How language affects design

Published Jun 16, 2017 | Written by Jeremy Knight

There’s a 35 second sketch on YouTube that makes me cry with laughter and I’m pretty sure half of what tickles me is the familiarity of that primitive Windows screen on display (watch it!). My first memory of using a computer takes me back to summer in lower school and I remember the distinctive teal and grey interface like yesterday.

I hadn’t really considered how much language choice affects an interface until today but, especially if you are writing for business purposes, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. This post by John Saito about the words we use to label things that 'belong to you’ addresses the matter beautifully.

Is this my interface or yours?

Great user interface is integral to design, and the best examples are so intuitive, so natural, they hide the designer’s hand.

When I'm navigating as a user I view text as functional; but the words you read influence your experience, your expectations and your relationship with the product. There is concrete logic behind the way designers write. Text is more than basic communication of fact.

Why do products sometimes label things as my stuff, and sometimes label things as your stuff? Because details, even down to the pronouns you are using, build understanding. There is a subtle difference between speaking to the user and for the user. However, this is not something consumers consciously look for. Simple word choices can have a large impact but that impact is indirect - super important, but barely memorable.

Sometimes language gets sidelined in web design as if it's a necessity, not a tool, but there is a lot of power in what gets read. My computer = my precious. Personalisation, for example, has to be done with care; the use of 'we' and 'our' can become irritatingly presumptuous very quickly in commercial settings. Too much text is overwhelming, ambiguous labelling frustrates, and bad direction can prevent people from finding the things they need.

If you improve the ease of use and pleasure provided by your UI through your choice of words, and include language that continually supports and clarifies your message, you’ll be on to a winner.


Remember back in the day when Windows had a My Computer icon? It was a glorious little icon that represented all the stuff you had on your computer—all your programs, all your work, all the digital pieces of you. In later versions of Windows, Microsoft changed the label of this icon to Computer, then changed it again to This PC. Did they change it because “my” was misleading? Inconsistent? Unnecessary? This little change got me thinking about a bigger question: Why do products sometimes label things as my stuff, and sometimes label things as your stuff?

Published by Jeremy Knight June 16, 2017
Jeremy Knight