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New Poll: Action Verb Clarity

Published by Chris Coyier

Let's say you were writing some text-only documentation describing how to do something on a website. The idea was that you came to a point where someone was presented with a list of users and their job was to select one, then there was a button below that they needed to interact with in order to get the job done. You decided "Select a user" was clear enough because of good user interface. But what is the best way to word [clicking] that button. Here are some options:

  • Select a user and then click the Update button.
  • Select a user and then press the Update button.
  • Select a user and then choose the Update button
  • Select a user and then click Update.
  • Select a user and then press Update.
  • Select a user and then choose Update.
  • Select a user and Update.

In my opinion, "click" is a ubiquitous enough term that most people would understand, but technically, keyboard navigation also works fine and doesn't use "clicking." The word "press" or "choose" might solve that, but also feel slightly strange to me.

The design is also an important consideration. We've already said this is a "button". People know what buttons look like, so does it help to indicate that with text, or is simply the text inside the button good enough? Since our text is "Update", which is an action verb already, do we even need to use click/press/choose? Perhaps just "Update" is good enough...which is also the shortest option.

The poll doesn't include this, but it is a worthy talking point, what about emphasis (e.g. bold/italic)? If you were going to emphasize a word (or words) in the choice that you pick, which would they be?

Thanks to Brent Traut for the idea.


  1. In case of iphone/ipad you might also say: Select and TAP :)

    • Ah, but if it’s a web app, then you can give the iPeople a smug feeling when they see the word “click” in the documentation.

  2. Jordan
    Permalink to comment#

    My vote: “Select a user and then click Update

  3. shoutyman
    Permalink to comment#

    In functional specs I generally use “invoke” in place of “click” to avoid implying a specific input device, which is fairly clear for developers but isn’t end-user friendly.

    Here I vote for “Select a user and then choose Update”. My logic is this: The goal is to be concise and clear. The most concise option here is “Select a user and Update”, which could be read as “select a user and also select update”, which makes no sense. Adding a verb makes it clear that the “select” verb no longer appplies to “Update”, and “choose” is the only device-independent one on offer. And with that we have a clear instruction.

    Re the emphasis, I might be inclined to use emphasis (either italics or qoutation marks) to denote text which actually appears in the UI (in this case “Update”) but nothing else.

    And finally some pedanty (I can’t help myself): the poll says “Which sentence is more clear?” but should be “Which sentence is clearest?” (if we assume they are all of different clarity then six of the seven options are more clear than at least one other, but only one is the clearest).

  4. Sean
    Permalink to comment#

    No matter which one, you really need a comma in there after “Select a user.”

    • shoutyman
      Permalink to comment#

      I disagree. Every grammatical style I’ve ever adhered to would say there shouldn’t be a comma in there.

    • ET
      Permalink to comment#

      Far off topic:
      When listing nouns, a comma before the last “and” is optional. When combining two sentences (“Select a user” + “Click update”), a comma before the “and” is actually required. Nevertheless, most people skip that comma, and they make other mistakes as well. That’s all people are good for.

    • I disagree as well, the comma would be extraneous. If you really want to get a pause in there, a semi colon separation would make more sense.

    • Though the comma may not be extraneous, it is certainly superfluous.

    • DED
      Permalink to comment#

      According to Strunk and White, the comma is not used when writing “Apples and oranges.” So you’re right. But, a semi colon would be just as incorrect.

  5. Eloise
    Permalink to comment#

    Or which sentence is most clear would work and is closer to your original construction.

    I went for the most long-winded, and like shoutyman I’d go for italics or quotes around “Update” as the only emphasis.

    Even though click isn’t platform agnostic in the pedantic sense, I would think of clicking a button as the correct verb on a website whether I’m hitting enter (moderately often) or tapping the button on my iPad/iPhone browser (also quite often). Even back in the days of Lynx browsers I was happily clicking on links despite no mouse interaction at all.

    I’d add “the” and “button” for extra clarity at the expense of a couple of words. If the UI is really that well presented, the people most likely to need the help file might need all the extra clarity they can get and no one is likely to complain about the extra couple of words.

  6. In any event assume users are not smart, but don’t overdo it.

    I think that reiterating “then click update” is the perfect instruction that will cater to the widest range of audiences. If they haven’t yet realized it is a button (even-though as you say they were already told so), “click” is now globally understood as referring to a link or button, which should get the user to complete the action 99.9% of the time.

    I would leave the entire sentence the same, either completely normal or completely emphasized, all of course depending on the context…

  7. Bullett
    Permalink to comment#

    In my experience writing support/help docs, you’re better off being as specific as possible, as Eloise has said above.

    If the documentation is clear enough and it is easy to work out how to do what you want to do, no-one is going to worry about how verbosely it is written.

  8. Ron
    Permalink to comment#

    I would go with “press Update”, but leave out the word “then”

    • Permalink to comment#

      Agreed. Dump “then” as that “and” implies the order.

      This tiptoeing around “click” is unnecessary. True, “Click” is mouse-centric and passé, but “tap” and “press” are tactile — the finger touches.

      Just say “click”

  9. I’d say “Select a user and then click Update.” should work.

  10. The “Select a user and then choose the Update button” sounds the best, and most people will be able to understand this.

  11. Select a user and then click Update. Select a user and then click “Update”.

    I voted for “Select a user and then click the Update button” by the way.

  12. mitt
    Permalink to comment#

    Select a user then click Update.
    Select a user and click Update.

  13. Sverri
    Permalink to comment#

    “Select a user and press Update.”

    The word “then” is unecessary. The way the sentence is structured already suggests the order in which the actions should be performed.

    I like “press” better than “click”, because it leaves it more open as to how you interact with the link.

  14. “Select a user and then press Update” gets my vote.

  15. Very well thought our clarification. I had never thought about this way.

  16. DJ
    Permalink to comment#

    IF the user was generating something new and this was the first step then there would BE nothing to “Update” or even “Modify.” They would be CREATING so the the action word would be “Create” or “Generate.”

    You said that there was only ONE BUTTON so what you want them to to is NOT called “Choosing” or “selecting.”

    Just to shake the cage here – what would be the problem with “Go” (I’ve seen that done a lot and been able to understand it ok – even though not precise. OR, would this be too easy, just let the selection of the name trigger the action so the user didn’t need to do two actions.

    IF this is but the FIRST STEP in something that the user recognizes as a multi-step process then the action word would be “Next” or “Continue.”

    What we SHOULD do is be specific enough to the task that the user (at whatever level) cannot MISUNDERSTAND. What we want them to do is “use the mouse to place the cursor over the image of the button and press the left mouse button.” It is the mouse-button you want them to press NOT the graphic. Don’t people have enough complication in their life without us wanting them to anthropomorphize a graphic?

    As non-precise as it is, that action over time has almost universally become known as “left-click” the mouse button. The only saving grace to this is that on most mice there is a subtle and often tactile “click” as feedback from the completed button push. BUT it is the mouse button we are pushing NOT the graphic.

    So at this point in time the ONLY instruction verb that makes sense is “click.” HOWEVER the name of the button should be semantically correct. “Next,” “Send,” “Complete,” “Create,” or even “Finish” they would all be “best” depending upon the form and overall task.
    – – 0 – –
    Oh, as previously pointed out one never needs a comma when you are using the word “and” as a conjunction unless (but not necessarily) in a series.

  17. Gijs van Zon
    Permalink to comment#

    I would say, non of the above. Show a list of users with the text: ‘Select a user’. After the user has selected a user display the update button. In this way there is little text involved and the whole flow seems natural to the user.

    • Boom. That’s the way to do it.

    • That’s really smart actually, better than having a button simply disabled.

    • Lee Kowalkowski
      Permalink to comment#

      I thought the question was about documenting the site rather than designing it. You know, like what would you say if you were writing a tutorial for a site (suppose the site wasn’t your own).

    • Lee Kowalkowski
      Permalink to comment#

      If it was about design, I’d be inclined to go for context rather than control. e.g. suppose this was to reward a user, instead of “Select a user” I think I’d prefer “Which user do you want to reward?”.

      I tend to reserve “select” for literally selecting text.

      And if that was all there was to do – click a radio button and and click a submit button – I’d probably not bother with a form at all, and just use links.

    • Jay

      I like the idea, but is this good practice for accessibility?

  18. Select a user and then click the Update button.

  19. The “click” verb implies that it’s some sort of button to which you will use; repeating it would be wasteful / wordy.

  20. Select a user and then click Update

  21. Select a user and then click [Update].

  22. Got to be “Select a User and Update” simple cross platform valid instructions with no additional text.

  23. Permalink to comment#

    I like ‘click’ over ‘press’ and ‘choose’.
    So that narrows the list for me to two options.
    The last choice has no verb, I believe a verb is necessary/desirable.

    I use ‘press’ when I refer to keys like ‘press the Control button’.

    I use ‘choose’ when referring to a dropdown.

    “Select a user and then click Update.” is my choice.

    Short and sweet.

  24. IMO, get rid of “then” in all of ‘em and they’re all pretty usable. I like:

    “Select a user and click Update”

  25. Usually it depends. For example, it doesn’t really make sense to say “choose the Update button” since I doubt there’s a choice implying a similar action. It would make more sense in cases where the user has to choose an option or something like checkboxes.

    I decided to go with the last one since it makes sure the user updates what they’re trying to do, which is by clicking/pressing/tapping the update button.

    It does sound a bit weird though, so press would’ve been my second choice. When I hear the directions “click on this” or whatever sounds very ammateurish. Remember how you shouldn’t use the words “click this” when creating links? Well it should apply the same way in this case.

  26. This is similar to a W3 QA tip from last century. True, “click” is so ubiquitous that it is understood to mean “invoke” or “activate,” but that ubiquity has rendered it cognitive noise at this point. While this tip suggests linking the noun, a button should contain the text of the desired verb. In accompanying explanation, that verb should suffice.

    For the record, I’d say “Choose an option and…go vote in the poll.”

  27. Because this is a button and also text there is already some clarity within a context. I think when all else fails and low level accessibility needs some attention then the text that is being projected through speakers is important.

    I would go with the press side of things, if this is being read to me (from a blind person pob) it’s something i think would be easier to relate to. It’s the sort of thing you hear built into the ease of access on Windows.

    Outside of that, i do think those not visually impaired but maybe a disability where you can only understand bits of the puzzle like dyslexia or something more serious then a visual indication is also super important. Which is why i believe Opera have it right with inputs. More recently HTML5 at the front-line a lot of browser specific demos going around, some of which being pushed by Opera. Majority of people should have seen it now and they have icons to represent emails and url fields. Probably more…

    Anywho, that’s my take on it all.

  28. Permalink to comment#

    I would support “Select a user and then click Update”. Although button could be accessible with keyboard but this is not the primary way user interact with a button on the web.

    The primary course of action which a user would take be; Select a user then he/she would click on update button.

    The word Click is perfectly fine 99.9% people easily understand what the click means.

  29. Ant
    Permalink to comment#

    If there is only button, then «Select a user and then press Update.»

    But if there different types of control elements (dropdown menus, sliders, buttons, checkboxes, etc, then «Select a user and then press Update button.»

  30. In most cases, I think “press” and “click” are equally good. The exception would be a site whose audience uses mobile devices a lot. I voted for “Select a user and then click Update” just because click seems to be more ubiquitous (and therefore familiar for users) in my experience.

    “Choose Update” implies that it is one of many choices, so it might not be obvious that they’re supposed to click a button and not a drop-down or something.

  31. Bas
    Permalink to comment#

    “update after selecting a user” ?

  32. In my opinion:
    As this is text only documentation describing the process of updating a user with no given example or strict definition of surrounding elements I would go with;

    “Select a user and then press the Update button.”

    This gives the clearest possible explanation of the action required. The goal is for the user to select a user (clearly this indicates a select box or radio button with a list of users, hard to confuse with much else) and hit a button.

    As to the verb, the subject matter is a button which whilst on the web is referenced to as and requires a “click” of a mouse any button in the real world must be “pressed”.
    “Press the red button now”
    As we’re simulating this action with a button I feel the a verb “press” ties in most strongly with what people already know and expect with behaviour of a button. (Regardless of the programming application (click, release) – language built on computers ~ not real life)

    With regard to “The Update Button” this helps further clarify the fact that there is a button on this page, a clearly distinguished element which will carry out the action. Which may become confusing if there are surrounding elements with update (WordPress 3.0 is now available Please Update) “Oh damn, which could it mean? why wont my damn user update work?!”

    My philosophy for this is:
    1) The user is reading the documentation because they don’t know how to perform an action.
    2) Every user is an idiot.
    3) It is crucial for documentation to cater for the lowest level of user capability.

    Not that its worth debating :P

    @chris – I think the more benign and meaningless the debate the easier people get wrapped up in it


    • DED
      Permalink to comment#

      Users are not idiots because they lack experience in a given domain. It is usually a big mistake to even jokingly consider them as such. The better attitude is to think of novices as ‘smart people who are in a hurry’ and as inexperienced people who will learn the basics very quickly. By thinking of them as idiots we have a tendency to talk down to them, which makes them less likely to pick up the points we make as they are now getting angry for being treated poorly.

    • Point taken but I think you’re over reacting to the minor details. Clearly you knew I meant it jokingly as would any smart person in a hurry. I’m not mistakenly considering anyone an idiot. I’m paraphrasing the inexperienced user as an idiot based on their lack of experience or understanding of the interface.

      I don’t think that’s too big an issue as a comment in an article discussing something that someone of inexperience isn’t too likely to read or contemplate.

      In second thoughts of my theory on this one however I no longer feel Press is the right phrase to use in this situation as that would indicate to a user they have to physically press. Laying on my “give em a chance to mess up and if there’s a problem they’ll ask” side I’d go with, “Select a user and click update” they must be on a computer / device to be using this interface and we can trust they have the basics of clicking and tapping down to have gotten to the interface.

    • DED

      Daniel, Yes, I knew you were joking. But, my point was more to the idea in development as looking at novices with disdain ( not that you were). It happens frequently, and though it may appear as a minor detail it proliferates and then becomes a big issue.
      And I think you are correct about your rethinking of the term press.

  33. Select a user and then click Update.

  34. Laurent
    Permalink to comment#

    Select a user and click update.

    It’s not one of the options but adding “then” makes the sentence heavier than it needs to be. It’s implied that one thing comes after the other.

  35. pending on the amount of discussion/comments, I’d start looking into ajax…
    I gues would let it depend on the site’s public, tho I’m all for the gramaticty correctness of ‘choose/update’ I’d prolly stay safe with ‘click’ on most sites.

  36. DED
    Permalink to comment#

    Click would be the correct term to use if your documenting a web or GUI interface for the desktop, but not for mobile devices using touch screens. Then ‘tap’ would be correct. At least that’s how it is usually phrased in HCI practice. But, I think you are making a mistake thinking that ‘select’ is a clear term. You have to establish the same principles in writing documentation as you would in designing the interface. First, there is no such thing as an interface that won’t cause someone somewhere a problem. Remember that Jacob Nielson’s 10 usability guides are just heuristics they aren’t laws of usability. “Select” will be clear to the 20% of the population who probably won’t read your documentation and the ones who do will be in a frame of mind that will make even the clearest instructions confusing. People often mistrust themselves in new situations. They tend to have low self-efficacy and make what appear to be stupid mistakes. So you should probably give at least some indication what you mean by ‘select’ and then clearly and directly state how to do the update.
    Just my two cents from an HCI perspective.

  37. Chris
    Permalink to comment#

    I think “click” is fine, because anyone savvy enough to know you can use keyboard navigation to do the task is likely to not care too much about the specific wording and knows you mean “use this form element”, even if they don’t know what a web form looks like under the hood.

    I think “button” is necessary, because I can tell you from my years working helpdesk if you say “click update” people WILL try to click the work update in your instructions rather than the button, and will wonder why it doesn’t work.

  38. I will go for “Select a user and then click Update.”.

    It would be nice also and a bit shorter “Select a user and click Update.”

  39. I’d prefer to “Select a user and then press Update”.

    even click is clearly enough for mostly (computer) end user, but regarding to mobile devices it’s not always clicking.

    press verb looks common for both (computer and mobile devices).

  40. JayR

    Considering that the term “Click” harkens back to ancient push button light switches, or the 2 button tv remote “The Clicker”, I think the argument that we should pander to the mobile users with a new term like “Tap” is just silly.

    When is the last time anyone actually “rolled up” the window on their car?

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