The UX of Text

A presentation at Fusion in in Birmingham, UK by Stuart Langridge

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.


The next wave of apps will be text. Amazon Alexa. Facebook Messenger. Telegram and WhatsApp chatbots, Twitter and Mastodon replies. The lion’s share of how a new app experience is perceived has always been intimately tied up with the visual design, even if maybe it shouldn’t always have been… but now, it's all text. We don't need artists for this; we need poets. Authors. Wordsmiths. Swap your Wacom for a fountain pen. Language is back.

We've learned lots, these last forty years, about how to make an experience seem friendly; to draw people in, to make users feel comfortable or to empower them to experiment, how to clue people in that this is the range of available actions without having to have a stark list of available actions. We have a playbook, a grammar and vocabulary for graphical interactions; conventions and HIGs and common usage. We have nothing like that for text interaction; all the effort in text interaction has gone into shells, and PowerShell is no more friendly to experimentation or novices than bash is. But in the rest of our lives we have six thousand years of experience in how to put across ideas with words. That’s what civilisation is. We need to marry the two; to work out how to make people feel comfortable talking and typing to a computer. Not by pretending it’s a person, and not by requiring them to learn commands.

People have three levels of expectation of the thing they’re interacting with; human, control by choosing from a menu (“press 1 to continue”) and the incomprehensible command line. A good bot interface is none of those, but that means it's something nobody knows to anticipate. It's like an iPhone, creating the whole concept of controlling things by touching them. A whole new UI paradigm, which needs to be invented and then perfected. This field is so new that I don't think anyone even knows the questions to ask yet; it's rich, untouched territory, which is why I think it's really exciting.

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