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“Your courses” or “My courses”? Making personal pronouns consistent in the FutureLearn user interface

If you’ve signed in to FutureLearn recently, you’ll notice that what were your “My courses” are now “Your courses”. Our Interaction Designer Alla Kholmatova explains the thinking behind this user interface (UI) change.

There have been a number of discussions in the UX and design community about using personal pronouns in UI copy. For example, should the interface refer to the user as “your” or “my” when talking about the user’s side of the interface – should it be “My profile” or “Your profile”, “My settings” or “Your settings”?

Why use a personal pronoun in the first place?

In many cases, it’s obvious who an object of the interface belongs to, so a personal pronoun is not needed.

However, adding a pronoun is helpful when differentiating between the content that’s under the user’s control and other content – for example, the user’s photos and everyone else’s photos, or the user’s profile (which they can update or add a photo to) and other users’ profiles.

Choosing between “your” and “my”

So in those instances when a pronoun is helpful, which one should you choose?

On the one hand, we want to make users feel like the interface is their possession, so we could use “my” to make them feel more in control. But something about “My profile” feels artificial or maybe even patronising. It can also make writing copy quite awkward.

When writing copy it’s considered good practice to refer to a screen or page exactly by its title. So if your screen is titled “My account”, in theory the copy about it should say “Go to your My account”. Even though it sounds awkward, that’s exactly how we often had to write copy on FutureLearn:

Awkward copy

Example of awkward copy on FutureLearn

This can lead to all kinds of inconsistencies with personal pronoun usage, and is something we’ve seen on other sites, as well as FutureLearn.

Examples of copy inconsistencies on Google Plus

The interface as two-way communication

The consensus in the design community is that it should be “your stuff”, not “my”. This is because design is, first and foremost, about communication – communication between the people behind the application and its users. The interface is the medium for this communication.

When we’re communicating to the user

When we, as designers, try to communicate something to the user, we should use “you”. For example, “Here’s your profile”, “Here are your settings” or “Here are your stories”:

Personal pronoun used appropriately on Medium

When the user is communicating to us

But if the user is communicating something to us, we use “my”. For example: “Email me when I have a new follower”.

"Email me" on FutureLearn

Email settings on FutureLearn

Viewing the interface as two-way communication can help to guide design decisions and resolve copy inconsistencies, like the recent changes we’ve made to the FutureLearn UI.

When we’re communicating to you where your courses or profile are, we now use “your”. But when you’re telling us what to do – like the email settings above – we stick with “my” or “me”.

Now we’ve made sure the use of personal pronouns is consistent on FutureLearn, we hope you enjoy Your courses (not your My courses)!

Want to know more about the way we approach UI design at FutureLearn? Read more of Alla’s postsInterested in joining our design team? We’re hiring designers.

Category Making FutureLearn

Comments (11)

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  • Jasmine

    Excellent article, thanks for making the time to write it, this has saved me doing it! I wholeheartedly concur with this approach, is a great addition to any Style Guide.

  • Kathleen

    Very helpful, good rational and reference links. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  • Jeff

    I’ve seen this approach described and taken elsewhere too and think that it’s a sensible rationale. The usage can still end up being somewhat relative, but it makes sense to select pronouns based on the context of the communication.

  • Marjorie Lacy

    I think I prefer Me and My.

  • Beatriz

    it does not worry me

  • Ralph

    I agree the use of pronouns can be tricky. Often replacing the pronoun with the proper noun they replace can make things clearer.

    I noticed in the article a curious use of capitalization for Your and My. In your Futurelearn awkward copy example you used “My courses”. You also used the same caps in the last sentence of the article. But in the email settings you didn’t capitalize the “my” of “my courses” or “my comments”. I would have expected you to use caps on both words as it is a title of a section or page. Why didnt’ you ?

    • Holly

      I think that is because in the copy with the capitalisation, it is referring to the exact text on the button/item label – so that it is consistent with how it will appear to users in the site structure. In the email settings, my is in regular sentence case as it refers to the things that are ‘mine’ rather than the label name in the site design.

  • Adam

    Good Article, however I am not really sure I agree it always has to be the same. The language has to match the tone of the message, and some messages may not always be in first person.

    For example, in the google plus screenshot, I would have all the instances say ‘Your account’ apart from the top left button, which would say ‘My account’. In this example, the page is speaking about the user’s account, what it could do, the benefits, etc, whereas the top left button is a doorway into the user’s account, so ‘My Account’ for this button seems fitting.

    I also agree with Sabina, it does not have to sound awkward. For example, the future lean screenshot would simply read ‘appear on your courses dashboard’ as this is clearly the system speaking, giving the user instructions. The tone is conversational and casual so I don’t think having ‘My Courses’ is necessary here.

  • Sabina

    Sorry, not buying it. “Go to your My account” is a really weak argument as it is really easy to solve with “Go to My Account”. And “your” courses are still courses chosen by “me”, I consider them “mine”. I believe the important part is the consistency, not the pronoun.

  • Jess

    I hadn’t thought about this before, great article! In addition to documentation, using “you” would also make live customer support easier, when you can say “Go to Your Account at the top of the page” rather than “Go to My Account.”

  • Eric

    Good decision, and good rationale behind it. Cheers!