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Imperatives in User Experience Design

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Imperatives in User Experience Design

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This post is inspired by the Stop Making Me Sign Up article I read the other day on Medium.com. I’d like to go further and take a deeper analytical perspective on what actually happens when users feel like screaming: just would you please stop making me sign up?

The Annoying Imperatives

I’ve written once on the subject of UX and emotional needs, and it’s a reminder that web experiences have to be emotionally fulfilling. It’s software for people, and not people for software. I’m sure everyone has their particular points of utter dislike. What I find most annoying is the abundance of verbs in imperative mood. If someone were to make a statistic research, and count the instances of the imperative verbs, that would probably total to 90 percent, if not more. All those “sign up now,” “join for free,” “get a 10% discount” are nothing else but annoying. That’s how it is perceived by a person: Why the heck are they ordering me to sign up, and now, or why they heck would I want to “join,” and why the heck do I need this 10 percent discount if I don’t probably need what they’re offering at all, first thing? If I do need it, there’s no problem with me paying for that, so why lure me with these imperatives accompanied by “free,” just as they would lure a kid with a lollipop? This is the same as someone who would disrespect my judgement, and completely ignore what I want and feel is appropriate to do. That’s about how it feels for me when I see these, and obviously my reactions would be far from making me do what they want me to do.

The Friendly Imperatives

Let’s see from where this trend for imperatives probably stems. It might be that a “sign up now” is the outpost put in hopes that if users don’t have time to explore now, they would at least remember to get back to the web-site later, if they’re caught like that. In this case, the sign-up call would be an anchor that’d keep people engaged. This could be true to some extent.

Next, looking at the Apple website, we instantly notice that it is full of imperatives. But Apple’s imperatives somehow don’t sound that annoying. Why so? I thought about it, and it looks like people just don’t need to be “trapped and hacked,” as they found themselves on the Apple web-site. Apple is Apple, so people are pretty much certain why are they there. They either want to find out more about Apple’s products, or buy an Apple product, or get an upgrade, but one thing they have in common is that they want Apple. In this context, the imperatives do not sound that annoying. They simply point people to places.

apple snip

So, we’ve circled in on the one case where imperatives are friendly. You would probably be okay with the “sign up” if you were certain that you want this product. Mind you, a matter-of-fact “sign up” and “sign up now for free” are two different things. For the latter, we clearly see the desire to trap-and-grab a user with what is supposed to be a call to action, but turns out to be neglect. If you want me to sign up, call to action is the last thing I need from you. I need you to give me reasons why I should act first, and only then I will act on my own, with no extra calls.

Amazon.com uses next to no imperatives on their product pages. The only recurring imperative is “add to cart,” and they strive to give as complete overview of a product as possible, to back up a buyer’s decision. There’s only one imperative in this context with which I’m fine, and it’s “explore similar items”:

amazon explore similar items

All the rest Amazon.com does are caring, unobtrusive suggestions to find out more by looking at what other customers who bought this item also considered, or at product reviews, or at items frequently bought together. It’s a no-brainer: Amazon benefits from any items they sell, and they know users will like them for helping choose a product that suits them best.


I’ve provided two simple examples of caring user experience design. In the first example, the imperative verbs are not actually perceived as imperatives, because people do not feel pushed. The second example is almost no imperatives at all. As for annoying imperatives, you’ve probably seen too much of them by yourself. The bottom line is: It’s about a lot more than just imperatives alone. It’s about smarter ways to engage people. Ask them if that’s what they need, and if not, point them to where they might go on exploring things on their own. This is where the art of user experience design to help people decide comes in the foreground. It’s a subtle intersection of marketing, design and psychology, and if we are supposed to stand out and differ from all the others, we can not stay within the frames of just one discipline. Only this whole mixture will score the winner. And it looks like it’s very far from throwing blunt imperative verbs. I’d rather see questions asked of me. Amazon does a great job with their questions, by the way, but that would be the subject of another article.

So, if you’re serious about designing comfortable user experiences, watch out for the wise use of imperatives. In the web world, where everyone seems to be forcing people to get into traps, someone with a user experience designed in a caring way would definitely stand out.

P.S. … you might have noted the play on words in the name of this article :).

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