The cooperative principle of user experience

Do you want Chinese or Italian tonight?


…if you’re mildly infuriated right now, you have a good grasp of the cooperative principle. Grice was a linguist who said that effective communication depends on all the speakers cooperating in moving the conversation along. He had four rules, or maxims, that are part of this cooperation:

  1. Quantity. Give no more and no less information than required.
  2. Quality. Be truthful.
  3. Relation. What you say should relate to what has been said before.
  4. Manner. Be clear and straightforward.

You can use these rules to improve experience for your users. For a long time, websites and software were treated like books, with all the information a user could possibly want delivered in one big mass, organized with an index. But this design relies on the user knowing what they want in the first place, and being sure how to sort what they want out from everything else.

It’s a tempting design, because you don’t want to leave a user hanging, looking for information that isn’t there.

But if you think of a user’s experience as a conversation, consider Grice’s rules. Everyone wants to move the interaction ahead smoothly, so everyone wants to cooperate. Giving more information than necessary slows things down. Hiding information they want by requiring them to fill out a contact form or call a customer service rep is also bad. Pages, options, and information should be related to each other based on the user’s purpose, flowing from one to another. Visual design should be clear, with the right emphasis on the right elements.

No one wants to talk to a dictionary.

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