User interfaces are not just look and feel. Words matter.


I have seen more HR software user interfaces (UI) than almost anyone on this planet. I reckon there are maybe about 25 people that have watched more demos that I have. I’m not sure that this is what I want to remembered for, but anyway. If there was name the year and vendor UX competition, I suspect Holger Mueller would be tough competition. Maybe one day, if conferences come back, we can arrange a university challenge type session.

I’ve also lived through UI rewrites as a product manager. It is a project that I would only wish upon my worst enemies. If we were to recast Greek myths as software projects, changing UI is up there with Sisyphus. So while I’m not a designer, I have strong opinions and many scars when it comes to user interfaces. While many vendors and their designers agonize about the colour palette, navigation patterns and how the button morphs when you click it, almost all vendors have a major failing. Putting easy to understand instructions into their applications.

tweet about Zoom Waiting Room.

“When participants join a meeting, place them in a waiting room and require the host to admit them individually. Enabling the waiting room automatically disables the setting for allowing participants to join before the host.”


I had to read that paragraph at least 4 times to understand what the button does. I’m still not exactly sure. This is not particularly bad example, but it popped up in my twitter feed. Most vendors have text somewhere on an important screen that would bamboozle Hegel on his cleverest of days.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Tonychocolonely had rewritten the employee contract to be super simple and a thing of joy. I bet you the biggest bar of chocolate they make that the best thing you can do to improve the usability of your application today is to improve the reading index of your texts and labels.

Having good readability of your solution also makes the system more usable for people with disabilities. Imagine listening to that sentence through a screenreader tool, and then trying to work out what to do with the button. When vendors do address accessibility, they tend to focus on accommodating visual impairment. However cognitive disabilities also require accommodation. Also think about second or third language users. Also think about the user who is busy thinking about something else. In other words, universal design.

Also, your on screen text and documentation is a useful heuristic for product quality. In other words, if I notice in a demo that your on-screen grammar is a mess, I’m going to wonder about the rest of the product quality that I can’t actually see.

Kudos for Zoom to comment back on the thread. Their service/support monitoring of twitter is absolutely worldclass.


Some homework for you

Print out all the text in your application.

  • Read it.
  • Do you understand it?
  • Does it make you proud of your product?
  • If not, fix it.
  • Repeat with every build.
  • Extra points. Run all your documentation through a readability index tool.
  • Double extra points. Mention improving your SMOG and Coh-metrics scores at your next retrospective.