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.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.