Meta-programming and leading language

Here is a user test:
“Where do we put the ‘Cancel’ button?” A form on a web page needs to have a way of clearing or submitting the data – traditionally this is handled with two buttons. One says ‘Cancel’ and the other says ‘Submit’. Of the two buttons, One is on the left and the other on the right. Which one is the ‘Cancel’ button?

This is a question that appears to polarise UX practitioners everywhere and won’t be answered here. (If you want to find out for yourself the solution involves two equally sized groups of Mac and PC users and a reasonable understanding of Guttenberg’s theory of reading gravity!)

Some of you may have already heard of Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP. This is a set of ideas that were developed in the 1970’s as a way for psychiatrists to help their patients more effectively – utilising the way our brains process our first language (it’s not so effective with second languages learned later in school) to help understand and later shape our thought processes.

What these psychiatrists discovered was that certain combinations of words actually affected the way we think.

We learn our native languages at a very early age – this means that their functionality and the cognitive mechanics associated with them become almost a natural part of the way we function as people – enabling us to talk almost as quickly as we can think. This connection seems to work both ways – the words we perceive affect the way we think. It may seem far fetched when you are first confronted with the idea but the more you think about it, the more it makes perfect sense. If I were to talk about the way the steam rises from a plate of freshly cooked fries and how the grains of salt feel between my fingers as I gently sprinkle it over the fries or how intense the red colour of the sauce is as it slowly oozes from the bottle onto the side of the plate… then it’s bound to make you a little peckish. But that’s obvious, right?

What about when it’s not so obvious? Poetry has the ability to evoke certain moods and feelings based on the words and linguistic patterns the poet has chosen to use.

Still too obvious? Advertisers use persuasive language all of the time to entice you to buy their products over someone elses – they load their brand with all sorts of metadata that we unconsciously absorb and then reference when we go shopping. The truth is that your brand-name biscuits were, in all likelihood, made in the same factory, to the same recipe, at the same time as the store brand ones, and yet the brand name biscuits will still taste better even though you know that they’re the same!

The other side of all of this is what happens when you add metadata unintentionally. At the beginning I wrote out a quick user test that probably seemed straightforward to you at the time – which button is ‘Cancel’? If we tried this particular test with users who had little or no exposure to computer systems they are most likely to say that the ‘Cancel’ button goes on the left. If we look at the language again we can see that the word “one” appears three times and is used twice in connection with the ‘Cancel’ button, the concept of canceling is referenced four times but the concept of submitting is only referenced twice and the order that the two process are mentioned is constant: “clearing”/”submitting” and “cancel”/”submit”. The way this test is worded will actually shape the result.

A better, more balanced way to ask the question would be to strip out any possible numerical bias and only reference one button. Something like this:

“Where do we put the ‘Cancel’ button?” A form on a web page needs to have a way of clearing the data – traditionally this is handled with two buttons. Which is the ‘Cancel’ button – left or right?

The use of meta-programming and linguistics in persuasion is, naturally, a vast subject and I haven’t even scratched the surface here but I’ll certainly be thinking more carefully when asking questions – The questions we ask will affect the answers we get back!


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