As a UX designer I’ve evolved to understand that plain text, simple, humble text is the greatest possible user interface (yes, greater than voice — probably not so great as telepathy). Plain text, plain words, carefully constructed if possible — rich in vocabulary, and clear in intent is purest communication.
I daren´t go so far as to suggest plain text be the greatest possible user experience, because maybe music or other art forms can fill this role better in many ways (although I do argue that the richest tapestry of experience has to be in prose, for its sheer depth).
Text as User Interface
Text is coming back into vogue. Apple knows how important plain language is as a user interface and are strongly developing the Spotlight tool. Anyone who codes knows the value of a plain text interface. Google certainly knew: a single input box was unheard of for search — Literally ask the computer something? Whoever heard of such a strange idea.
Let’s look at a simple example of how plain text can become great UI:
Let’s imagine we are in a folder, and we want to create a new one — we can either try and find a doubtful looking icon button (probably hovering first to make sure) and click: or, hover through all the menus to find it — and click. (nb: I’m ignoring the even more succinct keyboard shortcuts method for now).
The following is how to create a new folder in your computer’s language:
mkdir "new folder"
Despite the unforgivable, but probably necessary, encoding of the honest phrase “Make Directory” into mkdir this is a simple and honest user interface that creates a new folder. Imagine now that same usability available in Spotlight (cmd+space to invoke the dialog): we are in a folder, we invoke the Spotlight dialog and we type the above in possibly more natural language:
make a new folder called "new folder"
Sure, it’s a little more verbose than mkdir, but if you’re a beginner it’s honest and clear language. Certainly you could then use keywords, or make your own shortcuts to quicken it.
Imagine also how you might extend it easily:
make a new red folder called "new folder" tagged "important"
Kinda verbose also, when you read it. But it is still much quicker than operating the mouse system to achieve the same, and more extensible.
Internet Architects on UI
What happens when we create an interface: one mind builds a way for other minds to interact with a thing. To lay the foundation of human-machine interaction you need to put thought into things and that requires that you put things into thought. This is why most interfaces suck, and most interfaces will continue to suck. No model, method, or tool will change that. Thinking is painful.
Which leads me to user experience. We see how text used as a user interface could be extended to create a real dialogue with the computer, but the experience is still pretty mechanical: Functional dialogue is the limit of text based UI, I’m doubtful prose and poetry are going to be introduced in any practical way — but — copywriting is plain text, and it does affect the user experience.
Plain text again offers a better user experience than, say, an image or an icon. Well-written copy, that forms part of a comprehensive experience idea, talks directly to you. Well-written copy will reach you, communicate to you and inspire you. It’s the very matter your mind is made of. Poor copy, conversely, can shrivel your spirit.
Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.
Copywriting by itself is weak without the underlying narrative that is storytelling: an upcoming (in my opinion) area of UX which crosses into how a user experiences a brand in its entirety and, in theory, grows with it. And who would argue that words do not form a large part of storytelling?
More on this in another post. As a diversion, and example of the power of words as experience, here is (possibly) Hemingway’s take on storytelling — the shortest story ever told:
“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”