Speak the User’s Language

In 1799, a young French lieutenant named Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard made one of the greatest discoveries of all time, only to lose it two years later to the British. His discovery was neither golden nor bejeweled. However, it has mesmerized kings and scholars, generals and diplomats, readers and writers, for centuries. It is also a fine example of user experience design.

Bouchard’s discovery resided in the Egyptian port city known today as Rashid, located nearly two thousand miles from his birthplace in Orgelet, France. Rashid had long been a desirable center of trade and commerce, for it lay on the Nile River’s banks and was cooled by the gentle winds of the Mediterranean Sea.

At the city’s edge stood Fort Julien. Its crumbling walls included a patchwork of earlier fortifications and repairs, one of which Bouchard uncovered while excavating a wall’s foundation. The discovery was a stele: an inscribed, ancient volcanic stone slab. At nearly four feet high, three feet wide, and a foot thick, the slab provided a stable — if not somewhat underappreciated — support for the wall above. It had been placed within the stone wall and hidden by sand, dirt and time. Two thousand years passed between its inscription and excavation, all the while it held the secret to understanding a long-forgotten world.

Carved in 196 BCE, the stele detailed a list of the good deeds that the king of Egypt, Ptolemy V, had performed for temples and people in the region. It likely stood upright in a temple or public area, and may have been a part of a much bigger stone, as the stele’s message was cut off by chips and fractures. What we can read describes how the king increased gifts and reduced taxes. It spoke of how the king’s armies vanquished their enemies. It told of how the gods granted the king “strength, victory, success, prosperity, health, and other favors.” Rulers have always enjoyed telling people of such things. In essence, this stele served as a form  of advertising: a chiseled billboard meant to sway the opinions of passersby.

Its creators inscribed three languages onto the stele, forming rows of bright white markings offset against the stele’s dark gray surface. Each of the three languages targeted a different audience: hieroglyphs spoke to the priests, demotic to the common people, and Greek to the ruling class. The king needed to speak to each group in their preferred way, lest his message go unreceived. (Even kings have requirements they must meet.) Although the languages differed, the messages of all three were the same: I understand your needs; here is what I’ve done to fulfill them.

I understand your needs; here is what I’ve done to fulfill them

Today’s linguists can decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the writing system had disappeared into obscurity by the time Bouchard viewed its strange pictographic shapes and symbols of delicate birds, outstretched snakes, and solemn eyes. Archeologists had been unearthing artifacts covered in these pictographs for decades before Bouchard, but this stele was unique. Until its discovery, this strange language had not been displayed alongside a Greek translation. Scholars already understood Greek letters; but they did not yet understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the years that followed, they used the known language to decipher the unknown one, thereby unlocking the mystery of the stele we now call the Rosetta Stone.

As makers of digital work, we create new languages that users — the people who use our creations — must decipher. The languages we create may not be as ornate as hieroglyphs, but they are languages nonetheless. Marketing, graphic design, and technology (to name but a few) are, to most audiences, as cryptic as an ancient language. Marketing speaks of equity and segments. Graphic design speaks of balance and harmonies. Technology speaks of stability and performances. Depending on your career and interests, one of these languages may be more familiar than the others. Perhaps you are even fluent in all of them, but I would hazard to guess that the users of what you create are not. People will still need to understand what you build. Like an ancient king, we, too, have requirements we must meet.

What is the known language which allows a person to decipher all others? With the Rosetta Stone, scholars used their knowledge of ancient Greek to decipher the hieroglyphic writing. However, users must tap into a larger language. It is the one they have built over their lifetimes—their own user experiences. Every website they’ve used, every app they’ve downloaded, every device they’ve held, every video they’ve watched, every item they’ve bought, every community they’ve joined, every culture they’ve embraced, every lesson they’ve learned, every success, and every failure is a part of their own user experience. In turn, they use these experiences to decipher the new ones they encounter.

User experience design serves a similar purpose to the Rosetta Stone; it transforms the unknown into the known, translating the many cryptic languages of business into a single, cohesive experience for the user. It makes design immersive, marketing engaging, and technology invisible. Like a message written in a native tongue, a designed experience is understood by users as easily as if it were composed by the users themselves.  Such experiences can assume many forms, ranging from apps to websites, but what remains each time is the same message to the user: I understand your needs; here is what I’ve done to fulfill them.