Good after­noon. My name is Chris Clark. I’m here to talk to you today about the inter­sec­tion between design and lin­guis­tics, which seems very apt giv­en the top­ic of this conference. 

Linguistics is a social sci­ence. It’s not unlike anthro­pol­o­gy or soci­ol­o­gy, those stud­ies that have helped us so much in the design field for the last few decades. But lin­guis­tics is the study of lan­guage specif­i­cal­ly. Not of any par­tic­u­lar lan­guage. I only speak English. I tried French and Italian; did­n’t take. But human lan­guage in gen­er­al, as a phe­nom­e­non. Our unique abil­i­ty to pro­duce and com­pre­hend lan­guage, and the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage over time.

In par­tic­u­lar if we look at the inter­sec­tion of inter­ac­tion design and soci­olin­guis­tics (soci­olin­guis­tics is one of the many many sub­spe­cial­ties), we look at how lan­guage affects our social inter­ac­tions. That is to say the con­se­quences of our words on the peo­ple we speak to. And to turn that around, it goes both ways. The inter­ac­tions we have have an impact on the words, and have an impact on the lan­guage. Our inter­ac­tions as peo­ple define cliché, they define taboos, they define what’s offen­sive and what is humor­ous. Because humor and offense are not inher­ent to lan­guage. There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly offen­sive about any word, but the things we do with them cause offense or amuse­ment. And those things change over time. The march of soci­ety is that we con­tin­ue to evolve as a soci­ety and so our lan­guage does as well. Our usage of lan­guage as a peo­ple changes the mean­ing of indi­vid­ual words. 

And as peo­ple who are work­ing on pre­dom­i­nant­ly soft­ware, and with soft­ware becom­ing increas­ing­ly social, the impact of lan­guage on our online inter­ac­tions is increas­ing­ly rel­e­vant to us as design­ers. The names we use for fea­tures, the prompts that we put in the UI, can make peo­ple con­fi­dent and com­fort­able with the plat­forms we build for them, or they can make them feel ner­vous and guard­ed. This is true of social soft­ware, where the prompts that we give them set expec­ta­tions of behav­ior when they’re going to be inter­act­ing with oth­er peo­ple. But it’s also true of single-user tools.

We’ve been doing this for a long time already, even before social soft­ware became a thing. We’ve already been exer­cis­ing our abil­i­ty to set peo­ple at ease or put peo­ple on guard, with col­or and ani­ma­tion and shape. We’re already try­ing to con­trol emo­tion­al affect every day that we’re design­ing. Because we know that mood impacts usability.

Twenty, thir­ty years ago now, Don Norman was telling us about vis­cer­al design, behav­ioral design, and reflec­tive prop­er­ties in design, that these very sim­ple things can in fact impact how we feel and how we act fur­ther down the line. And that’s why we design attrac­tive soft­ware. That’s why we want to make bright col­ors and smooth shapes, to put peo­ple at ease. And lan­guage can play a huge part in this. Because design is already about com­mu­ni­ca­tion. We’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing affor­dances, we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing expec­ta­tions to our cus­tomers, to our users. And we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing our brand values.

But we try to do as much as we can with this non-linguistically. We try not to rely on words because we know that peo­ple aren’t read­ing them. We know that they’re just skim­ming and we can pray that they get through one or two words to get the gist of what we’re say­ing. But even though we know that words are the low­est pri­or­i­ty for any of our users, they’re still an inte­gral part of our work. 

As design­ers, we’re inevitably label­ing things and nam­ing fea­tures. We’re writ­ing error mes­sages and tooltips. We’re try­ing to help peo­ple nav­i­gate through these com­plex inter­ac­tive tools. And we know that mar­keters and con­tent strate­gists and oth­er peo­ple will even­tu­al­ly get in there. They might pol­ish up a few words, they might give a fea­ture they’ve been work­ing on a stu­pid­er name so that it can go pub­lic, and they might change things. But more and more often, the words that we used in our wire­frames ends up what’s ship­ping out to the pub­lic. Which should give us pause. It can be a lit­tle scary to think that some­thing that you wrote just off the top of your head in two sec­onds ends up ship­ping to mil­lions of customers.

A sign reading "If it 'doesn't' belong on the floor 'pick it up.'"

Because lan­guage is func­tion­al, even when it was poor form. Even when we do a bad job, it still works. But as pro­fes­sion­als we’re striv­ing for good form. That’s why we’re here. We’re try­ing to do bet­ter than the base­line, because lan­guage is an aes­thet­ic pur­suit. And under­stand­ing it and mas­ter­ing it isn’t just aes­thet­ic, it’s not just a sub­jec­tive act. It can be enhanced by sci­ence. We can objec­tive­ly improve our com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Which is why we can turn to fields like lin­guis­tics to help us out.

But the ques­tion is, is com­mu­ni­ca­tion real­ly that dif­fi­cult? Because we do it every day. We’re pret­ty well-practiced at it. But you could say the same about dress­ing your­self or feed­ing your­self. I’ve been eat­ing ter­ri­bly the last few days because I’m trav­el­ing. But just because you do some­thing every day does­n’t mean you’re doing it well. And just because we all have the capac­i­ty to write does­n’t make us all writ­ers. Because effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion isn’t up to us.

Any com­mu­ni­ca­tion has a sender and a recip­i­ent and a mes­sage, and you can only do so much as the sender. If the mes­sage is sent in a for­mat that the recip­i­ent does­n’t under­stand, it’s mean­ing­less. All of its mean­ing is com­plete­ly lost. You need to speak in a lan­guage that the recip­i­ent is expecting.

But what is lan­guage, real­ly? From a lin­guis­tic per­spec­tive it’s just any suf­fi­cient­ly com­plex sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Which is kind of tau­to­log­i­cal. But when we as lay peo­ple talk about lan­guages, we think of lan­guages that have names like French, and Dutch, and English. But what we call English” is not a lan­guage. It’s a com­plete mess of lan­guages. English is a mish­mash of thou­sands of sub­sys­tems of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. English is just a con­ve­nience label; it’s a polit­i­cal label that we use. Because there is no one defin­i­tive English lan­guage. Even in England, English peo­ple are ter­ri­ble at English. There are too many kinds of English in England to comprehend.

And there are these cul­tur­al and geo­graph­ic vari­a­tions that cause mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Where you learned to speak, who taught you to speak, these impact great­ly on how you speak. It cre­ates a cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty for you that you take with you around the world. In lin­guis­tics we call these dialects.

I grew up in Western Australia, and I learned to speak Australian English there, which is heav­i­ly influ­enced by British English dialects, espe­cial­ly in the West Coast. Because you know, they send their con­victs over on boats and the con­victs bring us new dic­tio­nar­ies every year, so that’s where we get new lan­guages. But I live in the United States now, in California, which is decid­ed­ly not British. They fought a whole war over it. So I’ve had to learn this United States English dialect.

I remem­ber the first time that I intro­duced myself when I arrived. I walked up to some­body and said [affect­ing an Australian accent], G’day, my name’s Chris Clark.” 

And they said, Clock? Like, clock like you’re telling the time?” 

Nonono. My name’s Chris Claaaarrrrk.”

That was my first step in this jour­ney of learn­ing the American dialect so that the peo­ple I was talk­ing to could under­stand me bet­ter. And I had to change whole vocab­u­lary words. In Australia we say toi­let, in the United States they say bath­room. Spanner became a wrench. And toma­to sauce (or [Australia accent again] tom­ah­to sauce) became ketchup, which is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant because in the United States toma­to sauce is some­thing you put on pasta.

So while dialects are tied to who you are, tied to where you come from, there are oth­er kinds of vari­ants in lan­guage. There are sit­u­a­tion­al vari­ants. You can have con­tex­tu­al lan­guages that you don’t use all the time, that don’t have to do with strict­ly who you are, where you came from. And rather than lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences between two peo­ple being deter­mined by who they are, you can have lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences that are deter­mined by who they’re talk­ing to, or what they’re talk­ing about, or the man­ner they’re talk­ing to each oth­er. We call those diatypes. Actually there are dozens of words for this because this is still kind of an in-progress research in lin­guis­tics. They can be called mesolects, they can be called reg­is­ters. Diatype is just suf­fi­cient­ly unique and sim­i­lar to dialect that I decid­ed to use it here. Diatypes can be, for design­ers, kind of our secret weapon for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. So I’d like to go through some of these things.

For audi­ence, when you speak to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, you speak dif­fer­ent­ly. You lit­er­al­ly speak dif­fer­ent­ly. You use a dif­fer­ent vocab­u­lary. You use a dif­fer­ent into­na­tion. And you speak at dif­fer­ent speeds. For instance, if you want­ed to ask some­one what they liked about their din­ner last night, and say it’s a peer of yours, say it’s your boss, you might just say, How’d you like your din­ner?” But if you’re talk­ing to a very small child, you prob­a­bly lean down and say [affect­ing baby talk], Did you like your num­nums?” And if you’re talk­ing to a very old per­son, you might yell a lit­tle and just say, How was din­ner?” It’s the same mes­sage deliv­ered three dif­fer­ent ways, and it’s depen­dent on the recip­i­ent. It has noth­ing to do with you. In a way.

And you’ll speak dif­fer­ent­ly whether you’re talk­ing to a friend or whether you’re talk­ing to a sales­per­son or whether you’re talk­ing to a police offi­cer, and that’s where the name of this talk comes from. You could imag­ine if you’re in a bar with some friends and you’ve been talk­ing to your friends for hours, and then you receive a phone call and it’s your moth­er. You spend a few min­utes on the phone with your moth­er try­ing to get her off the line because you’re in a bar. And when you hang up your friends turn to you and they say, You have the weird­est mom voice.”

And it’s not that you have a weird mom voice, it’s that you have a weird every­thing voice. The voice that you use for your friends is dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to the voice you use with your moth­er. It’s dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to the voice you use with your boss. All of them are weird voic­es. And these vari­ants are actu­al­ly indica­tive of pow­er rela­tion­ships with the peo­ple in your life. The peo­ple who have more pow­er, more author­i­ty, and more respect are spo­ken to dif­fer­ent­ly in our society. 

These reflect our cul­tur­al bias­es and our prej­u­dices. In the child-directed speech exam­ple I gave ear­li­er… Child-directed speech is a well-studied diatype, because it sounds so weird. We exag­ger­ate our tones. We sim­pli­fy our words. We speak slow­er. It serves an edu­ca­tion­al func­tion. We’re try­ing to show the kid the pat­terns of the lan­guage so that they can pick it up and learn it. But in the elder-speak exam­ple, it does­n’t have that func­tion. There’s no edu­ca­tion­al func­tion. We’re mak­ing assump­tions about the elder per­son­’s cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty and adjust­ing the way we speak accord­ing­ly. Which is a lit­tle insult­ing. I hope that as I get old­er peo­ple don’t start talk­ing to me like I’m an idiot. But this is a prej­u­dice that we have. And when you hear your­self doing it to dif­fer­ent peo­ple as you go about your life talk­ing to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, talk­ing to your boss, talk­ing to peo­ple at restau­rants, you can notice your­self doing it. And it’s ful­ly sub­con­scious; it’s a com­plete­ly auto­mat­ic process. But know­ing this about your­self is very reveal­ing. But fore­warned is fore­armed. You can learn more about your­self and fig­ure out how to treat peo­ple all a lit­tle better. 

In com­merce, the exact same rules apply. Restaurateurs train their staff in the restau­ran­t’s voice, as it were. In a classy restau­rant, the staff are extreme­ly for­mal, they’re extreme­ly polite, they’re bow­ing and scrap­ing, they are your will­ing ser­vants. Every wish is their com­mand. Yes, sir. How is your meal, sir? When you go into a din­er, it’s a much more friend­ly, wel­com­ing, casu­al atmos­phere. It’s like they’re your bud­dies. They just want you to be hap­py. It’s like you’re their house­guest, almost. And both of them illus­trate this pow­er dis­par­i­ty between the cus­tomer and the serv­er, because the pay­ing cus­tomer has all the pow­er. I mean, the pay­ing cus­tomer is lit­er­al­ly hold­ing mon­ey in the hope that the serv­er is polite to them, and is nice to them and gives them a good meal. And obvi­ous­ly the restau­rant wants that mon­ey, so they’re act­ing out this play where the restau­ra­teur is mak­ing you feel spe­cial by the way that they speak to you.

In the classy restau­rants, the norm is that the cus­tomer has sig­nif­i­cant­ly more pow­er than the staff do. In a classy restau­rant where you’re pay­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars for a meal, the cus­tomer has way more eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and social pow­er than the serv­er does. Although, in a din­er where the norm is that the cus­tomer is clos­er eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly to the serv­er, that means that the serv­er can be a lit­tle more famil­iar. They can be a lit­tle more friend­ly, because they know that they have some things in common.

This is Vancouver, BC. This is a beau­ti­ful town. While I was there, I learned what hap­pens when you break expec­ta­tions, when you take that expec­ta­tion around how servers are sup­posed to treat cus­tomers and turn it upside down. There’s a restau­rant in Vancouver called Elbow Room. And I think there’s a restau­rant in every town called Elbow Room, but the one in Vancouver is a din­er where the staff are rude to you. They’re just kind of short with you, they’re a lit­tle surly. And when they give you your cup of water, they point in the cor­ner and show you where the refills are. Because you get your own damn refills. The same with your cof­fee. They’ll bring you your first cof­fee; get your own refills.

They just take your order, they take it to the kitchen, and it’s their entire job to just fer­ry food between the table and the kitchen. They’re not try­ing to be nice to you. They’re not hov­er­ing over you mak­ing sure you’re hap­py with every aspect of your meal. So it’s a din­er but it has this atti­tude of being a dive bar. It’s like the peo­ple who work there are all way cool­er than you and they’re look­ing down at you for being there. They wish you weren’t there. And the staff, they’re judg­ing you almost on how you par­tic­i­pate in this sub­ver­sive cul­tur­al exper­i­ment, which as a mis­match for your expec­ta­tions is kind of inter­est­ing. It’s giv­en them a rep­u­ta­tion. The only rea­son I was there at all is because a friend told me there’s a restau­rant in town where the staff are rude. And I thought, that’s real­ly weird. I have to check this out. There’s this unique, mar­ketable posi­tion that they’ve tak­en as being the rude restaurant.

So you have to think with your users, with your cus­tomers, what is your actu­al rela­tion­ship? Are they your gods? Are they your guests? Are they a nui­sance to you? Because you know where the pow­er is. If they depend on you, if you run a monop­oly, or if your prod­uct has high switch­ing costs, you know that you have all the cards. If there are low switch­ing costs from your prod­uct to any com­peti­tor’s prod­uct, then they have all the pow­er. You have to keep them hap­py, oth­er­wise they’ll jump ship. This is like the dif­fer­ence between a pow­er com­pa­ny or a Twitter client. 

But the pow­er rela­tion­ship that exists, ver­sus the pow­er rela­tion­ship that you expose with your lan­guage don’t have to be the same thing. That’s a design deci­sion that is on you. You might need to bow and scrape to keep your cus­tomers and users extreme­ly hap­py, but you don’t have to act that way. You can play it cool.

The sec­ond ingre­di­ent of diatypes is the sub­ject. Because when we know a lit­tle about some­thing, we use very very dif­fer­ent lan­guage to when we’re igno­rant of some­thing. We have this high­ly spe­cial­ized vocab­u­lary when we know a lot about a top­ic, and in tech we call that jar­gon. But it exists in all sub­ject areas. Anywhere you can be an expert at some­thing. In med­i­cine or sports or law, they have jargons.

In law in par­tic­u­lar… Who here has been in a con­tract dis­pute or has filed a patent and has had to deal with lawyers? Lawyers speak this very weird vari­ant of the English lan­guage called legalese. And it’s a diatype that only lawyers and judges real­ly under­stand, and cer­tain­ly only lawyers and judges can write. And it’s not its own lan­guage, it’s not even a dialect. These lawyers don’t go home and speak this to their kids. They only use it on the job. It is entire­ly sit­u­a­tion­al, and what’s unique about legalese is that it does­n’t evolve the way that nor­mal lan­guage does. 

Normal lan­guage is just a big pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test. Phrases come into fash­ion, some phras­es go out of fash­ion, and that’s why they have to revise the dic­tio­nary all the time. But legalese evolves in bat­tle, and it’s evolved by fiat. So when a lawyer writes a patent or writes a con­tract, they are basi­cal­ly putting down a record of what they think ought to hap­pen and they write it down to the best of their abil­i­ties. If some oth­er lawyer some­where in the world dis­agrees with them, say a clien­t’s lawyer wants to get out of a con­tract, or a dif­fer­ent lawyer wants to break a patent, they’re going to go to court for that and the oth­er lawyer’s going to try to find ways to destroy the lan­guage that they’ve writ­ten down. They’re look­ing for loop­holes, they’re look­ing for weak­ness­es that they can con­vince a judge to inval­i­date the patent, inval­i­date the contract.

So after the lawyers have pre­sent­ed all their argu­ments, the judge decides whether what has been writ­ten is legal­ly enforce­able. At the end of that, that’s a prece­dent. So future gen­er­a­tions of lawyers know about all these prece­dents, and they write their con­tracts accord­ing­ly. They avoid the lan­guage that they know has been defeat­ed in court before, and they use the lan­guage that they know has been held up in court before. And that’s what makes legalese so ridicu­lous. We’re deal­ing with hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years of legal prece­dent that makes the lan­guage even more ridicu­lous and twisty as we go along. Because in every court case, plain­er lan­guage went to court and lost.

So there’s jar­gon in all areas of inter­est, all knowl­edge domains. Legalese is just par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious because it almost does­n’t rep­re­sent English at all. But you talk about food, you talk about wine, you talk about music…people have these highly-developed vocab­u­lar­ies. If you take pro­fes­sion­al photographers—I’m sure many of you are pros or prosumers—you talk about shut­ter speed, you talk about ISO and aper­ture and light bal­ance, and these words are like lit­tle mem­ber­ship badges. They say that you’re in the I‑know-how-this-stuff-works group. And it shows who’s in the club of experts. 

A triangle diagram divided into sections labeled "nerds," "wannabes," and "everybody else on the planet."

But for any area of inter­est, any sub­ject domain in the world, you have these experts, you have enthu­si­asts, and then you have every­body else. So point and shoot cam­eras ignore every­one at the top of this pyra­mid. Point and shoot cam­eras have one but­ton, and they don’t tell you any­thing about the ISO. They hide all the jar­gon, and in doing so they kind of thumb their noses at the experts of the world, and experts thumb their noses in return.

When you’re work­ing on your prod­ucts, you have a choice of how your address your cus­tomers. You can use lan­guage that talks to the experts, and talks to the enthu­si­asts (who are just experts in train­ing), and in doing so you alien­ate the major­i­ty a lit­tle. You use very com­plex lan­guage and it scares peo­ple away. Or you can embrace the major­i­ty. You can embrace those sev­en bil­lion peo­ple who don’t know any­thing about your area of exper­tise, and leave the experts unim­pressed in the process. We see that a lot in the mar­ket, where prod­ucts like the iPhone, they don’t don’t say any­thing about the mega­hertz, they don’t say any­thing about the giga­bytes. All we know is that every year the iPhone gets bet­ter. We don’t know that it’s mea­sur­ably bet­ter. We can­not make tech­ni­cal spec com­par­isons, real­ly. But in doing so they’ve made com­put­ing acces­si­ble to way more than just the nerds of the world.

And this is a dif­fi­cult tightrope to walk, because it’s real­ly easy for engi­neer­ing lan­guage to sneak into the user expe­ri­ence. It’s real­ly easy for legal lan­guage to sneak into the user expe­ri­ence because when lawyers come to you say­ing that they needs these terms of ser­vice built into the app, you know, they’re lawyers. You freak out a lit­tle and you put it in there even though no one will under­stand it, ever.

But how much of this stuff you expose to your cus­tomers is a design deci­sion. So there’s this third ingre­di­ent to diatypes that is the medi­um. It’s the idea that the method of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as well as oth­er things, impact what you say, how you say it. In spo­ken con­ver­sa­tion, when two peo­ple meet and start talk­ing, the first thing they do is size each oth­er up. They look at each oth­er and they fig­ure out which one of them is more pow­er­ful and who’s going to get more respect out of the con­ver­sa­tion, and they eval­u­ate each oth­er for exper­tise to fig­ure out how much tech­ni­cal lan­guage they can use when they’re talk­ing to each other. 

If they misjudge that, then they make ass­es of them­selves. You talk a lit­tle too expert­ly to some­body who’s a com­plete ama­teur, and you’ve just made a lit­tle bit of an ass of your­self. But you recov­er. During the con­ver­sa­tion, there are rules. There are these unwrit­ten social rules about length and turn-taking, which are fas­ci­nat­ing. If some­one is talk­ing, there is a cer­tain length at which they should­n’t talk any­more. They need to hand it over to the oth­er per­son. And if they do, they pause for a sec­ond, the oth­er per­son can take the conch and start talk­ing, or the oth­er per­son can just bounce it right back by just kind of nod­ding or they can just say, Uh huh,” and that sig­nals that they don’t want their turn. They bounce the turn back to the oth­er per­son. But these turn-taking rules are part of what polite con­ver­sa­tion is built on. So if you flaunt those rules, again, you make an ass of yourself. 

But spo­ken con­ver­sa­tion is extreme­ly flex­i­ble. You can make a lot of syn­tac­tic mis­takes, you can lot­ta make a—make a lot of gram­mat­i­cal errors like I’m doing right now, and you could just recov­er from them. You can eas­i­ly make jokes. You can start sen­tences and just trail off and change the sub­ject, and you can get away with it because speech is an extreme­ly for­giv­ing medium.

Writing is not. There is no turn-taking in writ­ing. If some­body does­n’t get what you’re say­ing, they just have to keep read­ing and hope that they get it by the end. Journalists and aca­d­e­mics and sci­en­tists, when they’re writ­ing, they’re putting their thoughts down on the per­ma­nent record. And that’s kind of cool that they’re cre­at­ing a lit­tle time cap­sule of their brain that can then trav­el around the world and be read by some­one twen­ty years in the future. That’s some­thing you can­not do with conversation.

So when they’re writ­ing these things, they need to be clear and they need to be exhaus­tive so that there are no ques­tions left unan­swered. But then they need to be fac­tu­al, and then they try to be for­mal. They try to be as for­mal as they can. They try to hone in on stan­dard English. And ear­li­er when I said there is no stan­dard English because it’s all just a mess of dialects, they hone in on stan­dard English that I’ll call English teacher English,” the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor of the English lan­guage. The hope is with this, espe­cial­ly for sci­en­tists, that in a hun­dred years peo­ple will still be able to under­stand it because you’re not using any slang, you’re not using any weird swear words, you’re not using any­thing that’s cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant right now. You’re using stuff that will hope­ful­ly per­sist. Because that’s the idea use case for a sci­en­tist when they’re writ­ing; they write their paper, and in a hun­dred years peo­ple are still read­ing it and say­ing, Wow, that guy’s real­ly smart. I’m so glad he wrote this paper a hun­dred years ago.”

Texting is a rel­a­tive­ly new phe­nom­e­non. Texting is writ­ten, obvi­ous­ly, but it’s more con­ver­sa­tion­al. You can take lib­er­ties with your punc­tu­a­tion, you can take lib­er­ties with your spelling, and you can get real-time feed­back from the par­ty that you’re tex­ting with. It’s a real­ly for­giv­ing medi­um, even though it’s writ­ten. And par­ents and edu­ca­tors freak out about this a lit­tle. They think that tex­ting might be a dan­ger to lit­er­a­cy. Texting and dri­ving is a dan­ger to a lot of things, but tex­ting is no more a dan­ger to lit­er­a­cy than speak­ing is. Texting is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent medi­um, and so it’s a dif­fer­ent diatype. And the key is teach­ing young peo­ple the dif­fer­ence between those two things, the same way that you teach them the dif­fer­ence between how they can write a note for their mom that they leave on the kitchen table before they go out to play, ver­sus writ­ing a school essay. 

These are sit­u­a­tion­al dif­fer­ences, and it’s like teach­ing chil­dren not to swear. When you teach a kid not to swear, you’re not try­ing to stop them from swear­ing for their entire lives. You know that you’re nev­er going to accom­plish that. You just need to teach them when it’s not okay to swear. Not in front of the teach­ers, not in front of the boss, not in front of your mother-in-law. Just save it for when you hit your­self on the thumb with a ham­mer. Everyone’ll be okay with that. It’s the sit­u­a­tion­al appropriateness.

A computer dialog asking "You wanna delete everything? Seriously?" offering options of "Hmmm" and "Yeah."

Interactive prod­ucts, the prod­ucts that we work on are in an inter­est­ing mid­dle ground. Interactive is not con­ver­sa­tion. A dia­log box is not a dia­logue. Even though this user has a but­ton to respond, they can con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tion, that’s not turn-taking. You don’t have to explain every­thing in your dialogs because you can let peo­ple find out more infor­ma­tion else­where, like you would in a con­ver­sa­tion. Because inter­ac­tive prod­ucts are kind of a choose-your-own-adventure. They are one big con­ver­sa­tion between a per­son and a com­put­er system.

But we know that peo­ple won’t tol­er­ate length. We know that peo­ple won’t read more than a cou­ple words of this. There’s also no prosody in your writ­ing. Prosody is the tone and the rhythm, the cadence of how you speak. And prosody is use­ful for sar­casm. You can’t do sar­casm with­out tone. You can’t use sar­casm in writ­ing in inter­ac­tive prod­ucts. And humor will tend to fall flat.

Another dialog asking "Delete EVERYTHING? Gone for good" offering options "LOL JK" and "YOLO"

But inter­ac­tive isn’t tex­ting, either. It’s writ­ten, and then it’s pub­lished. Errors in what you do, errors in punc­tu­a­tion, errors in spelling and basic gram­mar, are less for­giv­able in inter­ac­tive prod­ucts, which is kind of weird. We have this kind of desire to be more professional-looking, even as we try to be friend­ly as brands. 

A dialog reading "Confirm Total Deletion" offering options "Cancel" and "Delete"

So it’s not like tex­ting, and it’s not like writ­ing, either. Because it’s not a pub­li­ca­tion. What you’re writ­ing in your inter­ac­tive prod­ucts is not on the per­ma­nent record. Our prod­ucts are fleet­ing. Our prod­ucts are evolv­ing. And the copy that you write today prob­a­bly won’t even be there in two years. If the com­pa­ny is there in two years, if the prod­uct is there in two years, it may have been com­plete­ly redesigned. It may have moved in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tion, that fea­ture may be com­plete­ly obso­lete by then. 

So we’re con­stant­ly adjust­ing and repub­lish­ing our prod­ucts. We make mis­takes and the we just fix them. It’s not like tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ing in that you don’t get to do a sec­ond edi­tion unless you sell ten mil­lion of your first edi­tion. You’re con­stant­ly putting out sec­ond edi­tions. There’s always a .1 release.

So unlike an aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence, your audi­ence for inter­ac­tive pur­pos­es is right now. You can make time­ly ref­er­ences as part of how you speak to your cus­tomers, because they won’t be there in a hun­dred years. You can ref­er­ence a new Beyoncé album in an error dia­log and then when it’s not a new album any­more, you just change the error dia­log. It’ll take you five sec­onds. So we have to work with these strengths and weak­ness­es of our medi­um that have nev­er real­ly been tak­en into con­cern before. Because diatype is a design deci­sion through and through.

Of these three ingre­di­ents in diatype, peo­ple get how rela­tion­ship impacts speech just kind of intu­itive­ly. People know to be polite and pro­fes­sion­al dur­ing a job inter­view, but they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­sid­er that they can flaunt those rules. That they can be a lit­tle cheeky, be a lit­tle rude, and it works to their favor. 

People get that jar­gon is kind of dif­fi­cult when you’re work­ing with newbs. They don’t real­ize jar­gon’s abil­i­ty to include or exclude peo­ple. Jargon has this pow­er to cre­ate in-groups and out-groups that help peo­ple feel like they belong, or it can make peo­ple feel unwel­come, which is real­ly kind of scary. We can address a large audi­ence, or we can address a very small audi­ence and make that audi­ence feel ultra-special that we’re talk­ing direct­ly to them. We can com­mu­ni­cate with them with very spe­cif­ic lan­guage they under­stand. We can appear more trust­wor­thy and more cred­i­ble for speak­ing to them direct­ly, when you’re tar­get­ing a very spe­cif­ic slide of society.

And peo­ple under­stand intu­itive­ly how talk­ing is dif­fer­ent from writ­ing. You show any­one a tran­script of how they talk, they’ll see a lot of false starts. They’ll see a lot of ums and ahs that makes them feel weird because they would nev­er write that. But they don’t con­sid­er that they can choose this style, that you could actu­al­ly go out of your way to write an entire English essay as if it were dic­tat­ed with all the ums and ahs and false starts that you want. 

In uni­ver­si­ty, since I was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly study­ing lin­guis­tics and com­put­er sci­ence, I got in a lot of trou­ble with my com­put­er sci­ence pro­fes­sors for writ­ing like a lin­guis­tics stu­dent. It’s like I was blog­ging my com­put­er sci­ence papers. And the pro­fes­sors hat­ed that, but they could­n’t mark me down for it because it was just styl­is­tic. It was not a fac­tu­al problem.

In our medi­um, it was not that long ago that shrink-wrapped soft­ware was only updat­ed annu­al­ly, maybe at best. Maybe every three or four years instead. Nowadays we’re ship­ping web sites dai­ly, we’re ship­ping apps every month, and the updates are all free and auto­mat­ic. They just appear. And this affords us all kinds of free­doms as design­ers. These are free­doms to make mis­takes and fix them lat­er, because diatype isn’t just about com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it’s about brand­ing. As much as col­or and typog­ra­phy are about brand­ing. And diatype also impacts learn­abil­i­ty and usability. 

And most of all it impacts peo­ple’s emo­tion­al affect. Because we know that there’s no such thing as no design. We know that when an engi­neer says, Oh, I just put this togeth­er. It has­n’t been designed,” what that real­ly means is, I made a bunch of design deci­sions with­out think­ing.” In that same vein there’s no such thing as no diatype. There are just the diatypes that we sub­con­scious­ly choose, with­out thinking. 

And the ones that we sub­con­scious­ly choose are usu­al­ly about who is going to be proof­read­ing it. When you write some­thing for work, you’re either writ­ing it for your­self, or your boss, or the engi­neers. So we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to think more about the impacts of our words. We need to choose when we’re going to speak to our cus­tomers with respect. We’ve got to choose when we’re going to speak to them with dis­dain, or com­pas­sion. We can choose snob­bery. We can choose jar­gon. All of these are design decisions. 

A non-choice is just a cop-out. Because the world is full of peo­ple who don’t all talk like you. They don’t all talk like me. They don’t all talk like your peers. We did­n’t have the same upbring­ing. We did­n’t come from the same coun­tries. We did­n’t have the same edu­ca­tion or oppor­tu­ni­ties. We don’t have the same expe­ri­ence with tech­nol­o­gy. And we cer­tain­ly don’t have the same expe­ri­ence with this spe­cif­ic prod­uct that if you’ve been work­ing on it for a while you’ve got all kinds of research and design back­ground in. It’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty as design­ers to choose the lan­guage that we use to com­mu­ni­cate with them wise­ly, for them.

So good luck, and thank you.

Further Reference

This pre­sen­ta­tion’s descrip­tion and bio for Clark, at the Interaction14 site.