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10 steps to better user-facing strings

1. Say it, then write it (aka, "Sound like a human")

Say out loud, to a friend or to yourself, what you want to tell the user. Write that down: it's going to be much more conversational than your first written attempt. 
  • Before you keep reading, go and actually write it down in a note or document. 
  • As you read on, edit your string during each step.

2. Focus on the user

The user is the star! One way to literally do this when writing is to set the user as the subject of the string ("You can do this action" instead of "Chrome has released this feature").
  • Lead with the goal: It catches users' eyes and incentivizes them to keep reading. Prepositional intro phrases are useful: "To perform your goal, do this action."
  • Offer a solution: Instead of only describing what went wrong, explain how to fix it!
  • Don't go behind the scenes: Are you describing how a feature works? Take it out: users really, really don't care. [Exceptions: mandatory data transparency & privacy/legal text]

3. Be consistent

Are there any other pieces of related UI where we want to maintain consistency? We have patterns for permissions prompts, settings, etc. Also, consider whether there are others in our industry who do it well!

4. Include everyone

Use language that’s neutral to different cultures, races, genders, and age groups. Avoid colloquialisms and US-centric references.
  • Accessibility: Does the string rely on color or position to identify a component? This won't work for people who are colorblind or use screen readers: find a non-visual way to distinguish components.

5. Sound human

User-facing text should be useful, honest, and conversational. Look for words or phrases that sound formal or technical, and replace them with simple words and phrases. Plain language is for everyone, even experts, so this applies as much as possible to developer-facing spaces as well.

Contractions are encouraged; for example: "Linux won't remember a USB device after it's removed."

6. Speak simply

Ideally, UI text can be easily understood by a typical 11- or 12-year-old student. Some tips:
  • Find the longest words in your sentence and swap them out for shorter synonyms. Example: "buy" instead of "purchase."
  • Look for conjunctions ("and," "or"): can you split one sentence into two sentences?
  • Count the words. Aim for 5-15 words per sentence.

7. Be positive

Are you telling a user what can't be done? Try flipping it around and telling them what can be done, instead. You can describe limits with phrases like "up to 25 MB" or "when it's available."

8. Write globally

Will the string translate well?
  • In some languages, it's hard to localize pronouns like "it" or "this." Avoid them when you can; or, at least, make sure they are as close as possible to the word they refer to.
  • If you can, avoid gerunds (verbs that act as nouns; end in "-ing").
  • Remove repetition: it's perceived as patronizing and a waste of time. For example: don't use the same string for both title & body; don't mention the product name multiple times.

9. Keep it short (aka, "Short beats good")

Does the string have to fit in a limited space? Keep in mind that English strings may increase by at least 30% after translation (test with an automated translation in Filipino, Greek, or German). Cut everything that isn't super critical.

10. Check the basics

Here are some answers to common string questions:
  • Do we use the serial comma?
    • Yes!

  • Does the string need a period?
    • Apple OSes: 
      • Fragments in titles/headings: no period
      • Complete (single or multi) sentences: use periods
    • Google OSes, Win & Linux: 
      • Single sentence: no period
      • Multiple sentences: use periods

  • Which words do I capitalize?
    • Apple OSes: 
      • Title Case = titles, buttons menus, menu items
      • Sentence case = labels, instructional text
    • Google OSes, Win & Linux: 
      • Sentence case = everything (except where strings overlap with Apple OSes)