A presentation at Tech Wednesday in
March 2018 in
Birmingham, UK by
The UX of Text
17000 years ago, the world's first modern French
person stood in a cave and tried to find a way to tell
us, three hundred generations into the future, what
was on their mind.
The survival of the tribe
the majesty of the animals that shared their world
the glory of the hunt
the stars in the sky
And they drew it, as best as they could. These are
the cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France.
The Great Bull is 17 feet long; it's the largest cave art
animal anywhere in the world.
The Crossed Bison tells us something about the
artist; they understood perspective and the idea of
representing three dimensions in two-dimensional
Four thousand years ago, an unknown author first
wrote down a story about the king of Uruk, a city in
what's now Iraq, and he opened it like this:
I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh.
This was the man to whom all things were known;
this was the king who knew the countries of the
world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew
secret things, he brought us a tale of the days
before the flood. He went on a long journey, was
weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he
engraved on a stone the whole story.
That's the stone: the first tablet of the epic of
Gilgamesh, the world's first surviving work of
Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third man. He
fought and defeated the monster Humbaba. He
sought eternal life.
He is famous enough to receive the ultimate
accolade: four hundred years into our own future,
Jean-Luc Picard tells his story to Dathon at Eladril.
The French chap? He liked animals. Don't know a lot
else. What's the difference?
words are good
We talk to computers by pointing and tapping and
clicking. Like a caveman. We talk to one another
with words; pure, unvarnished text.
There will be some of you now thinking, oh god, what
he means by using text is this: the command line.
That is not what I mean.
Everyone is familiar with the "computer says no"
thing. The issue is that to talk to computers, we
require that people speak computerese, and that
We've avoided that by not having people converse at
all; press a little picture instead. But there's a better
Importantly, we don't want to try and make a
computer be a human either. Computers are really
bad at pretending to be a human. The Turing test is
hard, and nobody's even close to passing it. And
you don't need to. What's required is that someone,
interacting with your app with language, knows that
it's a computer but doesn't have to talk to it like a
A little story. When I got my first Amazon Echo, I did
all the usual things with it: Alexa, set a countdown
timer for 20 minutes; Alexa, what's in the news;
Alexa, play Roads by Portishead. One day, I got a
phone call while it was playing music. And, without
thinking, I snapped at it "Alexa, shut up!" And it did.
This is how you make your electronics come alive. I
actually felt guilty for being mean to it.
What we need to do is help people have a
conversation with your app. To lead them down a
path that lets them get what they want. This is all
the same things you're doing anyway: plot a user
journey, do interaction design, understand the user
experience. It doesn't have to be about graphics
and whether your buttons have rounded corners:
designing the user experience applies to
But now it's about language. About how to ask
questions in a way that helps people to do what
they want. We don't need artists: we need poets.
So where does this language, this conversation, take
place? I've already mentioned one place: Alexa.
But there are actually two. There are home
assistants: Alexa, Google Assistant and Google
Home, maybe Siri.
And there are messaging apps: Facebook
Messenger, Whatsapp, Slack. Two completely
different platforms that everybody's already using,
so why shouldn't they be using them to work with
you? THat's a huge userbase.
And you don't have to worry so much about
installation. Nobody has to go off to the app store
and install your thing, or remember your URL.
Interacting with your service is just "Alexa, ask Your
Thing about Some Thing". Or sending you a
message, right from the messaging app they're
already in for most of the day.
The beauty here is that from a development point of
view these are actually very similar services. If you
build a textual way of interacting with your service,
you can then plug it into everywhere. Once it exists,
you can put it on Alexa, and then putting it on
Google Home or HomePod is doable too, and
putting it on Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp is
just as doable, and it's all the same interface.
Your work to help people interact works everywhere.
Because this isn't really about the technology. It's
about the user experience. And then you've got the
reach to get everywhere. Everyone's on at least
one chat app, and maybe on twenty. Voice
assistants will be in 40% of homes this year.
An example. This isn't just theoretical. One chap in
London set up a chatbot lawyer to talk peopple
through the process of appealing a parking ticket.
And with the bot's help, 160,000 parking tickets
were overturned. A hundred and sixty THOUSAND.
That's what you get if you apply an understandable
user experience to something complex like the
And because this is something new, just by being
involved, you're being ahead. Nobody's going to
write a headline saying "new startup has a
website". But "Birmingham firm an early adopter of
new chat technology"? Maybe, yeah. You're getting
to people where they are.
Words are good. Virginia Woolf said that language is
wine upon the lips. I'm not sure if it's also pizza and
beer upon the lips, but we can find out in half an
I’m happy to talk more about this to any of you. Any
View The UX of Text on Notist.
About bots, and how they shouldn't pretend to be humans. About how user experience is more than just user interface. About language, and how a word can be worth a thousand pictures. About le mot juste. About where we go next.