Usually when I log in to check my account at the utilities website, I see something like this:

Account Page 1

And I'm usually stumped as I have no idea whether "in debit" means whether I have still outstanding payments to make, or wheter I have paid more money and it's actually the company that ows me money back, and I have to double check the site to be sure whether "in debit" or "in credit" means I'm okay.

Initially I thought that it's because I'm not a native English speaker, but actually on some sites "in debit" means I'm okay, and on others "in credit" means I'm okay, as it doesn't really tell you who is the one that's fine. And also as a non-English speaker you also have to know what debit and credit means before you could potentally understand your statement.

I'm not sure whether using positive vs negative numbers would help, especially since I've also seen them interchanged on different websites (e.g. at some place -5.00€ would mean you have to still pay 5.00€, while on other sites 5.00€ would mean you have to still pay 5.00€)

Would there be a good way of handling this issue, so it's clear to the user that the amount they see is the amount they still owe, or the amount they have been payed more?


The quick and straight forward answer is: just say what you mean.

"You currently owe 39.00"

It speaks the same language as the user and removes the ambiguity.

Small differences in language make a big difference, and can often times mean different things to different people who speak the same language. Perhaps it is a cultural difference in the application of the language, or just two people who live 5-miles away and just interpret the meaning a little different.

Here's an example of an option I recently worked on. Two actions where available:

  • "Sync device to group"
  • "Sync group to device"

What's going to happen when I select the first one? Is the 'device' going to inherit the group's settings, or vise-versa?

Here is what we switched it to:

  • "Push device settings to group"
  • "Pull group setting to device"

The push/pull concept is understood in the general population, and very well understood within our user base. The small change in language, where we said what we meant, completely removed any misinterpretation of the settings. When asked what the first set of options did, users got it right roughly half the time (geographic boundaries actually played a significant roll in a particular answer's density). When asked what the second set of options did, users got it right 100% of the time.


For consumer websites it's important not to use words (e.g. financial terms) which can be confusing to a broad audience.

If you need to communicate a complex concept like an account balance, you can do so simply but also provide some additional explanatory text in case the user needs clarification:

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