The wording of the interface and its screens is the
basic form of communication with the user.
Clear and meaningfully crafted words, messages, and
text lead to greatly enhanced system usability and minimize user confusion that
leads to errors and possibly even system rejection.
Words, Sentences, Messages, and
Like all aspects of interface design, knowing the
user is the first step in choosing the proper words and creating acceptable
messages and text.
Do not use:
Jargon, words, or terms:
§ Unique to
the computer profession.
different meanings outside of the computer profession.
§ Made up
to describe special functions or conditions.
Abbreviations or acronyms.
Unless the abbreviation or acronym is as familiar
as a full word or phrase.
Word contractions, suffixes, and prefixes.
Short, familiar words.
Standard alphabetic characters.
Simple action words; avoid noun strings.
The “more” dimension when comparing.
Include punctuation for abbreviations, mnemonics,
Sentences and Messages
Sentences and messages must be:
Brief and simple.
Directly and immediately usable.
An affirmative statement.
In an active voice.
—In the temporal sequence of events.
Structured so that the main topic is near the
Of parallel construction.
Sentences and messages must be of the proper tone:
Nonauthoritarian: Imply that the system is awaiting
the user’s direction, not that the system is directing the user. For example,
phrase a message as “Ready for
command,” not “Enter the next command.”
Nonthreatening: errors are often the result of a
failure to understand, mistakes, or trial-and-error behavior, the user may feel
confused, inadequate, or anxious. Blaming the user for problems can heighten
anxiety, making error correction
more difficult and increasing the chance of more
errors. Therefore, harsh words like “illegal,” “bad,” or “fatal” should be
Nonanthropomorphic: The best advice at this moment
is do not give a human personality to a machine. Imply that the system is
awaiting the user’s direction, not vice versa. Say, for example, “What do you need?” not “How can I help you?”
Nonpatronizing: Patronizing messages can be
embarrassing. “Very good, you did it right” may thrill a
fourth-grader, but would be somewhat less than thrilling
to an adult.
Nonpunishing: messages should remain factual and
informative, and should not be punishable. Punishment is never a desirable way
to force a change in behavior, especially among adults.
Cautious in the use of humor: Humor is a transitory
and changeable thing. What is funny today may not be funny tomorrow, and what
is funny to some may not be to others.
Messages are communications provided on the screen to the screen viewer.
Screen messages fall into two broad categories: system and
are generated by the system to keep the user informed of the system’s state and activities.
sometimes referred to as prompting messages,
are messages that tell the user how
to work with, or complete, the screen displayed.
System messages are of several types, each reflecting a different
purpose. Common message types are:
Status messages. A status message is used for
providing information concerning the progress of a lengthy operation.
Informational messages. Informational messages, also called notification messages, provide
information about the state of the system when it is not immediately obvious to
Warning messages. Warning messages call attention to a situation that
may be undesirable. They are usually identified by an “!” icon to the left of
Critical messages. Critical messages, sometimes called action messages, call attention to
conditions that require a user action before the system can proceed. A message
describing an erroneous situation is usually presented as a critical message.
Question messages. Question messages are another kind of message type
sometimes seen. A question message asks a question and offers a choice of
options for selection. It is designated by a “?” icon preceding the message
Writing Message Box Text
Clearly identify the source of the message.
The name of the object to which it refers.
The name of the application to which it refers.
Do not include an indication of message type.
Use mixed case in the headline style.
Provide a clear and concise description of the
condition causing the message box to be displayed.
Use complete sentences with ending punctuation.
State the problem, its probable cause (if known),
and what the user can
do about it.
Avoid technical jargon and system-oriented
Provide only as much background information as
necessary for the
message to be understood.
Show only one message box about the cause of
condition in a single
Make the solution an option offered in the message.
Avoid multistep solutions.
Use consistent words and phrasing for similar
Use the word “please” conservatively.
Do not exceed two or three lines.
Include the relevant icon identifying the type of
message to the left of the text.
Center the message text in window.
If a message requires no choices to be made but
an OK button.
message requires a choice be made, provide a command button for each
and Cancel buttons only when the user
has the option of continuing or stopping the action.
and No buttons when the user must
decide how to continue.
If these choices are too ambiguous, label the
command buttons with the names of specific actions.
message allows initiation of an action to correct the situation described:
Include a properly labeled button initiating the
message describes an interrupted process whose state cannot be restored:
Provide a Stop
message offers an opportunity to cancel a process as well as to perform or not
perform an action:
Provide a Cancel
If more details about a message topic must be
Provide a Help
Designate the most frequent or least destructive
option as the default.
Display a message box only when the window of an
application is active.
Display only one message box for a specific
Enable the title bar Close box only if the message includes a Cancel button.
Use the message line for messages that must not interfere with screen
Pop-up windows may be used for all kinds of messages, if available.
Pop-up windows should always be used for critical messages.
Other Message Considerations
Abbreviated, more concise versions of messages should be available.
Something that must be remembered should be at the beginning of the
Do not include code numbers with messages.
Provide instructional information at the depth of detail needed by the
Locate it at strategic positions on the screen.
Display it in a manner that visually differentiates it from other screen
In writing, follow all relevant writing guidelines for words, sentences,
a very general definition, is any textual element that appears on a screen,
including field captions, headings, words, sentences, messages, and
Use plain and simple fonts.
Choose a minimum point size of 12 to 14.
Use proportional fonts.
Include no more than 40 to 60 characters on each
o A double
column of 30 to 35 characters separated by five spaces is also
Do not right-justify.
Do not hyphenate words.
Use headings to introduce a new topic.
Separate paragraphs by at least one blank line.
Start a fresh topic on a new page.
Use lists to present facts.
Emphasize important things by:
Use paging (not scrolling).
Provide a screen design philosophy consistent with
other parts of the system.
Sentences and paragraphs:
Use short sentences composed of familiar, personal
o Cut the
o Try to
keep the number of words in a sentence to 20 or less.
Cut the number of sentences.
Use separate sentences for separate ideas.
Keep the paragraphs short.
Restrict a paragraph to only one idea.
Use the active writing style.
Use the personal writing style, if appropriate.
Write as you talk.
Use subjective opinion.
Use specific examples.
Read it out loud.
All windows must have a title located in a centered
position at the top.
Windows containing messages.
Clearly and concisely describe the purpose of the
Spell it out fully using an uppercase or mixed-case
If title truncation is necessary, truncate it from
right to left.
If presented above a menu bar, display it with a
background that contrasts with the bar.
Establish conventions for referring to:
Individual keyboard keys.
Keys to be pressed at the same time.
Names supplied by users or defined by the system.
Commands and actions.
Consider providing a guidance message telling how
to continue at points in the dialog when:
A decision must be made.
A response needs to be made to continue.
Consider indicating what control options exist at
points in the dialog where several alternatives may be available.
Permit these prompts to be turned on or off by the