Interface labels

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Dilbert for 5/2/2018:

Labelling the help menu "Reformat hard drive" is a little over the top. But user interface labels (and icons) are often less than clear, sometimes because of what Geoff Pullum calls "nerdview", sometimes because of a more general failure to follow common-sense principles of communicative interaction, and sometimes just because of bad engineering decisions and software interactions.   For some examples from my own local history, see "Annals of human-computer interface improvement", 2/17/2010, and "When bad interaction happens to good people", 8/15/2007, which features The Legend of Facility Focus.

[I should emphasize that these particular interfaces have since been replaced or improved.]



  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 7:34 am

    I once had to install several computers at the advertising agency for which I worked. (I was the chief copywriter, but I was also the only person on the staff who had any computer knowledge at all.)

    At one point, I was confronted by this error message:

    "Keyboard not attached. Press F5 to continue."

  2. Lugubert said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 8:09 am

    Classic. So is the message "If the screen stays blank, press F1 for help and follow the on-screen instructions."

  3. Jack Cundy said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 9:23 am

    Or the confirmatory pop-up after selecting to 'cancel' an action, which gives the choice of 'Yes' or 'Cancel'.

  4. Rube said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    @Jack Cundy: That one throws me. Every. Single. Time.

  5. Breffni said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 10:54 am

    I still haven't got my head around the nav options at the bottom of the Language Log home page. On the first page it's like:


    Which is confusing enough, but they both link to the same page, and now your options are

    << Previous Page — <> — Next Page >>

    Previous Page takes you to the same place as Next Entries, and Previous Entries takes you to the same place as Next Page.

  6. Breffni said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    Oh for a preview feature. Alright, let me try again:

    First page:
    « Previous Page // Next Page »

    Which is confusing enough, but they both link to the same page, and now your options are
    « Previous Page — « Previous Entries // Next Entries » — Next Page »

    Previous Page takes you to the same place as Next Entries, and Previous Entries takes you to the same place as Next Page.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 11:42 am

    Breffni: I really like that feature. On most sites, you get one option for 'previous' and another for 'next', but 'previous' can mean either posts that were made previously, or pages that are previous in order of navigation (which necessarily starts with today), and there's no way of telling which. Whereas Language Log uses both methods, so that whichever is more natural to you, you can find what you are looking for.

    (Yes, what happened to the preview feature?)

  8. Joke Kalisvaart said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    When I leave my tv on for more than 3 hours, it gives me this message:
    "TV will be shut down in 2 minutes. Continue?
    Yes / no".
    I still can't remember if it means 'continue shutting down', or 'continue watching tv'. I keep choosing the wrong option. I think it's the former, so that means I have to answer as if I'm the tv and not the user.

    And a few years ago, I used a computer program that upon closing asked the very uncommon question "Are you sure you want to exit without saving? Yes or no?" instead of the more common "Save file before closing?" That's asking for trouble…

  9. George said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

    This 'previous' or 'next' stuff confuses me too. Why not 'older posts' or 'newer posts'?

  10. ErikF said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    A message that I had the enjoyable experience of deciphering for users in DOS days was the "Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?" prompt: Let's say you're working on a length letter and want to save it to a floppy. Quick, what's the correct response for:

    "Not enough space or disk full.
    Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?"

    Depending on your choice, your program is going to next either:

    * Quit completely without cleaning up (Abort);
    * Go into an infinite loop of the same error (Retry);
    * Probably crash and burn (Ignore); or
    * Maybe handle the error, maybe crash (Fail).

    Great choices, eh? It's a bit of a Hobson's choice as to which one to choose; do you feel lucky today, punk? :-)

  11. Christian Weisgerber said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    Last week I was in France again. Put my German bank card into the French ATM and the screen language immediately switched to German. (Good guess, but won't anybody think of the expats?) During various stages of the money withdrawal interaction it asked me to press the BESTÄTIGUNG key. Of course there is no such key on the French machine; it's labeled VALIDER instead.

  12. NW said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 3:43 am

    A system I am stuck with used to say 'Do you want to discard unsaved data?' (Yes/No/Cancel)

    Additionally, it said this every time you exited, whether or not you had unsaved data.

    Oh, except when you use shortcut keys to exit, which worked instantly without checking.

    And no, I've never understood the Previous and Next here.

  13. ~flow said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 4:14 am

    I want to second that the on-page navigation on LL is (alongside with the vanished preview—what happened to it?) confusing to say the least, and broken to be honest.

    In a *way*, it's understandable… 'Previous Page' takes you to the page with the previous page number, compared to the current one, pointing left b/c in this culture we most commonly imagine numbers being arranged from the left to the right, so 'left' symbolizes smaller. For the same reason, 'Previous Entries' points to the left, because it takes you to a display with entries that have smaller serial numbers than the currently displayed ones.

    As a result, 'previous' takes on meaning both 'earlier' (smaller post nrs) and 'later' (smaller page nrs) (this sentence took me a second of hard thinking to get right). Moreover, a 'previous' arrow could legitimately point either left or right. We're a troubled culture with time metaphors because our forefathers came earlier than us but what is lying before us comes later than now. Turns out this time around 'newer' and 'older' are the most stable and helpful words to use.

    The crux is that when you thumb through a left-to-right or a right-to-left physical book, you quickly get the hang of it, even when they start at *both* ends, as many Japanese reference works do (main part opens from the rightmost page, main index from the left—it's immensely practical). On a website, there's no such physical orientation, and designers seem to be 50/50 split on whether newer pages should be imagined to be located to the left or the right, and how to label that.

    Even worse, I think there's a way in that not only LL but almost all existing blogs are broken, and that is that page number one is always the opening page with the newest stuff, and pages n > 1 contain older posts. The design choice is understandable, but it's like filling a physical folder with new posts near the top *and then re-paginating each subsequent page anew, each time*. It's bad for search engines, and indeed, you often get directed to the wrong page in search results, b/c the numbers are shifting all the time. It's bad for people b/c overview pages are constantly both changing their contents and their web addresses.

    Sorry for the long post. I can't part tho without sharing my all-time favorite error message which happened in an ancient version of MS Word and read "An unspecified error has occurred". The buttons were labeled "Ignore", "Cancel", "Abort", none of which did anything (you had to use the power switch). I remember discussing the possible implications of each choice. "Click on 'help' to get help."

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 6:44 am

    Funny, the LL navigation has never seemed at all ambiguous or even unusual to me.

  15. MattF said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 7:59 am

    The LL navigation is the standard model for blogs, which makes its inscrutability an example of nerdview. If you often shuffle through blog posts, then it's natural– if not, you're on your own.

  16. Steve DeRose said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 11:16 am

    Trying to blow up the universe in an old game called "Spaceward ho" led to this question:

    "Aren't you sure you really don't want to have nothing to do with not launching the armageddon device?"

    The buttons below the question are "Unsure?" and "Not Unsure?"

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    I think it's standard for many applications besides blogs. My email program, for example, also uses "Previous" and "Next." So do a number of applications for reading documents on line. And, if "Previous" and "Next" are puzzling, surely the arrows guide the way. And those arrows are also used for reading many on-line documents.

  18. GH said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

    I read a lot of blogs. I have never in my life seen any other example of LL's frankly deranged navigation scheme.

    Previous page/Next page, sure. Previous (i.e., older) entries/Next (i.e. newer) entries, much more rarely, but you do come across it from time to time. Both at the same time, with opposite mapping of the directions? Who would even contemplate such a thing?

  19. Breffni said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 3:49 pm


    "Previous" and "Next" I can handle. It starts to flutter a bit with the nav at the bottom of the main page, which gives you a choice between "Previous entries" and "Next page". Either of those will take you to the same page. And at the bottom of that page you have a four-way choice between (1) "Previous Page" (left), (2) "Previous Entries" (left), (3) "Next Entries" (right), and (4) "Next page" (right). Links (1) and (3) take you to one page, links (2) and (4) take you to another.

    I think @Andrew_(NTSO) is saying the Previous / Next Page links are reproducing the browser back/forward buttons, whereas the Previous / Next Entries links are for navigating through the posts in order of posting. Personally, I'm happy to just use the browser buttons for the former function. Mixing that in with the chronological nav and distinguishing between them with the labels "page" vs "entries", well, that's where my Poor Monkey Brain gets befuddled.

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 1:26 am

    I love Language Log's navigation links ("« Previous Page — « Previous Entries" and "Next Entries » — Next Page »"); I'm pretty sure the humor in them is intentional. If Language Log isn't the right place for fun with linguistic ambiguities, then what is?

  21. poftim said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 3:36 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur:

    Yes, I'm almost certain it's a joke. My first thought when I saw the links was, why are there four of them? Why the redundancy? And then, oh, I get it.

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    Ah, I see. I don't think I ever scrolled to the bottom of the home page before but now I see what you and other are talking about.

    I see no reason at all to have any navigation there. Since the home page is the lone page atop the hierarchy of pages, I don't see how there can be any such thing as a previous page and, since it not one of the entries (taking "entry" to mean a post), referring to previous and next entries makes absolutely no.

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

    Oops…that was supposed to end "absolutely no sense whatsoever."

  24. 번하드 said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

    I *love* the sadly unique way of LL.
    OTOH, like ~flow, I think that the *physical* page numbering on blogs and their BBS/webboard ancestors is indeed utterly broken. But that will probably survive forever through tradition/inertia,
    just like QWERTY.

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