as the web exploded with graphical options, are now coming back into the spotlight. We see it in onboarding, in micro-interactions, anywhere that the interface can appear more friendly, more helpful, or more intentional. At Patriot, our UX design process facilitates this need for intentional language and design in everything we do. Even in terms of wireframes vs. prototypes, we tend to skip the wireframes, and have a whiteboard discussion instead, focusing on language, functionality and intention. Language and meaning are always at the root, from the first designs to the the end product.

Nowhere in design is language more important than when text is the interface.

China has seen a massive migration to language as an interface. Messaging apps are huge, and growing here in the States as well. Users are becoming more comfortable doing things through text messaging, instead of tapping around in an app.

Consider the still-in-beta Facebook M. Using Facebook Messenger, I can send a message to M saying, “Hey, get me tickets for tomorrow’s Cleveland game,” and M would buy the tickets for me. When you use text as the primary interface, you really need to be intentional with the words you use.

Language Beyond the Screen

But language as the interface even extends well beyond the screen. Look at the UXD of Amazon Echo, a voice-powered, always on, home assistant. Starting any sentence with “Hey, Alexa” (the Echo’s persona) lets you ask Alexa for more paper towels, which Amazon then ships to you, or to order you an Uber for quick and convenient transportation.

Looking forward, if all applications are produced at a similar high level of design, how can we differentiate? One possible area may be in contextual language, tailored to the vernacular the user is familiar with. Two years ago, the New York Times did a fascinating study on which parts of the United States say y’all / youse / you guys, and it showed the general geographical regions where that type of colloquial language is common. I think that as technology evolves, we may begin to see opportunities to carefully tailor our copy to the language a user is most familiar with. What if the interface could be unique to each user, instead of using the same boilerplate for every person? Anything we can do to better contextualize our services is worth exploring.

It always comes down to knowing our user. We want to create an interface wherein every interaction feels personal, feels intentional, and builds a relationship. It should show we care, that we want to care. Those are the emotions we want to exude as user experience designers. Those are things we strive for behind the scenes, and using the right language can play a big part in achieving that goal.

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