Matter Vs Manner in UX Copy
If you are a history nut, there are only a few things that excite you as much as historic pieces of writing accompanying some product of the past. Everything is different today. The profusion of markets has us constantly keeping our guard up for whatever is pitched at us 24/7. With this unnecessary availability of things, we rarely expose ourselves to the rapture of ownership it used to be.
Dirty tricks and design
Partly, because our attention span has shrunk to seconds, and also because of the patterns we’ve learned to recognize, it’s fair to say, we have a good nose for bullshit. This requires a certain behavior from modern products and services.
Here are the main product development aspects with the dirtiest tricks hidden in them:
Personalized engagement. Where you get your customers’ personal data and how you get it doesn’t matter for the most part. What matters is whether you can use it to create faux custom engagement.
Influencers. With social media following being a key indicator of talent and significance, brands are utilizing Instagram and YouTube celebrities to promote their products.
Reverse marketing. Chasing a customer is a common behavior for suppliers since the early days of economy. Taking advantage of the connectivity today’s world has, some brands generate a hype and make customers chase them instead.
UX Writing. Yes, it can be dirty. The easiest and the most pristine way to voice a message is by putting it out in text. Most people don’t see the difference between spoken and written text which makes them translate a lot of speech token into writing. Depending on the industry, time, region, and social constructs, copy becomes indicative. This shapes the standards as more and more writers adopt this certain style. Unfortunately, the change is not always for the better.
Some of the dirty tricks get caught by the designers who manage to transform them into a good experience, but a lot of things get past them due to being “ostensibly distant from design.”
We’ll focus on the point of UX writing specifically. The copy might lie but as they say, once it’s in writing, it’s never going away. While everyone is about what is the best way to make people opt in, we’ll see how it is done as well. We’ll look into the repercussions of the current UX writing trends and why being a friend is not always the right choice.
Our common language pot
Majoring in English while living in Russia was not an easy thing for me. Along with other challenges, I used to constantly grapple with an inferiority complex because of the fear that my knowledge was irrelevant. At the same time, I was around the greatest professors — grammatists and stylists of their time, who had an incredible command of English without being even remotely connected to what was going on in the English-speaking world.
It wasn’t until I had a chance to learn from a professor from Nottingham that I realized, there are two faces of the same language. One is like a calibration instrument. The last thing to change is grammar and knowing how grammar works gives you this ultimate power over a language. The kind of power my teachers have, which in my opinion played its part in them not giving a shit about the pronunciation. The other face of the language is the “real” one. It is the first to change and it is all about the current. There is a fashion in language like there is in clothes.
The language you speak holds the imprint of your time.
Regardless of the language norm, the most popular ways to pronounce and use the words will ultimately remain in the language history. Even if they are erroneous. With that, words don’t just die off. Due to the dictionaries and literature, they are forever entwined into the fabric of a nation.
Merriam-webster is one of the best and most popular online and printed English dictionaries. Due to its sweeping omniscient linguistic veracity, we have a chance to relive the works of our great predecessors:
“Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.”
– Abraham Lincoln
This is what my teachers had. This made them immune to all the language turbulences that we, the young would cause on them. However, all the depth of their academic knowledge did not make them relevant for the casual things. An M-W in your head is great. But what about that rap song I can’t understand a single word from?
This is where the true nature of the language shines. Just like Sermo Vulgaris or Vulgar Latin and not Classical Latin was a direct parent of the Romanic languages, there is a dynamic of the internet bending and twisting Standard English. On the forefront of this dynamic is the Urban Dictionary — the resource stigmatized by the Christian Science Monitor as the “site [that] made its name on user-submitted scatological definitions.”
Urban Dictionary beats Merriam-Webster in total visits while coming short on average visit duration. This means people come to Urban Dictionary to find the meaning of certain words and phrases which are new to them.
At the same time, to deeply understand the intricacies of a word, you need more time and a more credible resource than an openly editable clusterfuck.
As a UX writer, does being relevant and in the moment means gravitation towards the modern type of language that Urban Dictionary propagates?
A bachelor in linguistics in me calls for the beautiful language but the UX copywriter takes a stand. As much as we love Somerset Maugham’s style, it can be extremely useless in an attempt to pitch an upsale.
The matter of UX writing
The goal of a UX copy is to help a user get through the action which they intentionally or otherwise, are trying to accomplish. Additional points for the platform can be scored by not only fulfilling the task but also bringing a user delight while doing that. Or at least making them smile for a second. Why is this so hard then, that it required a number of journalists, bloggers, technical, and fiction writers, as well as designers to take this untrodden path and form a discipline of UX writing?
There is a dissonance between the goals sellers and customers are trying to reach by using the same text.
Let’s take a look at hand-written notices. They are clearly intended to solve a situation. They come into play when spoken words don’t work and people succumb to visuals. Text being, of course, the most obvious choice.
The point is, those passive-aggressive notices never work. The writer puts a lot of emphasis on the end goal which is often a cease and desist equivalent. The reader is usually so far from the writer’s perspective, that it won’t even be funny.
The writer’s job is done nicely. No vending machine service person will read it, but who cares. This is for the comfort of the writer. The style of the note, the composition and the climax only speak to those addressing the problem, completely disregarding the second party involved. I know that’s the point of a passive-aggressive not, but isn’t it more fun when it actually evokes a reaction?
A great example of an engaging interaction but with a questionable degree of efficiency. Everybody had some fun but is the fridge problem solved?
This is what Jason Fox, one of many Jason Foxes but one the few great UX writers describes in When Copy Loves Itself Too Much: “Narcissism in writing, as I see it, is when preference is given to a strategy, technique, or style that aligns with personal preference rather than what actually works with a given audience.”
People rarely perceive information neutrally. Everything coming at us does so in some sort of context. In this regard, there is no instantaneous solution for a copy to tune up a user into the state we want them to be in.
The worst thing that can happen to a UX copy is a cognitive bias. By incorporating a bias into our writing, we alienate a larger part of users who happen to be caught in their own context. Instead of looking for the ways to bring delight, we should focus on doing no harm.
The manner of UX writing
To help us, there are these already dogmatic (in a good way) principles of UX writing, which in different ways encourage being clear, being a friend, and being useful. The problems I have with these are no different from any design problems:
How can I be clear when I don’t know what you think? How can I be a friend if I don’t know what you like? How can I be useful if I’m not sure what you need?
Addressing those questions is taking a pill against the unnecessary hobnobs, nerd alerts, cheesy sale pitches, and corny acting.
Only a fraction of your users will fit into the exact mood premise of your copy. They are likely to experience delight. The rest will be confused if not irritated. This is where I think we should draw the line.
UX copy doesn’t have to be about delighting those who dig it. It has to be inclusive even if it means shoving away the punch line.
How to be a clearly useful friend
As a former tech writer, I can speak volumes about clarity, disambiguation, and precision. However, technical clarity is a different thing from UX clarity. Technical writing makes sure the process does not go wrong and dire consequences are avoided. It’s more of a preventive approach. UX writing is about guiding a user towards what’s right.
We won’t double check the fact given to us. Most of us won’t. We also take notice of an official tone of a message and perceive it with greater caution.
An easy friendly tone of a message concerning a sensitive subject eats away on its significance.
Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. The significance of a plane emergency is immense. This is a copy/cartoon combo S7 Airlines uses to ease up the perception of safety instruction:
It combines a to-the-point text instructions written in what some might call a “bossy” tone, with no variation tolerance for fonts. The playful and delightful part is the pictures. They are here to tell you nothing bad will ever happen to those cartoon characters. Clear and friendly. Useful? I hope no one will ever have to check.
This is mainly about support copy. Its function is first, to provide the accurate information fast and second, to exclude any type of own value judgment. The goal of any support copy is never entertainment. This is a Tesla Model S Owner’s Manual.
According to Elon Musk on JRE, Tesla is “not a car, it’s a thing to maximize enjoyment.” Yet, there is nothing enjoyable in this manual. Nor does it have to be. I agree that everything about the product has to be great, but there are degrees of “great”.
Approaching a functionality that might have a crucial impact on a user’s life is quite a responsibility. And it is up to the manufacturer (writer in our case) to set the tone of the interaction with this particular function. The matter is simple — solve a user’s problem or fill the gap in their knowledge.
Instead of adjusting the copy to a user’s mood, attention span, and trying to entertain them with a witty piece of writing, our job is to provide instructions like a mountaineering guide does.
Unfortunately, a lot of product companies see UX copy as a chance to punch in some marketing. As the result, we get a sloppy SEO-ish praise parade. We’re not telling people how to feel. We are telling them what to do. There are ways to make support copy engaging by using specific wording and a tone that is pep-talky, but not robotic.
As a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, you are constantly bombarded with brands trying to one-up in gear production/promotion. There are hundreds of generic brands. And then there if Hyperfly. The reason it stands out is the gritty attitude the brand exudes with their every message. The products are supreme. The descriptions are spot on. No fluff, all game, motivating, and crystal clear. You Can’t Teach Heart.
The reason why reading silently works is because of our imagination. The neutral tone is rarely a thing when you are reading a text. Depending on the context, you can create or adjust the tone of the message and give it an extra kick. Because of the variables of personal reading preferences, it’s hard to strike a note that is friendly, unassuming, and not rude.
However, there is a universal tone that is associated with friendliness. Something that calms down angry kids. Something that comforts frustration. The Bob Ross effect.
“Because everybody needs a friend.”
Finding the tone that no one could ever get angry with is hard. But you can try. Think about the kindest person you know. Now add the meaning you are trying to put out. Don’t hide the upsell. How would they say it?
A friendly UX copy is friendly and inclusive to everyone, not just your target audience. And the broader you make it, the less expressive it becomes. There’s a reason why all the top apps and brand websites look the same — they are all putting user first. The experience they are building reaches further than the look and navigation patterns. It’s intangible. It’s addictive on an internal level, and it is about what it represents.
I can’t see why the UX copy is any different. In fact, it’s much easier to pass a message through text than through visual design.
Words are nothing but meaning. If we can’t tap into the realm of meaning for every user context, we must cover them all.
The only way to be useful is by being there when they need you. If you risk addressing a problem with a style of wording that does not correspond to the user’s mood, you’ll alienate them. I’d rather be a useful stranger than a useless friend.
There is enough confusion, gimmick, and deception in the world to add to it. Keep the marketers out of your user-facing copy. Keep your ego in check and don’t let your inner comedian out. Don’t tell people how to feel. Don’t love your words too much. And when it comes to making a choice, be about the matter, not the manner.
I’ll leave you with the quote that I find extremely helpful in times of doubt:
“It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.” — William Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)