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Writing for Action

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
March 22, 2021

There’s no getting around it: as UX designers, we must write effectively if we’re to persuade others to act and achieve the results we seek. The intent for any written communication is to spur an action of some kind—whether it’s to get feedback on a mockup from your peers, obtain a product manager’s approval to contact customers who use your products or services, secure funding for your team from a senior vice president, or simply ensure that someone can comprehend whatever information you need to convey.

You don’t have to be an accomplished writer to persuade someone to take an action and achieve your desired result. You can persuade others by using the following simple, yet effective techniques:

  • providing rich information scent
  • structuring your requests
  • avoiding common mistakes
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Providing Rich Information Scent

Today’s digital information is often overloaded with flashy click-bait headlines, and people have become adept at accepting or dismissing such content at a glance. Unfortunately, this noise can sometimes cause people to overlook well-written communications, too. This reality extends to our workplaces as well. How can you cut through the noise in people’s email inboxes or threads in Slack or Teams? Provide rich information scent that ensures people read the content that you’ve enclosed or that follows.

If you want something from someone, say so right away. For example, the subject line “Project A Mockups” wouldn’t serve if you want timely action. It specifies the topic and no more. The recipient wouldn’t know what you’re requesting and might assume that your message merely provides information or that you’re copying him as part of a larger group—as is common.

A highly impactful title or subject line leads with your request, then follows with the topic of your message, which is the what. If you want someone to review your mockups, you might say: “Provide Your Feedback on Project A Mockups.” If you want someone’s approval for a training expense, say: “Need Your Approval for User Research Training Conference, April 22, 2021.” Titles and subject lines that place your request before the subject ensure that the recipient reads and understands the content of your message.

A unique character or shape stands out, providing richer information scent. I often use a right-pointing arrow between the request and the subject instead of a colon, which I can easily create using Unicode characters. For example, you might write: “Requesting Your Feedback —> Project A Mockups.” An arrow is a powerful symbol that indicates direction and motion. If you want to spur action, this is a great way of doing so. An arrow draws the reader’s eye from the request to the subject, creating a visual narrative. You can add a title of your own using a tool such as Slack or Teams. As Figure 1 shows, Microsoft Teams offers a field specifically for adding a subject heading when you’re composing a new message within a channel for an individual team.

Figure 1—Example subject heading for a message in Microsoft Teams
Example subject heading for a message in Microsoft Teams

Structuring Your Requests

Good communication is designed, well-structured communication—especially if you want to spur action. Sending a stream-of-conscious email or chat message is lazy and self-serving and doesn’t respect the reader’s time and attention. As UX designers, it’s our job to put our users first. In the case of written communications, our users are our readers. Why would we neglect user advocacy in such situations? How should you structure the body of your communications to spur the actions you want people to take? Consider the email message shown in Figure 2, which I’ll dissect next.

Figure 2—A sample email message that spurs action
A sample email message that spurs action

A well-designed communication should have the following structure:

  1. Salutation—It might seem obvious that your salutations should be cordial and refer to your recipients by their proper or preferred names, but it is surprising how often people neglect adding such simple greetings. I’ve received email messages whose senders copied me along with several other recipients, but didn’t specify to what individuals they were addressing specific requests in the message. They simply added a series of questions that anyone in the group might or might not be able to answer. The result? Delayed responses or, in some cases, no responses at all.
  2. Brief introduction—Providing a concise introduction to the subject matter of a message is necessary because people often need to refresh their memory or receive some context before they can understand your request. If you jump to your request too soon, recipients might feel as if you’ve tossed them into the deep end of a pool. However, your introduction need not be long—nor should it be. A short sentence is all that’s necessary. For example, after your salutation—such as “Hi Jill” or “Dear Jill”—you could write: “As you may recall, I’ve been working on a set of mockups for [project name or specific workflow].” This single sentence accomplishes a great deal because it refreshes the recipient’s memory, establishes context for the subject matter, and foreshadows what you’re about to ask the recipient to do, who is now better prepared to receive your request.
  3. The request—Once you’ve directed your message to your recipients and have provided some context, it’s time to ask for what you want. A vague request would likely result in a vague answer—provoking more time-consuming exchanges that you could easily have avoided. Be specific and write messages that would appeal to your audience’s mindset. For example, engineers and developers typically favor precision and would want to know exactly what you expect from them and when. In fact, you could pretend that the recipients of all your communications are engineers to ensure clarity. A request you intend for an engineer might look like the following: “Please review the attached workflow and provide feedback by March 1 on whether it would be feasible for you to implement the depicted interactions within the project’s scope and timeframe.” Reducing ambiguity improves everyone’s experience, including yours. Indicating a date by which you need to receive a response is important. Your recipients would want to learn the when immediately after they understand the subject—the what.
  4. Additional information—Once you’ve succinctly covered the most salient information first—structuring your message as an inverted pyramid—it’s okay to layer on some additional information. But include only information that is necessary to a recipient’s comprehension or that helps spur the desired action. Providing too much tangential information—for example, by delving deeply into the background or history of the subject matter—would serve only to lengthen your request. Lengthy communications scare people because they indicate that you require more time from them. Good writing is good editing. If you don’t take the time to cull any unnecessary information, you’ll impair your ability to provoke the actions you want. In the earlier example, I wrote a sentence that would help an engineer understand what’s already occurred and who knows about it. In this case, it was the product manager who was our common authority. By limiting any additional information to answering a recipient’s most probable questions and succinctly addressing those questions, you reduce the recipient’s potential hesitation and cut down on needless, additional exchanges. For example, you should answer such questions as the following: “Is the primary stakeholder aware?” or “Is this a wasteful activity if the product manager hasn’t reviewed it first?” By answering such questions, you’ve better prepared and empowered the recipient to take the action you desire now.
  5. Closing—Typically, people writing messages make their request, then provide a deadline at the end of their message. However, now that you’ve moved your request closer to the introduction, you have an opportunity to close your message more effectively and cordially. I typically end my messages as follows: “Thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy schedule to review my work and provide feedback. I’m happy to answer any questions or discuss any concerns you have.” First, saying thank you is a must if you’re requesting action from someone. But many people forget to do this amidst their turbulent, daily flow of digital communications. Second, acknowledging a person’s busy schedule or limited availability shows that you respect their time and effort, which improves your odds of spurring action. Finally, offering to answer any questions or discuss concerns demonstrates your awareness that your message—as well-structured as it might be—might still require further elaboration. However, it’s best to let your recipients initiate any additional exchanges rather than enumerating and answering all the possible questions they might have up front, which would only add density to your request and reduce the odds your message would spur the action you desire.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

A clean, well-written communication that spurs action avoids making the following mistakes:

  • passive voice
  • filter words and phrases
  • over-reliance on styled text
  • inappropriate tone
  • typos and grammar issues

Passive Voice

Using passive voice in your messages introduces unnecessary obstacles to readers and reduces the impact of your words on them. I’ve been guilty of writing in passive voice, and you might have this tendency, too. When writing in passive voice, the writer fails to indicate the actor clearly—that is, who is taking an action. Passive voice is also verbose and communicates with less clarity.

Consider the following sentence, which is in passive voice: “Jane was asked to present the workflows to the stakeholders.” Who asked her to present? Also, a telltale sign of passive voice is a present-tense verb that ends in –ed and is preceded by is, was, or are. Consider this example of active voice instead, which indicates the actor: “Jane’s boss asked her to present the workflows to the stakeholders.”

Breaking the spell of writing in passive voice can feel a little jarring at first. You may feel as if you’re coming across as too direct or brusque. However, active writing is powerful writing. It is also courteous writing because it uses fewer words, communicates more efficiently, and helps ensure your readers’ quick comprehension.

Filter Words and Phrases

As with passive voice, filter words and phrases diminish the impact of your messages. The most common examples of filter words are I think, I feel, and I believe. Some other examples of common filter words include seemed, realized, thought, and felt. Many writers—myself included—habitually dull the impact of their sentences by using filter phrases such as “appearing to” or “seemed to be.”

Consider the following example, which uses a filter phrase: “John seemed to lack confidence in his ability to present the workflows to stakeholders.” John lacked confidence. That’s all. Consider this example instead, which is more direct: “John lacked confidence in his ability to present the workflows to stakeholders.” As with active voice, you might feel that you’re being overly direct when you avoid the use of filter words and phrases, but stripping away unnecessary words and phrases favors readers’ quick comprehension of your messages.

Over-reliance on Styled Text

An effectively written communication doesn’t need visual styling. People typically rely on using bold, uppercase, or colored text if they want to make certain words or phrases stand out. However, such styling can lead to misinterpretation. For example, using all-uppercase words or phrases might make someone feel that you’re doing the equivalent of shouting at them. Is that your intent? Perhaps it is, but then you probably shouldn’t be sending a written communication—at least, not in that moment. Take some time to calm down before sending such a message.

In most cases, using active voice and reviewing and editing your words to refine your messages would make any text styling unnecessary. Although emphasis is sometimes necessary, be slow to add styling to create that emphasis. Exhaust all other efforts to refine your messages first.

Finally, use the High Importance flag on email messages sparingly. Is this sometimes necessary? Yes, but its scarce use is what makes it impactful in those few instances that actually require it.

Inappropriate Tone

Digital forms of communication, while efficient, make a person’s tone difficult to discern. Readers don’t have the benefit of observing another person’s body language or actually hearing their words—both of which contribute to tone. When reading digital communications, we’re dependent solely on one sense: our vision. Through our eyes, words enter our brains, and we interpret them. As human beings, we’re emotional creatures, and we can’t help engaging our emotions. So, if you’re sending a message that you want to spur action and you suspect its readers could interpret its tone as combative, let that message sit a while in your Drafts folder or in a separate document—ideally, far from the Send button.

Often, coming back to a written communication later, with fresh eyes and a calm perspective, can do wonders. Sure, you might want to come across as direct or perhaps even combative, but such communications seldom spur the actions we want. In fact, they often do the opposite, erecting even more barriers and fostering adversarial relationships. Rarely do recipients of such messages internalize remarks about some shortcoming of theirs or a mistake they’ve made. Instead, they might even escalate their negative actions, further entrenching themselves in their beliefs and behaviors. If you feel that you cannot write an effective message in a way that it wouldn’t do further damage, avoid writing the message altogether. Have a conversation with that person instead.

Typos and Grammar Issues

Some grammatical errors are not as obvious as you might think. Running a spelling check won’t catch everything. For example, many people—myself included—have a tendency to omit articles such as a, an, or the as they write. They might even overlook such omissions when reviewing the sentences they’ve written. As with the Gestalt principle of closure, because we see the whole and know what we’re trying to say, our brains connect words, phrases, and clauses even if there are missing parts.

The solution: engage another sense, your hearing, by either reading your message aloud or having your computer’s speech tools read it back to you. There are numerous programs that provide this capability. On Mac OS, most word-processing applications provide this capability. Use it. Plus, doing this helps you hear how your words flow together. If your words sound stilted or unnatural to you, they’ll likely read that way for your message’s recipients, too.

Conclusion

Writing well is an important skill for UX designers. Every communication’s purpose is to spur some kind of action—even if you just want to ensure someone else’s comprehension of your message.

Lead with your request in your subject lines and titles. This provides rich information scent, encouraging your recipients to read, then act upon your message’s content. Structure the content of your requests so the most salient, action-oriented information is near the top of your messages and provide just enough context to empower recipients to act without their needing to initiate additional exchanges. Also, avoid the common mistakes I’ve described, all of which conspire to reduce the impact of your writing.

Easy reading doesn’t have to require hard writing. No one is expecting you to write every communication that you send as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne or some other renowned author. However, by following the simple tips I’ve provided in this column, you can greatly increase the impact of your writing and spur the actions you want to inspire. 

User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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