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Designing for Politeness

“If we want users to like our software we should design it to behave like a likeable person: respectful, generous and helpful.” — Alan Cooper, “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”

A few years ago a grad school friend asked me to come in and speak to his class about interaction design. The class was 50 minutes long, and I could take as little or as much time as I wanted. I prepared some brief notes, 30-40 minutes worth, and figured the rest would be taken up by discussion. I got up in front of the class, and promptly used up all of my material in under 10 minutes. I was mortified. In desperation I pulled up some wireframes for a project I was working on, and started listing off the changes we’d made and the rationale behind them. The class was bored to tears.

As I talked through the changes something clicked in my head, and told the class that “a UI is a conversation between the system and the user.” I started pointing out how the old UI was cold and aloof, full of empty form fields and imperious demands on the user. The new UI ditched the jargon, embraced a more conversational tone, tried to make the outcome of every action transparent, and gradually engaged the user over time.

While I crashed and burned with that class, I’ve continually come back to the idea of interaction design as creating a conversation. The nucleus of this idea was “The Media Equation,” a book by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass that examines the human tendency to treat technology just as people. Reeves & Nass make some pretty strong claims, but I have faith in the core of their argument; even though we know technology isn’t human, we still interact with it as we would in any social interaction.

If we think about what it means to communicate effectively, we see that a lot of the same rules apply to designing interactions: don’t interrupt, don’t raise your voice, listens attentively, work towards a common understanding. We see this reflected in many of the heuristics and design principles we use on a daily basis. Alan Cooper expanded on this idea in “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum,” in the concept of “polite software” [1] —

Polite software:

  • Is interested in me
  • Is deferential
  • Is forthcoming
  • Has common sense
  • Anticipates my needs
  • Is responsive
  • Is taciturn about its personal problems
  • Is well informed
  • Is perceptive
  • Is self-confidant
  • Stays focused
  • Is fudgable
  • Gives instant gratification
  • Is trustworthy

We talk a lot these days about designing for social interaction on the web, supporting new ways for people to interact with each other online, but we can’t forget that many of those same rules apply to the interactions between people and technology. Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone recognized this in their work on principles for social experience design

Talk Like a Person… Revealing the humanity of the people at the other end of the wire has a softening and welcoming effect.

Play Well with Others… [W]e’ve found that the more you can build your app upon the rock of proven, well implemented, open standards and technologies, the easier it is to participate fully in the social potential of the web and the always-on digital environment we now live in.

Politeness is far from the only critical factor in good interaction design, but I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful guiding principle both in my day-to-day work and a useful metaphor in describing the goal of interaction design as a practice.


  1. Leisa Reichelt has a nice summary in her 2008 Web 2.0 Expo workshop slides

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