The Pronoun Game

What happens when I click “my messages”? I mean, I assume it means “my, as in me the user’s messages” but the computer is saying “my messages”. Shouldn’t it be saying “your messages” since they’re mine?

And so has gone many a design pin-up reviewing screens and wireframes for some type of functionality that we were adding to an application. Often we’d end up just making everything either first person (my) or second person (your) and be done with it.

I’ve argued back and forth on this with fellow designers and developers over the years, and it was always difficult to nail down the best interaction until this truth was discovered:

The system is a conversation between an application and a user.

Using this rule of thumb, it’s easier to organize and determine the right words for labels and actions. If the system is showing the user a list of widgets, the section heading would be “Your Widgets”. If the user is clicking an action that is telling the system to do add an item to the list, “Add to my widgets” would be appropriate. And, obviously, if you’re adding something or talking about another user, it’s the third person pronoun, either by saying “their” or “so-and-so’s widgets” (where “so-and-so” is a user’s name).

It’s not difficult and once you start looking at an application as a conversation, the actions and labels will start to fill themselves out in the proper person very quickly.