The other day over sushi I was having a conversation with a few guys and we found ourselves chuckling over a peculiarity we found with the women in our lives. It seems that when talking to our significant others, a bit of tact is necessary to get our way, even though we're essentially saying the same thing, tact or no tact.

For example, I could say to my girlfriend, "Honey, get in the car now so we can leave" and she might do it, but grudgingly. However, if I said, "Honey, I'm going to start the car now, so why don't you grab your purse and we can leave?" She'd likely head off to get her purse without a moments hesitation (provided she was ready to go).

In both cases, I mentioned that we should get in the car - one with tact, one without. Now, let's think about error messages in web application design for a minute (which is easier to understand than women, coincidentally).

Hello World

It seems the first thing anyone learns in any programming language is how to print "Hello World" to the screen. Now, let's not read into this too deeply, but I figure there's an innate need in us, as human beings, to hold conversation.

As developers get more deeply into an application, we build messages into it that tell us what's going on. Just like displaying "Hello World" to the screen, we're enabling our program to talk back to us. Our perception as developers is that our program is talking to us. We create conversations between ourselves and our applications.

So, Who's Talk to Our Customers?

Interestingly enough, customers, most of whom have never written a line of code in their lives, don't always carry the same perception with them. Rather than assuming the application is conversing with them, they're more likely to interpret any communication from the application as coming directly from the organization who operates the application.

Suddenly, the application we've created, with all its' functons, lines of code, quirks and bugs, has morphed into a living representative of the company we built it for, or, for ourselves as we launch our own apps. The application has become capable of having conversations with customers on our behalf, and they assume these communications come directly from our own mouths.

Conversations in Branding

This idea of conversations may feel a bit new to web application design, but it's old hat to the advertising and branding community. There's been plenty of chatter about creating authentic conversations between brands and consumers for years. So, what kind of conversations are the apps you're building having with the customers who use them? Are they short and to the point? Are they borderline rude? Or do they interact like the human beings they represent?

My next article is going to offer a few tips and tricks for writing what I like to call Tactful Error Messages in web application design.

Some Further Reading

Lately I've been reading through the web version of 37Signals Getting Real, which, hardly related to the content of this article, is a great read. Also, Designing for the Social Web is a great book I've been reading lately, as well as Blink. Stay tuned for my next article on tactful error messages. Thanks for reading.