Interface Design is a Conversation

Interface Design is a Conversation

A recent round of client work at One Mighty Roar has got me thinking a lot more about successful interface design. Specifically, how can we build pages that send a clear message without losing aesthetic or professional edge? The question turns out not to be “How does it look?” but, “What is it saying?”

Dazzling graphics can lose the thrill over time, but a clearly worded page has lasting power.

I came to a realization. There are very few group interactions with the internet. It’s rare for more than one person to use the same computer and browse a website together. There are obviously times when everyone in your office gathers to watch a cute cat video on YouTube, but you get the idea. This one-to-one relationship has a few important implications:

  1. The site can typically speak directly to a single person rather than an entire organization. Instead treating the visitor like a faceless representative, they are now an individual.
  2. You can start by addressing individual needs, then (if needed) the needs of the visitor’s group. This means that a site could have “You and your team will benefit” as opposed to “Your Company”. This is a subtle change, but as we’ll discuss later, it can pay to appeal to individual ego.

You only have to care about one person at a time. That’s a powerful direction.

Interaction is Personal

Personalized Site Interaction

A one-to-one interaction with a visitor is low risk. With nobody is watching over your shoulder and rating your interactions, there is no pressure to fake understanding. It’s like asking your best friend to explain something to you — they’ll be direct and conversational. With this type of relationship, a visitor’s ego and reputation can stay untouched. This is why blogs are such a great way to learn new skills, the process is judgement-free and failing doesn’t hurt.

In recent years, the trend has been to replace the standard “Welcome” to a more personalized “Hello”. This is a step in the right direction. As Darren Hoyt recently wrote about in “Designing with Social Skills“, interfaces should be designed for humans.

A large company probably won’t want to greet visitors in the same way that a designer does on his portfolio. There’s a level of professionalism that needs to be maintained, and the larger the entity represented, the more important the tone. I firmly believe that it is possible to show professionalism without sacrificing a personalized conversation with the user. Not every visitor is going to be a potential investor with an MBA. But if they were, would it even matter? Business professionals are people at the end of the day too, after all.

Readability Matters

Jason Fried said it best with “Copywriting is Interface Design“. A button’s label has just as much (if not more) impact as the design of the button itself. In the one-to-one relationship that visitors have with a site, phrasing and reading level can be considered convienences of an interface. This is why tools like After The Deadline are so important with web copy. These kinds of services consider the implications of grammar on comprehension, and not just technical mistakes.

37Signals Simple Wording

It’s always suprised me how more service-oriented sites don’t include a “reading level” button right next to the font size options. Isn’t it just as important to understand the content as it is to see the letters clearly? The message of “If you don’t understand this, you shouldn’t be here” is a barrier to interface design. It’s a free excuse to ignore real problems.

The “About Us” page is not a collegiate thesis paper nor is it a first-grade picture book. The problem is that of those two extremes, sites are more likely to fall into the “professionalism” trap of overdesigned sentences. On the other hand, when’s the last time you wished a site used bigger words?

How to Chart Readability

Readability of the English language can be measured using a number of tests. For example, the Flesch-Kincaid rates readability by grade level and is calculated using a combination of words, syllables, and sentence structures. The Automated Readability Index is another popular method.

Try This: Google Docs has a few of these measures built in by default, but for a quick test try using this online tool. Put some of your own work to the test. Are you overdesigning sentences?

Wording Can Be Selfish

When I’m on a website, I don’t care about “The Site Policy”, but I do care how it affects me. Headings and copy can afford to be selfish, because that’s probably what they care most about. Be self-centered on behalf of the visitor, and you’ll be surprised at how well the results come out.

Lessons from FAQ

The average Frequently Asked Questions page is a great reference for this. One of the reasons that FAQ pages work so well is because they phrase problems in terms of the user. Rather than “Billing Policy”, the FAQ becomes “How will I be billed?” Wording is concrete and in relation to the user instead of some abstract idea. It’s all about you.

Beanstalk FAQ Wording

Let’s use Beanstalk’s service documentation as an example. They make heavy use of personalized language to present common questions. Would their documentation be as effective without it? Most likely, but the real added value is much more subtle. The Beanstalk folks have shown that they realize people (not robots) use the service. These are people that would rather get things done instead of feel a false sense of professionalism from decoding overdesigned sentences.

If an idea can be done in a single sentence, why not?

What About You?

What’s your take on successful interfaces? Assuming a page layout is successful, how do you keep communication clear? If you have feedback or suggestions that you’d like to share on this, please let us know in the comments below.

Resource & Further Reading

For those interested in a little more.

  1. After The Deadline
  2. Understandable Interface Principles from the W3C
  3. 30 Ways to Improve Readability
  4. Focus on Goals, Not Actions
  5. Writing User Friendly Content

Posted Saturday, May 1st, 2010 · Back to Top


Add Comment

36 Comments 10 Mentions

  1. William G. Author Editor

    Great post! I agree about speaking to an individual. I definitely think that what you’re trying to say should come before how you present it.


  2. Thiago Menezes Author Editor



  3. Kyle W. Author Editor

    Great article. I recently came to a similar realization as this while working on a large project for class. When my group identified UX improvements a lot of it had to do with calls to action and clearly communicating with the user. Nice article!


  4. Tulsi Dharmarajan Author Editor

    Excellent article! Way to go leading the way towards more friendly websites :)


  5. Andrew Dertinger Author Editor

    Good article Zach!
    I agree it is absolutely key to add a ‘humanizing’ factor to websites when you’re trying to engage the visitor.


  6. Bournemouth Web Design Author Editor

    Interesting thoughts about FAQ’s, its an area that I often to try and get our clients to raise. Adding more detail/information to site.

    Thank you for the article.


  7. Jordan Walker Author Editor

    Thanks for the article, conversions are key to great websites.


  8. Joseph Hinson Author Editor

    Nice post Zach.

    I especially like the phrase, “when’s the last time you wished a site used bigger words?”


  9. Rachel Author Editor

    Nice article..thank you for your valid information…


  10. cleawalford Author Editor

    great article, Zach & I fully agree with you


  11. Maher Berro Author Editor

    Thanks Zack for the interesting read!

    Drawing back from previous experiences, usability tests and many discussions with colleagues, a common question was always in the back of my head.
    Where do you draw the line between simplicity and professionalism?
    On one hand, “less is more” makes it imperative to keep it simple, straight forward and using basic language/terminologies; yet, given the broad variety of the audience, doesn’t that also create an opportunity for savvy users to feel “dumb” to some extents?! I know I have been in similar scenarios and considered myself as “not the intended audience” or “not for me” thus leaving those sites in a jiffy.

    Any thoughts on that?!


  12. Scott Corgan Author Editor

    Line height and font weight is all I have to say!


  13. Kate Mag Author Editor

    Thank you for the article. Good insight. The article open my mind about Interface design


  14. PixelSteam Author Editor

    Good post Zach…I have built quite a few GUI’s and learning to simplify complex interfaces is no easy task. I thought your perspective was great regarding “Interaction is Personal”… the 37signal guys are master of that;)


  15. Atlanta pi lawyer Author Editor

    Interesting insights into readability, and how to merge design elements, with substantive text to come out with a final product that is both useful and pleasant .


  16. Joshua Lay Author Editor

    Totally agree with you Zach.

    I think it does depend on the nature of your website. Business or personal blog as to how conversational you make it.

    But keeping in mind “what would the user want” is always key in pushing information. Making it easier for people you want to get what they want.


  17. Kanwaljit Simgh Nagra Author Editor

    Just like this comment, a nice, short, straight to the point article :D


  18. MCM design studio Author Editor

    Thank you for excellent article Zach. It change my mind about Interface design, thats for sure.


  19. Mickael Pinto Author Editor

    Very true !


  20. Neil Porter Author Editor

    Interesting. Readability is something that is often overlooked. Thanks for reminding me about this.


  21. Binary Spectrum Author Editor

    Thanks for your valuable Information….


  22. web design Agency Bournemouth Author Editor

    This is a great article, highlights alot of things i have been explaining to clients for a while! Way to go leading the way towards more friendly websites! Bookmarked!


  23. John Author Editor

    It’s interesting seeing and reading about different points of view for something that is kind uncertain and feel with predictions and ifs. But definitely you got the point …. It’s all about us …


  24. Web Design Bournemouth Author Editor

    I agree with you 101% Zach. Interface, interaction, interchange, conversation are all about exchanging ideas and more importantly, understanding each other. You’re right, our business and any other business for that matter should be centered on the ‘you’ and not on an abstract ‘someone’ or ‘people’. I think being able to convey your ideas to another person on a personal level to solicit a personal reaction is the best interface and this holds true to interface design. Conversation and more conversation are needed instead of formal discourses that are more appropriate to formal settings. Thanks for sharing some tools for measuring readability. I’m bookmarking them and I’ll be using them from now on.


  25. web designing uae Author Editor

    Interface Design is a Conversation – Impressive topic to discuss Zach Dunn.


  26. pascal Author Editor

    Hi Zac,

    Excellent article, I totally agree with you on that one!
    I hate to plug my stuff, but I reached the same conclusion, although from a more theoretical point of departure:

    You might find it interesting!

    Best Regards,



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    some really interesting information, well written and broadly user friendly .


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