Words are critical to task completion on websites and in applications. Yet they are still chosen carelessly."Should the OK button come before or after the Cancel button?" Jakob Nielsen asked in his excellent Alertbox in May 2008. I have two questions here: Why do we need a Cancel button in most situations? Why is the OK button called OK?
Some time ago, I was entering a number into a web form. Let's say I entered "120,000". When I clicked Next the following message came back:
Sorry! That does not appear to be a valid number.
Please try again.
The OK button stared out at me, and I thought: 'This is not OK. You've told me that I've entered an invalid number. Well, it looks pretty valid to me, and even if it is invalid, as you say, you haven't told me why. You haven't told me how I can correct the error of my ways.'
Most times I come across the OK button, something not-OK has happened. It's like my cat coming into our kitchen and saying. "Hello Gerry. Just wanted to let you know I did a pee in the sitting room. OK." Well, sorry, it's not OK.
Who decided to call this not-OK button OK? What sort of logic was at work inside their mind? I belong to a group of people that really cares about words. I think they're precious and incredibly powerful things. I think that web behavior is driven by words. Get your words exactly right and you will be much more successful on the Web.
I know that there are lots of people out there that think words are trivial things. These are the people who choose OK when it is patently not-OK.
The OK button may be a bad choice of word, but the Cancel button is probably not even necessary in most situations. Cancel has a first cousin called Clear. I've filled out a lot of forms over the years but only once did I need to use the Clear button.
A strange thing had happened to me on that occasion. I looked at a form I had just filled out and gasped: "John O'Neill is not my name! And that's not my address! And that's definitely not my age!! I'm much younger than that!" So I used the Clear button and started again.
Did you ever wonder why there is often a row of buttons on the sleeves of men's jackets, or why there is often a slit at the back? The slit is there for horse riding. The buttons are there because it was a custom some centuries ago to roll up and button the sleeves.
I notice that many web forms I now come across don't have Clear. This button might have had a purpose back in the days of mainframes, but today it probably hinders more than it helps.
Words matter. Simplicity matters. Choosing the right word for your customer is no easy task but it can deliver tremendous value. Stripping away all extra words and buttons is the path to simplicity. It requires a deep understanding of the fundamental nature of the customer's task.
About the Author
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.