Speaking Their Language: Big and Subtle Ways to Make Your Users Feel at Home
Heads up, this content is 16 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

Quick Recap: In my last post, I showed a livejournal error message that referenced the words “style” and “fashion.” For me, it posed the question, “Could this be a subliminal branding technique used to appeal to cutting-edge user groups?” Fortunately, Jenks pulled me off my overly-theoretical soapbox by responding with a healthy degree of skepticism:

“unless the fashion tips came with instructions that people who spend more time with vogue than with code could understand, it’s doubtful.”

I have a great deal of respect for this woman and her work as an expert on identity marketing. I also happen to not be an expert on identity marketing, which means I would now be stepping way out of line if I were to pursue this argument.

But that’s never stopped me before.

Here’s my point: I don’t think we’re talking about fashion tips here — I think what we’re seeing is boring technodribble presented in language that’s familiar to a hip crowd. It’s a subtle way of acknowledging that their users aren’t all geeks, and tipping their hats to the voguers.

Do I think Livejournal did this on purpose? No (although, if they did, someone please let me know). Do I think we should learn a lesson from the coincidence? Yes. What’s the lesson? There are plenty of ways that we can communicate to our users, “We are one of you; we speak your language.” Plenty.

Let’s break these down into three levels: the big ways, the basic ways, and the subtle ways.

1) The Big Ways: Metaphors

One of the clearest ways to communicate with our users is to translate information directly into their language with a metaphor. This creates an open dialog on their terms, and it builds trust.


When I sold computers to working-class men, I would explain how a Pentium 4 processor with a dial-up modem was as useless as a Mustang in rush-hour traffic. They’d nod and grunt in understanding, sign up for cable Internet, and leave the store feeling comfortable and confident.

We find these techniques taught in sales seminars and writing classes, and there’s no shortage of their use in the industry. They work.

2) The Basic Ways: Guidance.

Here’s a trend I’m seeing in successful Web 2.0 sites: using casual, familiar (and often exciting) language to help the user navigate the site.


  • The button at the bottom of the registration form for Pownce says “Okay, done!
  • When you create a new form through Wufoo, the default text ends with, “It’s awesome!
  • The people search on Twitter says “Find folks!

When I run across these kinds of gems, I’m instantly put at ease. I recognize that the site is trying extra-hard to reach me, and I find myself assuming three things:

  1. They don’t take themselves too seriously.
  2. They care about what I think.
  3. They probably made this navigation process really easy and relevant to my needs, so I should keep walking through it.

These are all good things.

Reality-Check Warning: Casual language is often region-specific. If you are an American-based web company trying to reach a global audience, you may find yourself alienating users with this tactic. Be fully aware of who your audience really is before you start “speaking their language.” (Flickr handles this creatively with their ever-rotating multilingual greeting, “Salaam [Username]! Now you know how to greet people in Arabic!”*)

3) The Subtle Ways: Word Choices.

We can speak in unfamiliar jargon, we can speak in dry and sterile language, or we can use words that people know. More than that, we can use words that our users attribute to their identities. And it doesn’t have to be in a specific message relating to our user’s identities — it can just be us talking about what needs to be addressed.


That Livejournal Error I Found…

Error running style: Style code didn’t finish running in a timely fashion. Possible causes:

  • Infinite loop in style or layer

Maybe I’m reaching here, but stick with me for a second. They could have said “timed out,” but instead they made reference to “a timely fashion.” They could have named the “system” or the “program,” but instead they named the “style.” On a practical level, what did they achieve by making the language more familiar? Nothing. It’s just an error message. But in terms of reinforcing the Livejournal brand and the identities of the users reading it? I think it made a difference — a really, really little difference that most people will overlook.

But here’s the nifty part: Those differences add up in the long run.

*Insider Techie Giggle: The CSS tag on the second line of the Flickr greeting is id=”VastConspiracytoDumbDownFlickr”. View the source code on their site and see for yourself! Hee!

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3 Responses to “Speaking Their Language: Big and Subtle Ways to Make Your Users Feel at Home”

  1. jenks Says:



  2. Jack Arnolds Hub Says:

    Nascar Races Online…

    cool article, thanks so much. Good writing, going to read more……

  3. Jerry Lorrain Says:

    Watch The Oscars Online…

    cool article, thanks so much. Good writing, going to read more……