Redesign of eBay reminds me of an old debate I had with fellow UX designers: is natural language always better than artificial tech language (even if it addresses clear mental model)?

Let me give you an example:

Screenshot: search box contains text "I'm looking for ..."; drop-down n box contains text "All Categories"; button contains text "Search"

In new eBay UI the text in the search input says "I'm looking for..." - which is a nice example of natural language, but it's followed by nasty "All categories" - which is very close to artificial tech language (would you call shop department a category in offline environment?). In fact though in eCommerce we tend to talk about "categories" all the time, so it might address the right mental model in the head of our users.

If eBay would decide to go all the way with natural language they should come up with something like "I'm looking for... [in all departments]" etc.

To make it even more interesting while eBay uses "category" throughout the interface, Amazon goes with "department".

So the question is as follows: Is natural language always better than artificial tech language (even if it addresses clear mental model)?

ps. If you want to play with new eBay UI design here are some wireframe templates: http://uxporn.uxpin.com/ecommerce/ebay-new-homepage-ui-design-pattern/


  • Please read the FAQ: "If your motivation for asking the question is 'I would like to participate in a discussion about ______,' then you should not be asking here." ux.stackexchange.com/faq#dontask I'm flagging this question, but I think it could be salvageable if you just make it a bit more focused. Instead of "any experiences you want to share?" what's your precise question? – Graham Herrli Jan 3 '13 at 17:27
  • 2
    this seems less about natural vs. tech language and more about consistency. – DA01 Jan 3 '13 at 17:34
  • @3nafish - cheers! I've read the FAQ, but I guess I just got lost in the description of the question. The actual question was asked on the beginning and I repeat it on the end, just to make things clear. Let me know if it makes more sense now – marcintreder Jan 3 '13 at 18:27
  • @marcintreder Yes. That edit clarifies. Thank you. – Graham Herrli Jan 3 '13 at 22:05
  • Related question: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/34107/… – Dvir Adler Jul 16 '13 at 12:26

It depends on your application as well as users.

Natural language is helpful in an app which is widely used- something like as you said - E-bay. Because they can expect even a 70 year old to use their site, and they would want to keep it friendly and usable for him as well as a 7 year old. They can't risk using technical language which might lose them ground with the non-tech people.

Tech language might be helpful in a scenario, where you dont expect anyone else but someone with a degree in computer science from MIT. For example, if I have an interface which is selling ardino boards (dont ask me what they are), I would not expect a 70 year or a 7 year old to come to my website. My target audience would be limited to the techies. And when my domain is restricted, tech language can work better in such a scenario. Even a mix of two can work.

Bottom Line: Techies understand natural language, but everyone who understands natural language doesn't understand tech. Keep that in mind, when you are using some.

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  • I couldn't agree more. In eBay case I find it peculiar that they keep using "category" throughout the interface, as it's a rather unnatural term. On the other hand I know that it's well recognized among e-shoppers. – marcintreder Jan 3 '13 at 20:36

It depends on your audience and use case. In eBay's case, they would have benefited from going all out with natural language, in my opinion.

This is where iterative testing shines. For instance, you may even find that being inconsistent from one place to another works best. I am often surprised to glimpse what's going on in the user's head.

Case in point: I did a site test last year where we took an almost identical product module on an ecomm site in two similar but slightly different locations. We ran simultaneous independent tests (with and without an add to cart button) and there was significant variance in opposite directions. Our hypothesis was that the customer was in the same state of mind and would expect the same tools. If we would've followed that logic we would've left a lot of money on the table.

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  • Thanks! Could you elaborate on the helpful inconsistency? Any examples? That sounds really interesting as usually we're trying to stay consistent in the UI. – marcintreder Jan 3 '13 at 20:36
  • I don't have any specific examples of messaging inconsistencies in mind. I'll add a related example to my answer. – plainclothes Jan 3 '13 at 21:48

I believe there is a way to go beyond the trivial advice of "use the vocabulary of the target audience (just go figure it out)".

When you put a label to something, try to make the label describe the thing itself, and not the technical entity that holds or symbolizes it. Stick to describing the meaning of that object to the user, rather then for how your system is built or organized.

For example, when viewing the shopping cart, you would call the things inside it products or items, and not rows or entries (see my answer to a similar question).

By that line of thinking, departments is better, even though I suspect experienced shoppers and regular computer users would understand categories just as well.

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Natural language is easier for a general audience, but sometimes the greater precision of technical languages is needed. For instance, what would you use in place of "All categories"? "Everything"?

In a system such as eBay's, the semi-technical notion of category is fundamental. Users must understand category to be proficient with eBay. Trying to use a less precise but possibly more familiar term ("groups", "aisles", etc.) would make the system less useful.

Common language reaches the largest audience but it can only take you so far. There's a point at which the greater precision of more technical language outweighs the cost of learning the language.

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