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Often I'll see a website, especially when registering or filling out a form that says something like "Please only use letters and numbers in this field" or "Please try again."

Please is a pleasantry and I suppose it could make wording sound more "natural" but in this context I don't find it helpful at all. In fact often when I see "please" in a validation message it's not an optional requirement. In that case even in spoken English the "please" is misleading and incorrect as it indicates that you should do something, while omitting the please turns the same phrase ("Use only letters and numbers in this field") turns it into a command, which is correct.

Is there a reason to use statements like these? Are some situations more appropriate than others? It seems fairly prevalent but strikes me as inappropriate interaction.

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5 Answers

up vote 47 down vote accepted

"Please" is common in short instructions, because the alternative sounds too brisk and bossy ("Save the file", "Click the button").

However, I don't like either form of instruction because they don't make clear how the action fits into the user's aims. Rather than an instruction like 'Choose a filename' or even 'Please choose a filename', I'm drawn instead to a third style of suggestion, like 'To save your file, provide a filename'.

I can think of two advantages to this:

  1. Users who decide the action isn't worth the hassle can be sure they're not ignoring an unrelated task

  2. Users feel compelled to perform the action because it's aligned with their goals

That said, I'm aware this third style can be a lot wordier than the other two. It also runs the risk of burying the vital command 'provide a filename' in a larger sentence. Still, I think it's always worth giving the user a reason to proceed, rather than barking out arbitrary commands.

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+1 That's more or less exactly what I was about to post :-) It's a pleasantry that takes the edge off a command and makes the voice a little less harsh. By example: Wordpress says 'Please update now', and it's better than just 'Update now' which would be too harsh, but 'Update now to get version x' is even better. –  Roger Attrill Sep 5 '11 at 13:41
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Good answer; I prefer the idea of explaining "why" instead of just saying to do something as well –  Ben Brocka Sep 5 '11 at 16:48
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For what it's worth, Microsoft seems to think that "please" is usually unnecessary. The Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines for Windows 7 and Windows Vista say this:

Limit please to situations that inconvenience the user in some way...

And this:

Avoid the word "please," except in situations in which the user is asked to do something inconvenient (such as waiting) or the software is to blame for the situation.

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"Please" is commonly interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. interjection to make commands more polite
  2. expression of annoyance or impatience

A certain percentage of your users will subscribe to the second meaning, consciously or not. So, it seems prudent to avoid saying "please" in order to avoid offending part of your user base.

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While I agree with @Jimmy about the 3rd option being a worthy approach, his point about the wordiness really needs to be given a great deal of weight. This is especially true when you're working on a site or app that will be localized.

This instruction would probably be two lines long in French and this additional length leads one to wonder why the PLEASE/ S'IL VOUS PLAÎT and THANK-YOU/ MERCI have be left out.

But to address the question of if there is an appropriate time for PLEASE, it comes into play when you've asked someone to go beyond the normal requirements for an action, or if you're asking them to experience something much more than a one step unrelated task. Additionally, cultural differences an other contextual issues can also come into play. This site for example, included THANKS and PLEASE in the yellow box right above where I'm typing this.

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I completely agree with @Jimmy that giving reasons is good, however, I also think that plesantaries are also important in messages. Where they are patronising, it is wrong, but the interactions should be curteous. This means that "Please choose a filename" is a curteous way of saying "Give me a filename".

Sometimes it is better to say "To save your work, give a filename", but if you are in the process of "saving your work" then this can be patronising as well. So I would go with messages being curteous, explanatory, and relevant to where you are and what you are doing.

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