The Good Fight Against Micro-Frustrations

There’s more to writing user documentation (which includes game text) than just conveying information and confidence in using that information. Docs also ideally prevent micro-frustrations, especially in cases where the users have some technical support they can contact or a Twitter account they can rant at.

What Are Micro-Frustrations?

Micro-frustrations are moments that grate on a person in a small, incremental way, but don’t inhibit the process of using an app or service. Things like:

  • Inconsistent use of styles—punctuation, headline case, italicized and bolded elements, etc.
  • Wrong use of Latin shorthand (“i.e.” when “e.g.” is meant)
  • Inconsistent wording in an app versus its documentation
  • Clunky verbiage
  • Inconsistent wording in an app (“log in” and “sign out”)
  • Inconsistent term capitalization
  • Poor uses of time-based language (“currently”) that implies a promise of change
  • Language not deemed correct in standard written English (“less” vs. “fewer”)
  • etc.

The astute among you’ll note the frequent use of “inconsistent.” :)

Why Prevent Them

Some users won’t notice or care, but for those who do, each instance erodes faith in the app or service. So when that user becomes confused or the app genuinely breaks, they’re that much less charitable or forgiving. In the worst case, they’re downright hostile to support staff. That’s why I tell people my job is reducing customer aggro.

How to Prevent Them

Two words: style guide. Pick a base style guide that makes sense for your needs; I use Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition for support and in-app language, and Associated Press for marketing copy that exists outside of those contexts[1]. Common user expectations for your product or service may dictate that style guide for you, or you might get to choose your style guide.

Building off that. write down language choices you make that either differ or need calling out. Note rationales so when other questions of language come up, you or your team understands what y’all were thinking before and how to either apply that reasoning to a new question or know why to revert a prior decision. Here’re one note from my style guide:


You almost never need to use this word. Definitely don’t use it to refer to a feature or limitation, as that implies a promise of future change.
YES: We support the following file types…
NO: We currently support the following file types…
YES: There’s no direct method to export…
NO: There’s currently no direct method to export…

Most other uses are superfluous, which is also frequently true of “current”.
YES: If you have this feature enabled…
NO: If you currently have this feature enabled…

However, “currently” works to emphasize a continually in-flux or volatile state, or a state that the entity referred to can’t control.

When making a big change to app copy or support documentation, make a plan for what needs to be changes and how to verify that the change is complete.

The Hitch

This suggestion is about keeping micro-frustrations at bay for users who aren’t yet frustrated. You can go a long way toward mitigating this by applying thoughtful consistency and considering the user’s expectations, but there’s no way to prevent micro-frustrations in all users. Users already in an uncharitable mindset will get set off by style choices they don’t like. (Every writer knows or is someone who will, at the drop of a hat, rant about using/not using the serial comma.)

Be Mindful, Not Blind

Just because something is technically incorrect[2] doesn’t mean it sounds wrong. I split infinitives[3] (“to boldly go” vs. “to go boldly”) all the time because it sounds natural to do so.


[1] Rather, my colleagues in marketing use AP, so I use it when I’m doing something in their realm of influence.

[2] It helps to recognize that many rules of grammar forced down out throats by uncritical English teachers and Strunk & White are more or less whims that were fashionable at some now-irrelevant point in history/popular culture.

[3] The “don’t split infinitives” rule is bullshit anyway, from a time when people wanted to make English more suitable for their ecclesiastical purposes and mirror Latin patterns.[4]

[4] Yes, I’m picking a fight with English. I’m always picking a fight with English. :)


One Response to The Good Fight Against Micro-Frustrations

  1. Kit says:

    Re: footnote [3], and badly emulating Latin, at that: consider the latin use of tmesis! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tmesis#Latin for example.)