[The following is a sidebar to the article "Error Messages and Documentation", by S. L. Sanders]

Programmed Messages, Tone, And Respect For The Customer

S. L. Sanders

This essay deals with systems intended as tools for experienced professionals. None of the ideas or opinions presented apply to systems designed for entertainment, household, hobbyist, or student use. --sls

Programmed messages are shown on the computer's display or presented by its sound system. They are supposed to inform the computer operator or user about the state of the hardware, firmware, and software. Such messages usually give information about events like "ready for use", "exception", or "task completion"; and sometimes include suggestions for related action. Programmed messages may also appear in the output, to inform about an exception that could affect normal use. For example, a message might be put in a report to let the user know that some data normally included in the report had to be omitted.

Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (Simon & Shuster, 1983) defines tone with respect to communication as: "a manner of speaking or writing that shows a certain attitude on the part of the speaker or writer, consisting in choice of words, phrasing, etc." In addition, tone is shaped by punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

The attitude you project through printed material and programmed messages is important. A respectful attitude toward customers helps gain reciprocal respect for you, your product, and your company. If your writing accidentally conveys condescension, hostility, or indifference, those who buy your product may be less likely to recommend your company or its products to others.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to show lack of respect. Even when unintentional, they have a negative effect on the customer. In all writing, the effect is lasting. But in messages that appear on a computer screen, the customer gets the bad impression again and again, each time a message appears.

The key to avoiding unintentional disrespect for your customer is good writing. This requires correct language usage, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, combined with a tone that treats your customers as intelligent professionals who have experience with computers. But every experienced professional was once a beginner with every tool he or she uses. How, then, do you write for experienced professionals who may be just starting to use your product?

Most of this essay concentrates on answering the above question in the context of programmed messages, a unique kind of writing. But first, you may want to consider three broader suggestions applicable to manuals, advertising, and technical papers, as well as programmed messages:

How to Write Programmed Messages For Professional Tools

Programmed messages are different from printed material in two important respects: lack of free choice, and anonymity.

The most important difference is in the level of free choice afforded to the reader. With printed material, a reader is normally free to choose what he or she will look at, when to look at it, and how often to do it. But programmed messages are thrust into the reader's line of sight unsolicited, and often unexpected. He or she has little control over what will appear, when it will be displayed, or how often it will be shown.

Because programmed messages are forced upon the reader in this way, they are always intrusions; they interrupt the current flow of work or train of thought, and impede normal progress. This unique characteristic imposes an obligation on software developers to use programmed messages only when necessary to inform about the state of the system or its output, and to make such messages as brief and unambiguous as possible.

The other important way in which programmed messages differ from printed material is their anonymity. Programmed messages usually show up on the display or in the output, unsigned and unwanted. The reader may know that some programmer is the author, but the message is still anonymous: the programmer is directly addressing the reader without taking any responsibility for the message. This anonymity makes it inappropriate to use personal writing -- as if talking face-to-face with a friend -- in programmed messages.

Personal writing adds unnecessary length while reducing clarity. Even worse, the tone of personal writing in programmed messages frequently reveals a low opinion of the computer operator and the user of the output. Everyone who uses a computer regularly has seen examples of this. It seems to be as prevalent in commercial software as it is in programs written for in-house use.

In games, anything goes but professional tools seem childish and silly when they affect a personal tone. When personal writing is used in programmed messages, it sometimes gives the effect of a tool trying to speak personally to its operator. Though often intended as "user-friendly", such tactics can be a continuing source of embarrassment or irritation to your customer. This might be expressed by the customer in phrases like, "...that stupid thing...", or "Give me a break!"

Common mistakes in programmed messages

It's not difficult to find examples of personal tone and bad writing in programmed messages. Examples seen in commercial products include some combination of personal pronouns, exclamations, ugly style, poor language, and condescending tone. Even more prevalent are programmed messages that contain social forms. A brief look at each of these kinds of mistakes follows.

Personal pronouns

A tool designed for beginners can be irksome to experienced professionals. Personal pronouns (especially "I") in programmed messages imply that you think your customers might need to be comforted by pretending that a computer is a person. This can be annoying and/or embarrassing to your customers, because it gives the impression that your product is designed for beginners, not for experienced professionals who know what to expect from their tools.


Exclamations (usually denoted by exclamation points) are equivalent to shouting at a person who is in normal hearing range. Like shouting, exclamations indicate someone's opinion, attitude, and/or emotional state. Shouting is often impolite, and it can be offensive. When programmed messages are shouted in this way, they are especially harmful. They represent a programmer hiding behind the computer while forcing his or her opinions and attitudes (urgency, surprise, derision, approval, blame, impatience, delight, etc.) on your customer.

For example, suppose one of your programs contains a message like ERROR!! You have entered a NON-NUMERIC character! This unmistakably expresses a personal opinion of the software user (your customer). Other causes of the bad impression made by this example are:

When affronted by such a message, your customer easily may conclude that it represents a prevailing attitude in your organization. After all, how many people must have seen it before the product was shipped? Yet no one changed it to a more appropriate message like Numeric character expected. As a result, the customer will probably revise his or her opinion of your product, and everyone associated with it.

Ugly style, poor language, and condescending tone

A message like * * C O N G R A D U L A T I O N S ! ! YOU HAVE SUCESSFULLY INSTALLED **Moxpox 8.3** AND IT IS READY FOR IMMEDIATE UTILIZATION! shows a nearly-complete lack of basic writing skill. Although the example is contrived, it's not difficult to find real products showing more than one of the mistakes it illustrates. Specific mistakes are discussed below:

A more appropriate message with none of the problems noted above would be Installation completed.

Social phrases and messages

Do your customers want to pretend that their tools are like people? Because the "thinking machine" folklore (from popular science fiction) is inescapable, there is a unique danger in using programmed messages that try to express politeness, emotion, mood, disposition, etc. Although such messages are usually intended to put the customer at ease, they can create the impression that you think he or she might want (or need) to believe that your product is like a person. Even if this doesn't bother some customers, the messages can still become annoying. A couple of examples may make this clear:


The tone of personal writing always reveals the author's attitudes and opinions toward the reader. Personal writing is effective in printed material where the reader has chosen to look at the material, and the responsible author is easily identified. But unlike freely-chosen printed matter, messages programmed into a computer are forced upon the reader. In such programmed messages, personal writing often has the effect of suggesting that the user might believe the computer has attitudes and opinions, whether the effect is intended or not. To suggest that a machine can be like a person might enhance the computer as a toy (when executing a game program), but it may seem condescending when the computer is being used as a tool. In the least harmful cases, personal writing in programmed messages is just an annoying interruption. In the worst cases, programmers take advantage of the intrusive and anonymous nature of programmed messages to express disrespect and contempt for customers. The quality of writing associated with your product affects conclusions about overall quality and attitudes within your organization. This is especially true of programmed messages, which reinforce good or bad impressions each time your customer uses the product. Investing resources to help your organization achieve high-quality writing free of inappropriate tone will prevent erosion of your professional image, and will produce continually-increasing returns.

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