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I've noticed that many sites and user interfaces tend to capitalize certain words or sentences like so:

Choose File

Select a File to Upload

Account Settings

How to Format

but in some other cases, they don't:

Please select a file to upload to our system

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And sometimes, particularly in list items, all in lowercase. Are these good practices? What's a reasonable rule to decide when to capitalize or not, or even when to write all in lowercase?

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There's probably something about that in the Human Interface Guidelines for each of the most popular platforms. –  Patrick McElhaney Oct 28 '10 at 17:38
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5 Answers 5

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In English, both in computers and under the blue ceiling, title-style capitalization (capitalizing first letters of nearly all words) is for titles, and sentence-style capitalization (capitalize only the first letter for the first word) is for sentences. Titles generally include headers for your documents, pages, and sections therein and labels for controls. They are often sentence fragments lacking either the subject or predicate. Sentences are “regular” content, each generally including a subject and predicate, although sentences in the command sense often have “you” as the implied subject.

There are some gray zones. Style guides provide specific guidelines on when to use each. For example Apple recommends title-style for menu names, menu items, buttons, and any label that isn’t a full sentence. Apple recommends sentence-style for messages, check boxes, and radio buttons, even if they aren’t sentences.

However, style guides don't all agree with each other and sometimes they change. For example, the Windows UX Guidelines used to recommend title-style capitalization for buttons and menu items, but now recommends sentence-style capitalization. Title-style capitalization is only recommended for tabs, window titles, pages, programs, folders, and other “major components.”

In these gray areas, capitalization style is mostly a matter, of, uh, style. Sentence-style capitalization gives your app a more conversational tone, as if the user is interacting with an agent rather than a tool, which may or may not be a good idea in your case. I suspect title-style capitalization can make it easier to scan for key words in labels, but that’s just a hunch.

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I was just going to point out that Microsoft have adopted sentence capitalisation for things like radio buttons and check boxes. –  ChrisF Oct 28 '10 at 17:56
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Microsoft's guidelines for capitalisation are here: msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa974176.aspx#capitalization –  JeromeR Nov 1 '10 at 4:47
    
Apple is a god when it comes to UI and UX, but still you should always completely remake the UI for any new platform according to that platform's guidelines. –  rightfold Jan 3 '11 at 18:22
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I tend to follow these guidelines:

When the sentence is in a contracted imperative form as:
Choose File
Select File to Upload
-> the words are capitalized.

When the sentence is in full form as:
Please select a file to upload
Browse the complete list of files -> the words aren't capitalized

Mostly though, I think the choice is a design one. All lower case letter menus have a certain look and convey a different image than either all uppercase or proper case menus.

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I'm not sure that using title case (capitalizing the first letter in each word) can be described as correct or incorrect. FWIW, I have personally moved away from using title case in, say, checkboxes, radios, and list items. I now limit their use to one sentence, e.g. dialog title and button labels, e.g "Save File".

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Capitalise or don't capitalise? The answer is simple: follow your company's style guide.

But I always tell my students: "Don't write your own company style guide, just use a published one from elsewhere."

Here is an existing style guide for text (including capitalisation) by Microsoft.

Here's why I advise my students to use an existing style guide:

  • A group of professionals will always disagree on some detail or other. Nothing illustrates making a mountain out of a molehill faster than professionals trying to decide how to capitalise, punctuate, spell, write, or organise text.
  • If you establish a committee to generate consensus, they still won't agree on all the details. Someone will have to overrule and impose a decision, or the group can vote. Either way, some people will feel they lost.
  • It's labour intensive to write, maintain, and publish a style guide. Your style guide won't be up to date for long,
  • People who don't like the decisions in the style guide will find excuses not to follow it. ("Oh, I couldn't find it" or "Oh, it's out of date" or some other passive-aggresive baloney.) When some people don't follow the style guide, you don't really have a style guide.
  • When the style guide is produced externally, you can say: "I don't like all of it all either, but we'll just have to hold your noses and follow this style guide completely." It's easier, cheaper, and more effective than writing and maintaining your own style guide.

I realise the above sounds cynical. There is a way to get an internal style guide written that has buy-in from those involved: a barn-raising. This involves your team sitting together, away from their usual desks, but with their laptops. Try once a week in a meeting room. Let people choose a topic to write from a list that the team has prioritised into high, medium, and low. Set a timer as you write. Writing time is quiet time. Each person writes a different topic, then the group reviews the topics together. After the timer goes off, review a topic if its writer feels it's ready for review. After the timer goes off, it's OK for one person to consult or poll others about their topic and then take it for another iteration before they ask the team to review it. Start the timer with 10 minutes; you can increase the writing time, as needed. Find a way to quickly share the topic that's being reviewed: via email, your LAN, a projector, etc.

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If it is a full sentence it looks wrong with all capitals.

On the other hand I sometimes capitalize short error messages ("Please Enter A Valid Email") even though it looks a bit weird for emphasis, but it is not something I would do all the time.

And I agree with @Hisham regarding simple menu options and labels

for example in a form I would write Full Name, Credit Card Number, etc..

but on top of the form if I wanted to put some instructions it would say something like "Please fill out the form below." just like any other normal sentence.

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