Stack OverflowWhat pronoun should your application use when addressing the user?
[+91] [25] Edward Tanguay
[2009-05-21 15:47:15]
[ application-design user-experience ]

From a User Experience point-of-view, what is the best way for an application to address a user, e.g. a link to perform a task:

  1. Edit Your Profile
  2. Edit My Profile
  3. Edit Profile

I usually avoid the third since it is often not clear e.g. which profile am I going to edit, MY profile or the default profile, etc.

Usually I find my applications hopping back and forth between the first two depending on the context, e.g. on the startpage/dashboard I use "my":

but in messages to the user, I use "you":

But this often gets inconsistent and confusing.

Has anyone ever come across a UX Guideline that gives a clearcut rule to know when to know which point-of-view to use to avoid confusion throughout the application?

(15) Excellent question, I think that not enough attention is spent on the user's experience, I really like way UX is gaining footing in the development community. Maybe developers in the future will be more in-tune with what the user wants as well was what they need. - Robert Greiner
(2) You are lucky speaking English... If you would have to design an application in a language where there is a difference between the formal and the informal "You", you would also have to make a decision to that. (For example in German there is a difference between "Du" ("You", informal) and "Sie" ("You", formal)... - Kevin D.
(1) I do actually program in Germany and at work write applications that are mostly in the Germany language. We always use "Sie" although sometimes I see a website or some mobile phone software and notice that the application is speaking to me in "Du", usually a chat software or something for kids. This makes me think that this whole issue for all languages boils down to "decide on a feeling/experience" you want the user to have (bank software=serious, chat software=friendly) and base your communication consistently on that decision. - Edward Tanguay
(2) You are lucky speaking English and German. You have to bang your head against three choices in Hindi "Tu" ("You" informal), "Tum" ("You", semi formal), "Aap" ("You", Formal). - SDX2000
(7) Using "My" makes you sound a little too possessive like Gollum: "Edit My Precious Messageses", "Edit My Precious Profileses", "Check My Precious Mailses" - Even Mien
(1) seems to have tried to split the difference: when I log into "MY ACCOUNT", the options include: "USAGE HISTORY", "UPDATE YOUR DETAILS", "TRANSFER MY NUMBER", "CHANGE PIN"... rather inconsistent. - Jeffrey Kemp
[+62] [2009-05-21 15:56:40] SpliFF [ACCEPTED]

Probably a matter of taste but I actually find software that communicates to me like we're best friends to be cheesy, annoying and condescending. I think overuse of "personal" phrases or worse - concatenations like "MySpace" - should be avoided. I go with 'Edit Personal Settings' or 'View Private Messages'.

(44) I just got a new cell phone. The previous menus read "Messages", "Settings", "Tools" ... and they now read "My Messages", "My Settings", "My Tools". This is just useless. In a multiuser system this might make some sense, but I think the context can safely be assumed in most programs (and for most personal electronic gadgetry). - overslacked
(5) I agree to an extent, you have to keep in mind though that technically oriented people like most everyone on SO might feel the same way, but in this post we're talking about all users. I would argue that most users need to have their attention grabbed or they will get distracted and as a result may not like your product as much as they could. One way of keeping the user's attention is to make them feel some ownership with the product. just my $0.02 - Robert Greiner
(14) Thank you. I've been unable to express my loathing for the use of 'my' in My Computer etc. for years. "cheesy, annoying and condescending" hits the nail on the head. :) - Steve Fallows
(1) @robbotic, please understand that I admire your excitement, but UX (as you're referring to it) is nothing new and many of us technically-oriented types here have spent countless combined peoplehours spending time with actual users to define and refine useful user interfaces. Simply prepending "My" all over the place feels a lot more like a fad or marketing tool to me than a guiding principle based on tested customer feedback. - overslacked
(3) I would have to agree, every word in a UI should be carefully chosen to convey information. Adding redundant information only clutters things. For instance, "My Documents" could just has easily have been "Documents", it's in my start menu, so I know its mine. - GreenKiwi
(1) It can also lead to Bugs Bunny-esque pronoun confusion when trying to help someone who is new to computers. "Open up My Computer." "Why do I need to open your computer? I thought the problem was on mine." - Matt Poush
I also loathe 'my'. MyVar, My*%$, horrible. - Remou
(1) Agreed. "My" X is a horrible pattern. Even Windows moved away from that (My Computer => Computer, My Documents => Documents, My Pictures => Pictures, etc.) - Wedge
(1) Whilst I am inclined to agree with SpliFF about condescending UIs, would it have been a success if it had simply been called "Space"? - Chris Needham
The first time I saw My Computer on my desktop, I was like where's other peoples' computer? - Amarghosh
It is VERY condescending, this is how you talk to a child, you phrase everything from their perspective. i.e. "Ask mommy if you can have one..." - Paul
[+33] [2009-05-21 17:35:20] windfinder
  1. Edit Its Messages
  2. Edit Its Profile
  3. Check Its mail

Gives it that Silence of the Lambs feel.

(21) It edits Its messages and checks Its mail or else It gets the hose again. - Matt Poush
Awesome, I think all software should be modified to conform to this standard henceforth :P - BenAlabaster
(1) 4. Puts the lotion on its skin 5. Gets the hose again - Jherico
(4) I actually laughed out loud @ this, thanks - barfoon
this is so awesome. :D - Epaga
Ah, this one is most pleased! Hanar anyone? - LiraNuna
Or how about "Edit My Precious's Messages", "Edit My Precious's Profile", etc. for that Lord of the Rings feel? - Dan Tao
[+15] [2009-05-21 17:23:50] DJ

Put me in the impersonal camp - I hate the My / You / Your

  • Edit Messages
  • Edit Profile
  • Check Mail

In messages to the user use:

  • New mail has arrived, check mail here.

(3) I agree impersonal is best, but in situations where the user is implicitly asking a question (hovering a mouse over a mail icon in the notification area for instance) I prefer the computer answers the implied question the way a human would. "You have new mail from X, Y and Z". My rule of thumb is don't include pronouns UNLESS you're intending to use natural language communication - Jherico
[+7] [2009-05-21 17:44:40] TokenMacGuy

Pronouns don't really suit computers, because they are ambiguous and in the context of a computer, ambiguity is bad (except computer generated poetry).

In the case of system wide configurations, how about

  • Edit Messages
  • Edit Profile
  • Check Mail

Or in a multiuser system still you should avoid confusion by clearly stating the user

  • Edit TokenMacGuy's Messages
  • Edit TokenMacGuy's Profile
  • Check TokenMacGuy's Mail

If I look at it, I can see that i'm editing my own personal preferences, not some unclear "You" person. Is that me, is that the computer, is that someone else? If another user happens to see that screen, he or she will know that the preferences are not their own, but belong to some other user.

I developed this opinion after using the website. The most commonly used option, when asking about the method of packaging, is that the shipper will use a box of their own. At one point, this was described as "Your packaging". Then, one day, this was inexplicably changed to "My packaging". The thing is, Not only is this a meaningless change in the first place I t took me about 15 minutes to reassure myself that in fact this still meant that the shipper would provide the packaging, not UPS. The reverse transition would be just as confusing. Such a business transaction should not be framed in the context of a casual conversation. The option should have always been "Shipper's packaging" to avoid the very confusion I'm sure they were trying to prevent by changing it in the first place.

[+4] [2009-05-21 18:17:57] miguel

my personal feeling on this is that "My" would encourage the user to feel like he owns the app more than "Your" which seems to suggest that he is utilising someone elses application.

Interesting question...a study in user psychology!

[+4] [2009-05-21 20:30:55] Fredard

It depends on the target audience really. I would use My more often than not because my target is more towards the lay-user.

[+3] [2009-05-21 15:57:45] Hooray Im Helping

I kind of like the third option to be honest. It keeps a separation between the user, the application, and the developer. It also has the advantage of being more concise, and less confusing since the application is not addressing anyone specifically.

(1) I disagree. Think about it from the perspective of people somewhat afraid of technology. I think they would avoid "Edit Settings" because that sounds too formal, too "advanced" perhaps, like they might screw up something if they change the wrong setting. "Edit My Settings" implies that it's their own personal settings and likely won't screw things up for anyone else. - Cybis
[+3] [2009-05-21 15:54:26] Paul Morie

It depends on the context of the application. If the context is to edit something owned by that user, 'my' is appropriate, as in "Edit My Settings". Otherwise, I prefer "You", especially for a multi-user system where many users can do things. Example:

You can:
 - Change this configuration
 - Add a new configuration
 - Delete a configuration

[+3] [2009-05-22 01:27:29] Jeffrey Kemp

When we get questions like this, we ask ourselves, "what does Microsoft do?" - not because they get it right all the time, but because the majority of our users are accustomed to how Windows and Office works. For that reason I'd go for "My Documents", "My Music", etc. when naming things like menu options and buttons, but when communicating with the user refer to them in the second person, e.g. "Your file will be deleted. Ok/Cancel".

(1) Microsoft has finally got rid of these annoying "My" in Vista. - yu_sha
(1) how about Windows 7? - Jeffrey Kemp
(1) I think it's kind of funny that they hacked back on a way to put "My" in front of things in Windows 7. I personally think they made it worse by having "My Documents" actually be an alias for "Documents", but then Microsoft has probably put some serious $$ into UI research and has decided people like it with "My" better. - Clueless
Well, you both have a very good point, @Jeffrey and @Clueless. MS invests a load of cash into UI research. Maybe we hate "My Music", but a good share of Windows users may find it comforting or w/e. - Camilo Martin
[+3] [2009-05-22 03:09:21] Unknown

When in doubt, keep things as succinct as possible without losing meaning.

  • Edit Messages (can you edit another person's messages? If not, this is fine)
  • Edit Profile (can you edit another person's profile? If not, this is fine)
  • Check Mail (can you check another person's mail? If not, this is fine)

  • You've got mail, check your mail here. (Just say "New Mail Arrived", unless you can receive another person's mail)

[+2] [2009-05-22 13:27:39] Leo Jweda

If your profile has a medieval sense you can use

  • Thy Messages.
  • Thy Profile
  • Thy Mail.

Sorry about that :D it's just that the title is kinda funny, but I really like the question.

IMHO, using My gives the user a sense of personalization.

I remember, when I was a kid, I had a Disney drawing software, reading "My Desk" always made me feel special.

Now, I was a kid then, but the idea is the same, using My gives the user a good feeling toward the application.

On the other hand, it'll be easier for the user to find it.

Think about it, when you start using a new website/application and you're still not familiar with it you'll ask yourself questions like: Where's my profile? How do I open my mail? Where are my messages?

That's why using My makes them easier to find.

I hope that helped.

[+2] [2009-05-22 02:44:02] nailitdown

I think it's more about context than the pronoun... you shouldn't have the "edit my profile" link in the same context as "edit someone elses"

so put the links in navigation areas that have obvious context - say, an area for "overall admin" one area for "managing my stuff", then it's obvious which profile "Edit Profile" refers to... a real hack job example is:

 Reports  etc.

[My stuff]
 Manage Profile
 Change Password

it doesn't have to be as explicit as "put your nav in a tree", it could be that your edit profile link goes in the same box as the "you are logged in as".

ie. "Logged in as: UserX [logout] [edit profile]"

hope that's clear enough. let me know if it's not.

[+2] [2009-05-22 01:22:13] Meski

I don't like the 'My' prefixes because they mess up the sort order when displayed with other items that do not have the prefix. For the same reason, I don't like company name prefixes in things like the start menu.

[+2] [2009-05-21 15:48:51] Kezzer

I've always liked "My" because it makes it appear that the profile belongs to them. The sense of ownership makes it much more personal thus heightening the user experience.

(2) You/Your is a very developer-centric way to say it. I'm at your site because it's about me, not the developer. - y0mbo
[+2] [2009-05-21 16:28:00] Gromer

The user will understand what to do in either of those three options. When a user is looking at these options, they will assume it is related to their own Profile/Messages/etc... I honestly don't think a user will think, "Hmmm, it says Edit Your Profile, that was nice of it."

Regardless, I like the my option in the menus, just as long as it is consistent through out. That is the more important experience for the user IMO.

[+1] [2009-05-21 16:44:35] 17 of 26

First, I would avoid 'Your'. It takes up the most screen real estate of the options and is more awkward than 'My'.

To me, 'My' implies a certain degree of hand holding which I think that novice computer users will generally find to be comforting and advanced computer users will find to be irritating.

Taking your profile example, there are two possible situations:

  1. There is only one profile. In this case, the 'My' is superfluous and is just taking up extra screen real estate that could be used for something else.
  2. There are multiple profiles. In this case, profiles will be named and there will be some sort of selection mechanism. An "Edit My Profile" button doesn't make much sense here.

Of course, the best user experience would be to let them pick whether they want "My", "Your", or neither.

[+1] [2009-05-21 16:46:33] RolandTumble

I'm actually of the "impersonal" camp--I upvoted SpliFF's answer and Steve Fallows' comment on it--but if you feel the need to personalize, I actually support your initial mixed scheme. You just need to have some firm guidelines on when it's "My" and when it's "Your" (see Paul Morie's answer).

[+1] [2009-05-21 17:16:04] community_owned

I think "you" in the manner of a prompt addressing you, and so making the distinction between "it", the application, and "you", the person apprehending his account. "Me" asks me to identify with the application, and I don't need that confusion: (Martin Mull: "Am I me or am I in Miami?"). Prompts are big in applications, that blinking underline in the UNIX line editor, tempting me, begging me. A dialogue, even. Thanks everybody for adding to this: ah, I logged on for I don't know what reasons, and I end up with metaphysical questions, and straight-forward answers!

[+1] [2009-05-21 15:49:54] Robert Greiner

definitely "My" you want to user to be actively engaged in you software, not just using it. make them feel like they are involved.

I think when you are addressing the user, you can use "you" because you are talking to them directly. This is more conversational.

For those of you interested, check out UX (User eXperience) it is an interesting way to think about the way the user perceives your entire product, not just how it is used.

Second. I use 'My' in my applications. - unforgiven3
[+1] [2009-05-21 16:22:35] Deathbat

It's really personal preference as I don’t believe there is any standard. However it really boils down to how you want the user to perceive your site. If you want the user to feel actively engaged with the content for such things like social networking using "Edit Your Profile" is often friendlier. "Edit Profile" is more formal and handy for sites that represent a company or has other formal types of information. The option for "My Profile" can be useful for instances where users can modify others such as an admin panel as this can avoid confusion if the user is modifying themselves or another

I'd consider that a design flaw. I clearly mark administrative options with distinctive red backdrops when combining them with the standard UI so even a naming conflict creates no confusion or inconsistency. - SpliFF
[+1] [2009-05-21 20:36:16] Zifre

I don't really think it matters that much. What matters more is that you choose one and stick to it throughout the application. A mix of my/your would drive me crazy.

[+1] [2009-05-21 17:33:08] rmeador

I generally prefer the app to be impersonal when giving me choices -- pronouns waste space/clutter the interface without providing any benefit. However, in error messages, if it's the user's fault, I prefer to see "you entered something wrong", not "something wrong was entered", to make it clear the user messed up. Conversely, when it's the program or system's fault, I really, really dislike error messages that say "I can't complete the requested action" (or "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"). The computer is not a person. I try to model the way the computer "talks" to the user in the same way that the computer on Star Trek works -- it just says "unable to comply" or "insufficient information".

[+1] [2009-05-21 19:18:47] no-op

Depends on the app. If regular people are using the app, warm and fuzzy (you, my) is reasonable. On the other hand, I develop engineering apps, and we don't personalize our messages, since it's considered informal and colloquial. The main point is to be consistent.

[+1] [2009-05-22 03:04:01] Jason

I'm in the no-op/deathbat camp in that it depends on the application.

Using "My" is a bit of a risk because it can come across as overly hand-holding or campy, since it was such a ridiculous fad in the late dot-com boom. It has merit in that it is very inviting and feels more personal, especially to an unsophisticated user, but it has the capacity to annoy.

I think the safe choice is Your, the spartan choice is no pronoun, the high-touch friendly answer is my.

[+1] [2009-05-22 12:02:39] Tom Wright

Whilst I prefer not to use pronouns, there are established guidelines.

If the text is an action that the user is carrying out (e.g. a button legend, hyperlink or menu command) then it should be as if the user was saying it:

  • Check my mail.

On the other hand, if it's a message, notification or static text, it should be from the computers "point of view":

  • Check your mail.

You're right that it's inconsistent, but this inconsistency reflects the dichotomy inherent in most users' models of computer interaction. Only geeks like us will notice, and for everyone else it will "just work".