Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Plain English

Everyone has their pet hates. It might be an annoying personal habit, anonymous callers or Paris Hilton. One of mine is the use of geek English in software. Aside from being a barrier to new users, it also undermines an application's status as a high quality piece of software, software that a contributor can be proud of. A few words quite widely seen in KDE circles that I find irritating are "Configure", "Initialize" and "Schema". Configure' and 'Configuration' are bad in particular because:
  • It is a longer and less commonly used word than the shorter alternatives ("Edit","Settings"). This appears to be true of translations into various European languages as well. I have a hypothesis that shorter, more commonly used words are quicker for us to parse when reading user interface elements and enable us to make decisions more rapidly, thereby saving time.

  • It is an unpleasant sounding word. This might sound odd, but I feel that the choice of words or phrases contributes to how polished and attractive an application is.

Obvious suggested replacements:

  • Configure -> Edit, Settings, Preferences

  • Configuration -> Setup, Settings

  • Intialize -> Start, Starting, Loading

As an example, on startup KNetworkManager displays some progress information when connecting to a wireless station. The labels go something like this:

"Activation stage: Preparing device"
"IP configuration started"
"Commit IP configuration"
"Device activated"

Good grief. The only information I really needed to know is:

"Preparing"
"Connecting"
"Connected"

A week or so ago I became sufficiently frustrated that I went and patched the most visible uses of these words out of KDE's libraries and Konqueror's various settings dialogs. Patches as always:

kdelibs patch
konqueror patch

Incidentally, the reason this is being posted here and not initially to the KDE development mailing lists is to inspire users to complain more about the use of overly technical and/or geeky language in their applications.
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