25 tips for writing the user experience
So what the heck is user experience and why does it matter how you write it? While in the online world, user experience is often considered the same as usability, information architecture (IA), and user interface (UI) design, those areas are really components of it. Taken at its highest definition, user experience addresses and integrates all user-facing aspects of a company, from email and websites to presence in print and on other sites. In other words, it’s synonymous with your brand, wherever and however it appears.
In an earlier post on writing the user experience, I mentioned that language is typically the interface on websites. When you broaden the definition of user experience to include all aspects of brand, the same holds true. Language is typically the “interface” across the user experience, whether it’s on your website, on a billboard, in a comment posted on your customer service page, or even in a face-to-face meeting with a client.
While this article tends toward copywriting for the user experience as it pertains to the online world, you can apply it to other aspects of your brand as well. The most important point being to take the user, aka the person, reading what you’re writing into account from the get-go. Communicate for them first and foremost.
- Define your goal first. Whether you’re a professional copywriter or not, before you write anything, ask yourself: WHY am I writing this? WHAT is my main message? WHO am I talking to? HOW do I want them to respond?
- Involve the copywriter early. Put whoever is writing your web content in the room right as you’re beginning its scope. Copywriters who write for the web are skilled at experience design and will have useful insight to add to the process. If you wait until the 11th hour, you’ll likely overlook methods to streamline or even deepen the process—and you may even find the copywriter asking questions you wish you’d asked, and answered, back at the start.
- Understand your audience. Whether you’re preparing a presentation, designing software, or writing a pitch, you must understand your audience in order to create a compelling experience for them. If you don’t understand them, how can you expect them to understand, or care about, what you want them to do? Take time to build buyer or user personas created with as much detail as you can muster in order to get behind their eyes.
- Make your content real quality. Colleen Jones, Partner—UX and Content Lead at threebrick, in her article Toward Content Quality, asks How do we know whether content is any good? and then outlines a seven-part quality checklist as the basis for content measurement, enabling us to show employers and clients where and why their content needs to improve and how it compares to their competitors’. It includes Usefulness & Relevance, Clarity & Accuracy, Influence & Engagement, Completeness, Voice & Style, and Usability & Findability.
- Make your content persuasive. More from Colleen Jones, in Ten Recipes for Persuasive Content. 1. Talk like a person. 2. Establish credibility. 3. Use the right tone for the brand or situation. 4. Be courteous in your timing and placement of content (aka, don’t interrupt). 5. Remind customers of differentiators and benefits. 6. Appeal to both the left and the right brain—the rational and the emotional. 7. Tell stories. 8. Consider using metaphors. 9. Avoid cheap tricks. 10. Don’t forget to use images, video, speech, and audio. I’m a particular advocate of #7, storytelling. By way of example, whenever I write a website that is the client’s own site, I tell them we’re going to do it as a series of interviews. I get all stakeholders on the phone and interview them as if we were on a radio talk show. I record all those interviews, have them transcribed and then let the magic of writing and editing pull the story from their lips. People will say the most wonderful things, especially about their own companies. Put a screen in front of them and they’ll clam up, or worse, give you a bunch of industry jargon, especially when they’re writing about their own companies.
- Know where the user is in their process. Mike Hughes, User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems, writes about how to improve Help and user assistance content in Straight Talk. Surviving Tough Times as a User Assistance Writer. Among his many excellent points, he advises copy writers to write documentation for users who are in the middle of a task, because they go to the documentation when they get stuck performing their own tasks and get out of the documentation as soon as they feel unstuck. This is good advice for all user experience writing as people are typically in the middle of some task when they come to you. Even if they’re prospects visiting your landing page from a banner they just clicked cold, they’re in the middle of deciding whether it’s worth it to continue on the path of discovery with you. Everyone is at some point in a journey made up of decision points that might enhance or stop their flow. He says “copywriters who succeed in the new economy will be those who know that ultimately the user’s solution is in the user interface, not in the Help,” meaning solve the problem before the user encounters the problem, or answer the question before the prospect has to ask it.
- Write an Experience Brief. David Lee King, author of Designing the Digital Experience, draws on a number of other sources to describe the value of an Experience Brief. The Experience Brief goes beyond “look and feel” and asks, “What is the experience we want the user to have? Write a one-page story about what your website, application, mobile solution, etc. needs to do. Use plain language and make it quick. If it takes more than a page to explain it, then it’s too complex. This process shouldn’t take more than one day. The Experience Brief is designed to help focus on the experiences that have the greatest impact on those that matter most to you. It begins with an inventory of the major interactions with whomever you consider to be your most important audiences. For each of the most important groups, target experiences are defined that are closely linked to the brand promise. Important. This is about THEM not YOU. It is the impressions, feelings and beliefs that you want to occur in THEIR minds, through what you do.”
- Write to a flowchart. Use your sitemap as the guide and, conversely, create sitemaps that have the written content in mind; you may be surprised at how your site navigation changes. Submit your chart to the client and get clearance from them before proceeding so that they don’t feel that you are missing anything when you deliver the final copy and site to them. Keep menu items interesting and engaging for the consumer, with snappy and short headlines.
- Do your research. Once you have your flow chart, creating the site copy is a matter of filling in the blanks. Do solid research on your client’s industry while writing these pages. Proper research will lead to factual copy that users will enjoy experiencing. Every sentence you write should be based on a solid fact. Think Twitter, not Great Expectations.
- Do not copy the print brochure. If your text gets described as brochureware, you’ve done something wrong. Brochures and print marketing materials use sales language that does not scan well on a website. Likewise, you’ve got to include directional copy online that you don’t need in a brochure. For example, no one needs to be told to “turn the page” when they come to the end of the first spread in a pamphlet, says Webdesignerdepot.com.
- Keep it short. In general, no web page should be over 600 words or four paragraphs in length. If you need to have a larger page for any reason, consider creating a new category with a sub-menu and several lower level pages. If you must have articles in your site, create a separate blog section for them as your users are more likely to actually read them if they are done in a blog format.
- Write for humans first. The more interesting you make your content, the more people will link to it and the better your search engine results will be. If you write for humans first and search engines second, you’ll end up with more traffic.
- Keyword optimize for search engines next. Use keyword research tools such as Keyword Discovery from Trellian or Google Analytics to research keyword phrases for the entire site and each page. Make sure to place the site target keyword phrases on each page along with your page target keyword phrases. Keep it human readable and avoid repeating keyword phrases more than three times throughout the page. Don’t repeat them at all on shorter, top-level pages.
- Write for a low literacy audience. Pfizer conducted an extensive study on web reading habits in order to ensure that they were communicating effectively with all web users. What they turned up is that 43% of web users are “low literacy” users who cannot understand a page written above a Grade 6 level. The upshot of the study was that top-level pages should be written at Grade 6 level, while more in-depth pages used deeper in the site should be written at a Grade 8 level. How do you do that? Google Docs. Under the Tools menu, select “Word Count”. This will give you a host of statistics, including Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. That figure should be at or around 6 for your top-level pages, as suggested. If it isn’t, go back and change larger words that you have used until you’ve worked it down to where it needs to be. After you’ve tried a few exercises in whittling your language down, you’ll see that the result is clearer and easier to scan than the version that you started out with. Most higher literacy web users know to drill down to the lower level pages in a site if they want more information; the only thing that you have to do is make sure that your site navigation allows for this.
- Write for how people read online. People read differently on the web. Here’s what they do. a) Scan to find areas of interest. b) Scan subheads to zero in on subjects. c) Skim copy for keywords and phrases. d) Read to get detail. e) Click to interact. So, don’t get too wrapped up in creating atmosphere. Let your readers get on with the task at hand – whatever that may be.
- Minimize instructions. Here’s a fabulous example from Steve Krug’s outstanding book, Don’t Make Me Think. “The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with information that will help us improve the site and make it more relevant to your needs. Please select your answers from the drop-down menus and radio buttons below. The questionnaire should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete.” OK. Either folks know what a drop-down and radio button is or they don’t. Is there really a reason to tell people which techniques you’ve built into your survey? There’s also too much reference to “us” and “we”. You’re asking the reader to do you a favor. Act appreciative. Here’s how Steve edited out the instructions and turned the message into something that was useful and potentially valuable to readers. “Please help us provide better on-line service by answering these questions. It should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete this survey.” Looks easy, but it requires thought. And you have to be aware of the problem, which you now are.
- Paint a picture. Kimmy Paluch at Montparnas says when people consider buying anything, whether it be clothes, a gadget, or a home, they often spend a lot of time comparison shopping and trying to gather information to inform their choice. In fact, a major effort is generally exerted to try to experience the item. For example, when shopping for shoes, we will put on one shoe and walk back and forth, then the other shoe, check ourselves out in the mirror and hold on to the item while scanning for other options. For hotels and trips, we read reviews, look at pictures, and find out what our friends know about a destination or establishment. When shopping for a home, we take tours, learn about the previous owners, walk/drive through the neighborhood, look for restaurants and amenities nearby that match our interests and try to picture how we would arrange the rooms and furniture. All this leads to a frame of reference. People try to create and imprint a picture in their minds of the item and how it fits and functions within their lives. So don’t leave it up to your reader to create their frame of reference—help guide them.
- Build shared references. This is about getting your readers to understand what you already know. For example, if I mention “the soup Nazi”, you may or may not recognize this reference from the TV comedy, Seinfeld. As copywriters, we cannot take any chances. Our job is to make sure that people understand exactly what we mean and what we say.
- Support the initial experience. It’s hard to experience a flight before you actually fly, and doesn’t make too much sense to demo a washer/dryer system. However, current attempts to satiate the consumer’s desire to know what they’re getting are somewhat lacking. Help them by simulating the experience as closely as possible. BevMo! is a great example of providing the right information to inform decision without actually providing the true experience. By providing the wine ratings and descriptions, the shopper knows what to expect without actually tasting the wine
- Stick to one topic per page. This comes straight out of DM 101. Concentrate on one topic per page, and one main idea per paragraph. Keep it simple and focused.
- Make your pages free standing. DON’T assume that readers move through the website sequentially, beginning with the home page. They almost never do. Do you? Since users can enter a website from any page, create content for each page that stands on its own. Resist the urge to label content as redundant unless it appears multiple times on the same page. If it’s worthwhile or central to what you want users to think or do, repeat it judiciously.
- Consolidate text. Use bulleted lists and tables. Again, DM101. No one likes to read massive paragraphs of text online. If you’ve got a long paragraph, break it up into a bulleted list or table. It adds visual movement to the page and clues your reader that they’ll be able to scan the information quickly.
- Use headlines and subheads. Break up your information. Readers scan pages for heads and subheads when looking for specific content. So use headings to accurately describe the content that follows.
- Use the right font treatment. Tobias Komischke, Director of User Experience at Infragistics, reminds us that “Before graphic user interfaces, text was the primary means of both input and output defining human-computer interactions. Even today, much of the information user interfaces present is textual. Therefore, we should not underestimate how the right text treatment can measurably improve user productivity and increase user satisfaction.” Since it’s more than likely that a copy writer’s text will be in the hands of an art director or designer, it’s critical for all creatives to understand how type treatments impact the user experience.
- Understand the Complexity of Simplicity. Luke Wroblewski, Former Senior Director Product Ideation and Design at Yahoo! Inc. and Principal at LukeW Interface Designs, writes that many of us carry preconceived notions about simplicity. We assume things that are easy to use don’t have a lot of options and shouldn’t appear cluttered when we first encounter them. In the world of product design, this means plenty of white space, clear calls to action, and an overall reduction of content—in the form of visual elements such as type, images, lines, colors, shapes, and so on. When a product has these attributes, we are more likely to assume it’s easy to use. It’s quite possible that it might not be, but the perception of simplicity is there. On the other hand, he points out that in the new digital world, one can make the case that, as Edward Tufte, guru of information design would measure it, information density (the number of links on a page) is actually a sign of greater simplicity as it simplifies the lives of users by letting them see more choices all in one place. The reality is, either may be true. You have to know what you’re writing and designing for in order to decide the best balance of “simplicity” vs. “complexity”.