Omit Needless Words

Omit Needless Words

Appropriate feedback is critical to creating a good user experience. But was does “appropriate” mean? It’s a given that you need to let users know when an error occurs. Sometimes appropriate feedback tells them that everything’s just fine, for example “Results: 17 invoices were processed.” Be thorough and consistent with your feedback. But don’t be verbose. You wouldn’t write bloated code, and you shouldn’t write bloated messages.

This way of thinking is relatively new to me. And I didn’t come up with it on my own. One of our clients drove this point home to me. She jokingly yelled at me while she was testing a new script, “Don’t waste my time with all those extra words!” I’d given her a well-worded and dynamic message telling her something like “Your email to Constance Sorrow was sent.” I didn’t think it was all that wordy. Sure it’s passive voice, but that construction is shorter, and doesn’t try to anthropomorphize the database by saying something very silly like “Friendly database here: I sent an email to Connie Sorrow.” Anyway, I thought the message was a model of brevity already so in the name of friendly discussion I argued with her.

“I know who I just sent the email to. I just need to know if it went out or if I have to do something to fix the problem. Just tell me ‘Email sent.’ I don’t even need a period hanging out there. I just want to flash on that message and get on to the next thing.”

She didn’t want complete sentences. She didn’t want objects. She wanted one noun and one verb. It’s not second nature to me yet. I still have to remember to edit messages to make sure they contain the basic information, but no time-wasting extras. But for most users, this is exactly the right way to give feedback – short, simple, clear.

Like all design solutions though, make sure you know your audience. This type of brevity works well for sovereign apps (those that users work in all day/every day). Those users know what to expect and are waiting for it. Less sophisticated users may need more handholding, and for them, extreme brevity is actually harmful. If you’re not sure what category your users fall into, ask. That’s what demo and discovery meetings are for.

About Author


Susan Prosser is a FileMaker Pro developer and author. She's stopped trying to bring more information to the people and is helping them get more out of the information they already have.