Discover + Define = Great Web Copy

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads” – Dr. Seuss

Many people think that writing is a natural talent; it’s god (whichever yours is) given and that you either CAN or you CANNOT write. Granted, some people are just naturally better at it than others, they have an inherent knack for it, but without the right process, thinking pattern and getting it wrong a couple times, no amount of knack is going to do you any good!

Writing great web copy

The key to writing focused, result driven content for a website is the method behind it. Much like the UCD (User Centred Design) process, it is user focused and even shares similar steps.

The first step is research. Get to know the user, the product and the competition as if you were writing content for your own company website. As in the Discover stage during the UCD process, this can be the most intensive and time consuming, but is the most valuable. Interview users; ask them WHY they use your client’s product/service? What made them choose your client over others in the industry? How would they describe the service / product to others?  How does it make their lives easier? This information will help you define the tone and language to use for the copy, ensuring you are speaking directly to the user.

Interview your client; interview their staff, ask them about their processes, projects they were most proud of, company culture. There is no one person whose opinion is more important than anybody else’s. By sourcing content directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, you are doubling your chances of effectively capturing your intended audience.

Secondly, write a brief outline of the information that is going to be on each page. Help to define the content strategy by working with the Information Architect, UX Designer and Development team. Collaboration with these resources is vital in ensuring you contribute towards an engaging and effective website. Similar to wireframes generated during the Define stage of User Centred Design, this outline will help you complete the work faster and ensure that you stick to the flow.

Writing copy for the Web

The pen is mightier than the sword, but I prefer my laptop!

When you start writing and filling in the blanks of your outline, remember to base your tone and language on your users. Don’t be overly technical, scientific or vague. Be direct, specific and concise. The point of website copy is to get potential customers to do / purchase something, become a member etc. Users who are looking for a specific service / product on the Internet are already interested, so there’s no need to blast them with unnecessary jargon. They are already halfway there; all you have to do is close the deal. Give the right information, the benefits and why it is better than the competition. Make sure the information is relevant, interesting and unique.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" Leonardo Da Vinci

Wise words from my man Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the main things you should avoid doing when writing website copy is base it solely around the company. No user wants to know how many cute bunnies you’ve saved; they want to know what you can save for THEM. Also, stay away from listing product features. Instead, talk about WHY the product features would best suit your audience’s needs, for instance why a mini van is more suitable for a soccer mom than for a young, male college student. Obviously, if you are writing copy for a charity that is trying to raise money to help them save the bunnies, or an e-commerce site that is selling various washing machine brands, the above “rules” are malleable. Basically, employ a little bit of logic when necessary, but please, PLEASE do not bore your audience with too much information that is useless to them.

Finally, no first draft is ever perfect. Anyone who tells you any different is lying! Read a lot, write more and never stop asking questions.

Why we should think about thoughtless acts

“Thoughtless acts are all those intuitive ways that we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking.“

Jane Fulton Suri
Leader of “Human Factors” group at IDEO

It has been said numerous times that good UX is invisible. A difficult statement to explain to the layman (as are all things UX) until I came across THE BOOK. Thoughtless Acts. A fascinating study of how people react to their environment. In the words of author Jane Fulton Suri: “In daily life we make interpretations about the stuff around us all the time – how it might work and what we can do with it. We develop an exquisite awareness of the possibilities and sensory qualities of different materials, forms and textures. Understanding these intuitive interpretations might be a significant source of insight for designers.”

A physical metaphor for our intangible practice

We spend hours as UX designers deliberating the clickability of a button or the placement of calls to action. If there is one thing I’ve learnt over the few years I’ve been involved in the industry, it is that the largest part of UI design is based upon knowledge of how users expect solutions to behave. But is this a dangerous assumption? In other words, are we assuming that some interaction models are set in stone? What can we learn by actually observing people in their everyday life… outside the context of being OUR users?

We sometimes forget our users are people

Now now, before everyone gets upset, I’m simply saying that we forget our users are people with more going on than just our designs / solutions / applications. Of course how they use our interfaces are of great importance. We can learn so much from material interactions and behaviours in the “outside” world… and this requires not only observation, but questioning why people do the things they do, in a certain way, using certain objects. It’s called affordance. Humans observe the environment in terms of its possibilities for action.

Why we should notice these acts now

With the creation of various platforms and devices, designers have to adapt. Based on my own experiences, the introduction to touch interfaces forces you to rethink behaviour models. No longer can we rely on the old slogan of “that’s what the user expects it to do”. Now is the time to recreate the interface and behaviours. And there are a few big guns claiming to do exactly this.
Microsoft comes to mind with their Windows 8 Metro styling for touch and the latest buzzword, the NUI. The Natural User Interface is a concept based more on gestures and how we would physically interact with objects. Sounds good right? BUT – I have personally seen an iPad user get frustrated using a Windows tablet device. Despite this being a Windows 8 touch device, and the app being beautifully styled, there were predefined expectations on how it should behave. And these expectations were based on how an Apple device would work. Which prompts the question: Should we all just do what Apple does (not that we can, due to strict copyrights). IS there no more room for innovation in interface behaviours?

The short answer: There is always room for improvement. Of course we need to continue reinventing, and redesigning, and redefining… based on a comment from Fulton Suri there is a middle ground: “The world doesn’t need a unique design solution for every creative adaptation we see…we should look for patterns that point to a universal need. “ p.167

So, redefining the interface within universal expectations… that’s not difficult at all!

To finish, I would like to challenge all of you to look for Thoughtless Acts as you go about your business. It’s the best Baader-Meinhof experience I’ve had in a while. But don’t just notice a thoughtless act. Examine it; ask yourself why it’s happening. You might learn a few things about people in general.

Content strategy vs information architecture

Hey, I saw a discussion on an UX forum about the difference between information architecture and content strategy. The discussion confused me, what do you think?

I hadn’t really thought about it. But my natural knowledge-sharing instincts woke up, before I knew it, I said ‘No problem, I’ll do a session and write a post on it.’

Since then I’ve realised even though I’ve been responsible for content strategy and information architecture over the years and I have a thorough understanding; it’s not necessarily easy to explain.

The short answer

Both content strategy and information architecture deals with how users interact with information in a digital space. But the focus is different.

Content strategy focuses on the delivery, governance and planning content creation.

The term, information architecture, is used in multiple fields, which makes it hard to give a short definition. But essentially it deals with the design of an information space and to ensure that users can easily find what they’re looking for.

Content strategy

Strategy: a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. It’s about gaining a position of advantage over competitors. (Or the best way to advance to a specific goal.)

  • Content strategy concerns itself with the entire editorial content development process.
  • Content analysis: roughly describing metadata, taxonomy and search engine optimisation
  • Content planning: defining content requirements across the system
  • Ensure content is readable, understandable and also findable, shareable and actionable
  • Content strategy is continual; it runs through planning, design, implementation, launch and carries on as an operational task as long as the product is used.
  • Involves an editorial process, with different professionals having responsibility and sign-off for deliverables.

Information architecture

Information architecture involves itself with the organizing and labeling in information products to support findability and usability. It looks at search and navigation systems

  • Enables users to complete tasks by providing choices
  • Show enough information to let users access areas of interest
  • Accommodate future growth in content and functionality
  • Information architecture aims to provide a good experience to all users
    • Ensures that different user types, goals and requirements are accommodated
    • That includes what the majority of users are interested in Allow successful user journeys for fringe user types
  • Access points: ensure users can access the product from different starting points and complete their tasks
  • In addition to business requirements, site goals, user requirements and user journeys: information architecture has input from different strategies.
    • The information architect has to ensure that the requirements from content strategy, marketing and business are also met.
  • Information architecture doesn’t follow a specific process but uses various mechanisms and tasks – depending on the requirements of the system – to arrive at a solution

United we stand

For me, the point is, let’s keep pushing user experience design to incorporate areas of expertise, any and all fields, that is necessary to have kick-ass digital products.

That’s how we’ll continue to create meaningful digital experiences.

“User experience is a focus, a thread that runs through all of our disciplines, and which no discipline owns or controls”.

– The UXsters

Further reading

How content strategy fits into the user experience – Nick Finck

Content Strategy and UX: A Mordern Love Story – Kristina Halvorson