Right at a time when flat design has become the rage, removing the three-dimensional look that for 30 years (happy anniversary to Windows this November!) has informed us that "this thing looks like you can poke it in! It must be a button!" people are starting to worry and become uncertain about the clear vocabulary that has helped us to write about software and computers for just as long.
In a recent class I had one participant tell me her office has forbidden the word "click" in favor of "select." Another told me that her office had done just the opposite!
The two concerns in question are whether the word "click" loses its meaning on mobile devices, and whether the word "click" is exclusionary toward individuals with disabilities or different abilities.
The good news is that using the word "click" is not ableist, nor is it declaring the hegemony of mouse users over mobile device users. It is just the standard word in technical communications to indicate "execute," on certain kinds of interactive items on screens. In other words, "click" means "hey you, button, do that thing you do."
The button, as with so many things in the computer realm, is an analogy to real-world little pokable nubbins that make things happen on electric devices from vacuum-cleaners to doorbells. Even real-world buttons have undergone some changes in the ways people use them. The buttons on my microwave and stove are now flat to the surface and covered with a plastic sheet so that spaghetti sauce and porkchop grease can't get in and ruin the mechanism. But you still actuate them by pressing them--and most of them still emit a satisfying "click" sound (or a beep) when you do so.
By analogy, "click" is whatever action you do to an on-screen button to make it do its thing. It is executed on various devices and by various computer users in various ways. Many of us already made the leap from "press and release the left button on a mouse device" to "press and release the left side of your mouse even though it no longer has a button" to "press and release the entire touchpad on your Mac laptop so that emits a click sound" to "tap ever-so-gently on the hair-trigger touchpad of your new Windows laptop" to "tap once on the screen of your iPad or phone" to "tap once on the screen of your touch-screen laptop" to "tab to the button and press the Enter key on your keyboard." And with Windows Speech Recognition, to actuate a button, you actually speak the word "click," as in, "Click OK;Click File; Click Bold; Click Save; Click Close," and so on.
To back away from the word "click" right now is as unnecessary, and even nonsensical, as deciding that the Save icon has to be changed because no-one has used an actual mini floppy disk since 2005. The Save icon has become a symbol that will retain its meaning like other permanent glyphs, such as the Arabic numerals or the smiley face. And the word "click" is the way you indicate "actuate" for certain screen items.
But that is not to say that the word "click" should be used for every screen action. By now I hope I have made clear that a "click" is a characteristic of certain screen items-buttons, icons, tools-not of the physical method by which you actuate them. So even though you may also click your mouse to execute the following actions, the word "click" is not the clearest vocabulary word for them.
You "choose" something from a menu, because you are "choosing" from a list of "choices," and once you "choose" the one you want, the chosen command is immediately executed.
choose File > Close
You "select" something that, once you select it, stays selected. You select a cell in Excel. You select part of the text in a document. You select an option from a list and the option stays selected-as in a drop-down list or a list-box. You select a radio button, and you select a checkbox. And they stay selected. Until you "deselect" them.
select the Portrait Orientation radio button
select the Kerning checkbox
from the Font drop-down list, select Verdana
select the first paragraph in your document
deselect the Enable Live Preview checkbox
You "press" a key on a keyboard or a real button on an actual piece of hardware. (The word "press" definitely cannot be used to describe what you do to an on-screen button, because it may create ambiguity: Does "Press Home" mean on the screen or on the keyboard?)
press the Enter key
press the F6 key
press the Power button (on the microwave)
And finally, you "click" an on-screen button, an icon, or a tool.
click the OK button
click the Bold tool
click the Wifi icon
As this vocabulary discussion continues, I would love to hear your take. Is your office using "select" for everything? Are you using "press" for mobile devices? Or tap? Are you combining commands, as in "click or tap the link"? Email me.
Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications: "Do not use choose as an alternative to click or double-click. Choose does not convey any additional information to those who do not use a mouse, and such users normally understand the equivalent action that they must take when a procedure step says to click."
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