Back to blog

Lay Off The Exclamation Marks, Buddy


John Zeratsky shared his five rules for writing great interface copy recently on Fast Company Design, and I was so happy to nod my vigorous agreement with almost everything he said. Because: Preach. But I just have to argue with one little thing. 

Just one little thing! In every other way that post smelled like chocolate chip cookies, fresh and hot from the oven.

John's second rule is that Personality Doesn't Count As Much As You Think when writing interface copy. But it does matter as much as most people think. It just doesn't work the way many people approach it, which is where we get into trouble when we try to inject personality into our interface copy.

And I say this as somebody whose job is to inject personality into interface copy every single day. It's kind of my thing.

Personality in interface copy does matter -- a lot. The personality of your product shines through when your microcopy is in line with what your users are up to, what they're hoping to get from you, their hopes, their fears, their need for a chocolate chip cookie right now. Your product is a date they've been dying to go on, and the words you use are an important part of the hot, dark, and tasty they've been hoping to find.

It's called voice, and it's a vital part of any good product design.

It's just that voice doesn't work the way a lot of people think it does. And it certainly doesn't work by merely sprinkling exclamation marks all over the damn place.

Yes, I have a thing about exclamation marks. Ask anyone. It's true.

Exclamation marks are singularly unsuited to the task of getting your users excited about using your product. And yet they seem to be the tool that everyone reaches for first when excitement is what they want to create.

The fact is, most people aren't going to be "excited" to use your product. They'll be curious, sure. Skeptical, maybe. But excited? Most of us save that for baked goods, quite frankly. 

But... (I can hear you protest), I want the user to get excited!

Then build an exciting product.

If your product isn't exciting, then no magical microcopy is gonna cover that up. And if your product is awesome, then you don't need to gild the lily with frantic words and shouty little exclamation marks.

If your buttons do, in fact, say things like Okay, let's get started! and Sure, sounds good! then you are probably overcompensating for a lack of something under the hood. 

And the point isn't really the voice of this copy. In the right context, it could work. Yes, Okay, let's get started! and Sure, sounds good! is probably far too chirpy and sugared up for most interfaces. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to name the app that this would be appropriate button text for, but who knows. I'm willing to entertain the possibility it exists.

The point isn't so much how informal, chirpy, or otherwise voicey your words are. The point is that ending each of these phrases with an exclamation mark is complete overkill.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that your app is in fact chirpy and youthful enough to warrant button text that sounds like a junior high cheerleading squad on too little sleep. Go for it. Use those kooky, krazy words that convey that You've. Got Spirit. Yes. Yes. You Do. 

If you must.*

But let your words do the heavy lifting. That's what words are good at. That's what they're for. Words are wonderfully effective at conveying personality, at charming new acquaintances, at winning over skeptical foes.

Exclamation marks? Not so much. Let 'em go.

And let's go get that cookie.


Image by Belarusian


*Incidently, I agree that most people try too hard with the words they use, too, and often at the expense of clarity. I just really needed to get this business about exclamation marks off my chest.