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UX Design: Using Grammar to Instruct Digital Experience
Marguerite Turpin

UX Design: Using Grammar to Instruct Digital Experience

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Take a look around you, at your desk, the kitchen counter, your handbag or even your mailbox. For most people, these spaces are reasonably CLUTTERED. Now think of the early days of Internet admin, where the display of information was barely considered. One had to scramble through text-heavy, unnavigable pages to get even the simplest of tasks done. Do these thoughts make you anxious?

Cognitive load is a fragile thing. As the noise of our environment increases, cognitive load increases exponentially, breaching the line of anxiety.

Fortunately, cognitive load can be measured and managed.

This blog post will discuss grammar as a metric of cognitive load and will then unpack the direction of dashboard design by Everett McKay. It will also explain how we should attempt to match user’s mental models with our designed conceptual models, all through carefully considered grammar.

Grammar as a metric of cognitive load

As mentioned, cognitive load can be managed by certain metrics — Grammar being one of them. Since language is the basis of conscious thought and directly affects the complexity of thinking, we can direct the use of language to decrease mental strain. So how do we do that?

User stories are written instructions that define individual functionalities within software development. From there, user stories are translated into task flows. They define every step of the process and every bit of interaction with the user interface (UI).

When using any digital tool or service, we perform an action to access/manipulate an object with specific attributes. User interaction can be distilled into actions, objects and attributes. These happen to be the core elements that make up user stories!

Does this ring a bell? Those who are familiar with linguistic structure will recognise them as the make-up of a sentence. An action is a verb, the object is a noun, and the attribute is, in essence, an adjective.

Take this user story as an example:

Now, imagine that they use 13 different actions that inconsistently apply to 7 different objects on the site where Sarah wishes to make her booking. Your action-to-object pairing would be very sparse and erratic:

A table depicting many, and sparse, action-object pairs

There is a lot of redundancy in sparse object-action pairs that can be avoided by focusing actions and objects to be more directed. If we reduce the objects to only 4 and the actions to 7, the actions will be a lot more meaningful and will be nearly all-encompassing tasks:

A table with fewer action-object pairs

The cognitive load reduces exponentially. Where fewer action-object pairs (rows to columns) make use of the neurological memory method, “recall”, a greater number of action-object pairs makes use of the “recollection” method.

Fewer action-object pairs, like the above table, make use of a summative formula:

Amount of actions + amount of objects = pairs that can be recalled.

Whereas, having a greater amount, the formula would be as follows:

Amount of actions x amount of objects = pairs that can be recollected.

We can apply these two formulas to the above scenario:

A comparison of the two tables action-object outcomes based on respective neurological memory methods, recall (summative) and recollection (multiplied).

Attributes do not add to cognitive load, because they are the information that the user customises or accesses with curiosity, such as flight times, locations and pressing information.

Grammar as the director of dashboard design

When gathering inspiration for a new project, I often search for UI examples on Dribbble or Behance. The first thing I see is the flaunting of data visuals, slinky graphs and flashy automotive widgets. What is wrong with this? It’s sexy UI design, no? And one can purchase or freely download templates that can make your design look similarly awesome!

An example of a dashboard interface design template

Sadly, data visualisation has become a tool — an ornament — for making dashboards look visually appealing without serving any real purpose or giving the user the information that they need. Often, an illustration or widget is not actually needed and can be substituted textually in order to say the important thing. What is this important thing?

I had the incredible opportunity to attend a workshop by Everett McKay earlier this year in which he shared a useful tool to direct the information displayed on your dashboard UI. This is what he said:

“Make your verbs count.” Every widget must perform an action and the action word must be a strong, deducible verb — monitoring is not a strong verb, because what are the implications of monitoring? What is deduced by the user by ‘monitoring’?

Conceptual models vs. Mental models

When interacting with a tool or digital interface, users subconsciously arrive with a personal mental model of this tool. This mental model is wholly based on a user’s assumptions. It relies heavily on the clarity of how the process is communicated and on feedback given to the user as they navigate through the interface.

The conceptual model is a well-considered design by the designer. The goal is to make the conceptual model communicate as clearly as possible such that the user’s mental model can meet the conceptual model as closely as possible.

A user’s mental model of an interface is typically inaccurate, meaning that the user does not have a clear understanding of the process / service they are interacting with.

Weakly directed information visualisation or a weak understanding of certain actions will result in cognitive load and worsen the mental model or picture that they have of the said product. It is the designer’s responsibility to consider the mental state with which the user enters the digital interface and to make use of clear indicators (actions and objects) in order to reach the user.

User research must always be considered at the start of a project in order to inform the user’s needs and identify the actionable words that will be the directing force of the conceptual model.


In closing, users do not have the time to perform weak actions, hoping for strong outcomes to ensue. At the conceptual design phase of a digital user interface, components need to be considered with grammatical clarity in order to ensure a communicative user interface and, so too, reduce cognitive load. This can be achieved by identifying core action and object pairs relevant to the process and utilising them mindfully through the creation of user stories.

Draw these words through the design phase like a golden thread to ensure that no components are there just for prettiness but that they serve an actionable purpose towards a user’s end goal.

Sources consulted:

Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design by Jeff Johnson, Austin Henderson

Webinar: UX Magic: Achieve 10X Better Designs Through Semantic Interaction Design by Daniel J. Rosenberg

UXSA Conference Workshop: Fixing dashboard design by Everett McKay