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Torrey Podmajersky

This a talk delivered by Torrey Podmajersky at the 2015 Write the Docs conference. Torrey is a UI writer for Microsoft. She has worked on Xbox and other projects that are used by millions of people. Torrey sprinkles in dynamite examples about how to keep people moving when using your product. Check out the full video here and excerpts below.

What is UI Text? 00:56

I’m going to tell you about these two cars. My husband’s car is this 1972 Triumph GT6. It doesn’t run.

Well, you can get it started and there is this fountain of gasoline. And it’s a super hazardous experience.

I have this Chevy Spark. It’s a 2013. And we have very different things we read about these cars.

Our customers, whoever reads our documentation, read for very different reasons.

My husband reads to study. He needs to know everything that there is to know about this car. He needs documents with all the terminology. All the analysis.

He needs it to have great depth of accuracy and precision. He also needs to investigate. Why is this happening? He needs the academic approach. He needs the clinical pieces.

He also needs verification. He needs to go to the forums. He reads up on why is this happening? Or will this window sill work for this model even though I can’t get it anymore and it’s not the right thing?

He wants promises and examples.

If we fast-forward to the other side, I want to do. I want to use my car to drive to a thing and get the thing done.

All I want is indicators. I don’t ever want to think about what I’m reading for my car. Or I want it done for me. Notifications, things like that.

And it’s on this far side, where our UI text lives. We want to just indicate. We want it to be invisible. We want it to be intuitive.

The Only Three Reasons to Use Words in Your UI 03:24

  1. Keep ‘em playing
  2. Ease the way
  3. Establish brand

Playing. I said that I worked on Xbox. Playing in Xbox is about gaming. It’s about being entertained.

But I want to talk about playing as experiencing the mental flow.

Sometimes we are playing when we are working. Right? I’m not only a technical writer. I am a fiction writer.

I am definitely playing. I’m in the state of mental flow and things are just happening.

And when you’re playing, you want just the words that make sense to you. You don’t want to be interrupted by any of the extra things.

So let’s say it’s 2008. You’re on a PC. Maybe you’re gaming? Maybe you’re playing? Maybe you’re writing your great novel that is about to come out?

And then you see this blue screen.

If you look at this, we’ve taken them from whatever they’re doing, and maybe they’ve hated what they are doing, whether or not in this state of flow, whether or not they’re playing, sometimes bad things happen and we have to break the experience.

But is this going to help them?

Ease the Way 06:23

This is very important. Sometimes doing it for them or keeping them going isn’t enough.

There are unintended bumps along their path. So we tell them:

You can search for the error online: DRIVER_IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL (storachi.sys)

We’re not just giving the error code, which some people will know they can lookup online. We’re telling them you could do this thing if it would make sense to you and be helpful.

The thing this screen got an awful lot of press for is establishing brand. We recognize that even in our error messages, and sometimes especially in our error messages, we’re reminding our customers who we are.

On the old blue screen of death it was “here we are, we’re super technical. We know all this stuff. And we’re going to be super wordy at you.” That’s not a great brand promise.

It’s not like, “boy, I hope someone will come be super wordy at me today.”

UI is all around you 08:02

Bathrooms have a lot of written UI. When you’re in the bathroom, maybe it’s not mental flow you’re after.


We do want people to be able to keep doing what they intend. And that’s what it’s all about, respecting customer intent.

Here’s another example from Nordstorm.


They are very brand aware. Bathrooms in Portland, not very brand aware. It’s our water will burn you and we know our lock is tricky.

Nordstrom very brand aware. This is actually their app down message when their service is down for overnight maintenance. When you go to their app, you’ll get this message.

They’re doing a really interesting thing here with their voice. Anecdotally, I’ve learned from one of their UX writers, that they are going for unexpectedly witty.

Think about how hard that is. I would like to be unexpectedly witty in my day-to-day life. But in error messages? That’s hard.

And they ease the way. They know that can’t keep them playing right now. But they can say, “you can come back at this time, and it will work.”

Every UI is a Conversation 11:10

Here’s how a conversation works.

You say what needs to be said. You don’t just keep going and going and talking like you’re four years old. And you say it out loud. You don’t make it be implied.

You also take one thought per turn. You convey an idea, and then you wait for them to respond.

You also end the conversation gracefully, so that both parties know it ends. And you’re kind.

Make each word earn its place 13:50

Only use words to fill a necessary purpose, taking up only the space required so that people will understand, be informed, and/or act as desired.

I think I can say that better. Nobody needs these extra thats. I can say only using the space required.

I don’t really need to say be informed, and/or act. Right? If they understand, they will act the way they want to.

But really that whole thing sucked. I can say it better.

Make each word earn its place.

Set the right mood 16:08

Use words that contribute the desired emotional state.

We can say that better to. Use words that set the mood.

Set the right mood.

This is a screen I worked on a lot for Xbox One. When you’re signing into a Xbox One for the very first time, that has a kinect sensor attached, it will look at you and your living room space.

It already has enough information to put a flag over your head. And say is this you?

This section says, “sign in when Kinect sees you, before you pick up a controller or remote control - without even turning on a light or putting down your sandwich.”

This is not only legal text, but regulatory text. Privacy policy text. It’s telling you that Kinect can see you in the dark and recognize you and your motions. You can control it before you turn on a light or put down your sandwich.

But does this feel better than say a bulleted list of Kinect can see you in the dark, Kinect can recognize you in the dark?

Privacy is really legal, but with a posse. They love it. They say they don’t want to be creepy and think it’s not fun. We just want them to know.

Check that the words are easy to read 18:20

Check that the words scan without effort. Scanning is important. We know that right?

What is even more important is that they are easy to read.

This is the interior of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It’s supercool inside and it’s enormous.

This is a photo taken inside the museum of flight in Seattle. You can totally go there and check it out. It’s awesome.

When I was there, I took a picture of this door. It has this placard on it. So this placard.

Visually ensure the mode select handle is fully inside the red placard for armed and green placard for disarmed.


The hell?

I’m pretty sure this is what it means.

Check before opening. Handle in red: armed. Handle in green: disarmed. If you’re red/green colorblind, ask for help.

Use what gives the best results 20:28

This one should be good right? Use correct grammar.

Throw your tomatoes now. How about common grammar?

Actually screw that. Use what gives you the best result.

Test it. Just like the Magnavox control? If you’re not testing it, you’re not going to do it right.

This is a screen that has several pictures of what we tested when you sign into your Xbox One.

It asks you, “who do you want to sign in as?”

Here’s a true thing that happened. I got an email two works before ship, this is an excerpt of it.

Who wrote this? Should be whom! Can’t end with “as”!

It was a tester from a team I worked a lot with in the past. I just didn’t know this one person.

I respect the team and that connection is super important. This person wasn’t crazy, they just care a lot.

Here’s what I said in short.

“Thank you for caring about the text. “Whom” and “as” aren’t my job. I use language to guide our customers where they want to go.”

This screen? The hell was tested out of this. We knew it worked. We knew it got people going.

I want to point out that there’s an enormous amount of re-working that happens.

I don’t think I’ve shipped a single word that hasn’t been reconsidered and rewritten and redone and examined. Some of it didn’t get tested, and we learned.

Where do the words go? 23:58

We need to decide that together with our designer. We need to write as the design emerges. They need to design as the message changes.

We know sometimes the problem is with the people I work with, how do I get it right?

This is theme that has emerged. We need a seat at the table. We have the writer and the designer. And this is for a big company, and I know a smaller company might not have all these people, but they have all these things that need to get done.

There is planning, funding, researching, coding, marketing. Together you’re shipping.

You can let them know that you’re there to help. And not just tell them, but you need to demonstrate it.

You can show up. And you say internal terminology. We’re calling this CSV? What does that stand for?

Currency stored value. Pretty sure that means money. Can we call it money? Oh, we can. Okay, good.

We need to help them focus on the customer. It’s not what’s the use case. It’s why would a customer use this?

And the mood. If you’re meeting with engineers and they’re embarrassed because a thing went out and it broke, and people hated it, and they’re defensive and feeling bad, they’re going to write offensive error messages.

They’re going to go, “well, it’s totally your fault. If you were smarter.”

No, help them adjust their language internally and it will help them when the product ships.

And how do you get to do that?

Well, you build their trust. You ask questions like, “hey, what’s the value to the customer and what’s the value to the business?”

Show them you understand the purpose of what you’re shipping and keep yourself informed about it.

Research your own answers. If you don’t know the right words for it, say “I need to look into that.” And then follow up. Speed is of the essence. Responsiveness.

You need to advocate for great outcomes for your customer and your business and the engineering team. The what’s in it for me?

We need to let them see our awesome self.

Words are Work 27:13

I’ve handed out these buttons that say words are work. And several people are like, “but I have fun with it.”

There’s a little disconnect there. And I say that’s very true.

Words are work for us. They’re awesome work. It’s fun to work. It’s creative work.

It’s work where we get that sense of flow. It’s work worth paying for. It’s work worth getting right. It’s work worth caring about.

It’s a big responsibility. It’s also work that is difficult. It’s full of ambiguity. I mean have you seen the English language?

It’s often contentious. I think for a second everyone thinks they’re a writer. It’s work that is often underfunded. Understaffed. Underappreciated.

Now words are work for our customers too.

They want to learn. They want to know. They want to do.

They want to keep playing.

The more words we put in their way, the less playing they get to do.

So keep ‘em playing.

Right on, Torrey.

Find me on Twitter @thischrisgallo or GitHub @gallochris or Instagram @heygallo.