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Writing Is Design, Too

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
April 6, 2015

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The year is 2015. There’s a good chance you have a smartphone in your pocket—a marvelous device with which you can access, if not the sum total of all human knowledge, at least enough of it to do pretty well in a pub quiz. (For readers in the USA, that’s a bar quiz.) You can order your groceries online, buy books and movies from Amazon, and search the Web with Google and Bing. So it’s fair to say that you’re at least reasonably familiar with the Web.

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Experiencing Poor Online Copy

Keeping this reality in mind, I’m really disappointed to see—on a fairly regular basis—just how poorly people still write online copy. For example, in the last month, I’ve received email messages from

  • ACM—telling me to Click here to register
  • Slashdot—inviting me To view our privacy policy, click here
  • Amazon—telling me to Click here if I’d prefer not to receive promotional mail
  • Transport for London—telling me to click here to unsubscribe

Really? These big, prestigious organizations are still saying click here? To give you a quick recap, there are a couple of reasons why this is bad design:

  1. When someone is scanning a Web page, saying click here forces them to read the text around the link to understand what the link will do.
  2. Click is no longer semantically accurate when someone may be using a touchscreen device.

While it’s possible that these organizations are using antipatterns, or dark patterns, to reduce the chance of users, for example, unsubscribing or reading content that the organization doesn’t really want them to engage with, this would seem to be a rather petty use of the technique.

Wording Link Text Well

To avoid all of these problems, word link text in a way that makes it clear where you’ll take the user once they’ve traversed the link. The style of a link has already announced that it’s a page element with which the user needs to interact to trigger the action that its label should describe. So there’s no need to tell someone what action they need to take. None of this is new or surprising information. Way back in 2005, N/NG published an article about the biggest design mistakes designers were making at that time, which highlighted this problem.

Writing Effective Online Copy

The notion of reminding people that they’re on a Web page—rather than, say, reading a newspaper or watching television—also appears in page titles and copy that reminds people of this fact. For example, I often see instructions that say, “On this screen, you can…,” and page titles like “Report generation screen.” Traci Lepore, a columnist here on UXmatters who writes about theatre and the creative process of design, says that reminding people that they’re on a Web page is akin to breaking the fourth wall in theatre: Most of the time, the user, like the audience, is focused on the experience—on the task they are trying to achieve. In situations where the audience and the creators are one and the same—for example, UX designers or Web developers—it’s okay to break this rule. But otherwise, the principle is to keep users focused on their task, without distracting them by unnecessary reminders of the medium they’re working in.

As a UX designer, I’m very comfortable writing copy and appreciate the value that it adds to the user experience. Good design results from considering all aspects of a design, including the visuals, the copy, and the interactions. With wireframes, which emphasize the visual aspects of a design, it’s all too easy for stakeholders to focus on visual design at the expense of all other aspects of a design, which can sometimes suffer as a result. Or as @sabrinabonus memorably tweeted:

“Wireframes are the boobies of UX. Let’s build personas, define a workflow, then—Are you listening? The UX is up here!”

Writing effective online copy is at least as challenging as any other aspect of UX design—and it’s at least as important that we do it well. As with many aspects of design, when designers write copy, it’s frequently important what they leave out. The approach of stripping back copy as much as possible means eliminating the problems that I raised earlier—highlighting that the user is on the Web and using click here. If you’re focusing on reducing the copy to its essentials, there’s no room for unnecessary highlighting

As with any design decision, understanding users—including their level of domain and Web knowledge, and what they’re trying to achieve—is the single biggest factor in writing effective copy. When designing forms, the need to be concise is typically even stronger, but techniques such as providing interactive user assistance or showing supporting information when the user shifts focus to a field can help you to manage designing copy for visual impact with the need to guide the user through a process.

Designing Usable Data Tables

Another common error is the misalignment of numeric data in tables. My bank, which is presumably an organization that uses spreadsheets on a daily basis, nonetheless insists on aligning all of the values in my statements on the left, making it much more difficult to quickly compare how my balance is changing from month to month. (The irony, of course, is that this is happening after their much-trumpeted site redesign.) And it’s not just banks. Other sites make the same mistake.

Plus, they add to the litany of table design failures: unclear or misleading headings and duplicating or missing units of measure in headings. These are all issues that make what should be the clear presentation of information into a confused mess.

Conclusion

The American inventor and businessman Bill Lear, of the eponymous Learjet, was quoted as famously saying, “If it looks good, it will fly good.” The sexy part of design will probably always be the visuals and the interactions. For better or worse, these are the things that our clients pay the most attention to. However, this places greater responsibility on UX designers to make sure that even elements our clients care less about are well designed and as usable as possible. 

UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. At Distribution Technology, Peter is responsible for the user experience of Web and mobile apps; working closely with analysts, testers, and developers; and developing a research program. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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