Copywriting is interface design

Your product’s user interface is its window to the world. It’s how your users interact with you, and how you interact with your users. The words on your interface are central to the user experience, and crafting perfect copy is every bit ‘User Experience Design’ as designing the user flows, choosing colours and designing screen elements. Why, then, is copywriting so often left until the very end, done in a rush or, even worse, not really thought about at all?

Every word on the screen matters, as much as every button or every pixel. A great product can be made unusable if the copy is bad (or if the translation is bad, for that matter, but that’s the topic of a whole other post).

A few other things I’ve learned about copywriting from working on maps.ovi.com:

  • Hire a copywriter. A good one.
  • The copywriter should be a part of the design process. They should know the product design as well as the Product Manager or the UX designers. They should speak and breathe ‘web’ (or whatever product/industry).
  • There are different kinds of copy, and they each require a different approach and different skills. Product interface is different from product marketing copy, help copy, communications copy, social media posts, etc. It’s not necessarily the case that one person can’t write many different styles of copy, but you should know what kind you are writing.
  • It feels dumb even writing this, but here goes anyway: No spelling or grammar errors, please! Obvious spelling errors take a massive chunk out of your credibility. Yes, if you’re writing a blog it probably doesn’t matter so much, and the Internet is changing the way we write and communicate in the English language anyway, but still: would you think twice about giving your credit card details over to a site with a misspelling in the payments screen? I certainly would…
  • Don’t let non-native English speakers write the final English copy. I’m real sorry, but unless you’ve been living in an English-speaking country for 20 years, we can tell that it’s not your first language. That’s ok! But I wouldn’t trust myself to write the final German copy for my product either.
  • Don’t use technical jargon or internal codenames for things in your interface. For example, while we were working on bringing positioning to maps.ovi.com (the ability to see your own position on the map via your wifi) we called the feature ‘WiFi positioning’. Before long, the term WiFi positioning made it into our interface copy. The problem? A user would have no hope of knowing what WiFi means, what it does, etc. Keep technical jargon out of your interface.
  • Be consistent with yourself: if you call the button ‘Continue’ on this screen, don’t call it ‘Next’ or something else on the next screen. Users associate behaviours with patterns, and they learn to predict the functionality on new screens based on their experience with previous ones.
  • Be consistent with the industry: if every other product in your category calls a spade a spade, and you want to call it a shovel, you’d better have a good reason. Users also look for patterns across products and norms aid their learning curve. If you throw new terminology at new users, it makes it just that little bit harder to pick up and learn. A good example: think about the last time you installed a new program on your PC. Did you read any of the text during the installation process? Probably not, right? Because most installers follow the same process, have the buttons in the same place and so on, you know how it works and you don’t need to learn it each time. (Okay, now we’re talking more about interaction design, but you get my point…)
  • Be clear and concise: copy should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and not longer. Consider every sentence: can it be shorter without impacting the meaning or ease of understanding? If yes, then cut it.
  • Keep it to a minimum: it’s hard to read long chunks of text on the screen. In fact, most people will look at a long chunk and probably won’t read it at all. Keep lots of white space around your text to aid reading.
  • Talk about benefits, not features. “Syncronise your favourites with your phone!” Huh? Why do I want to do that? “Favourite places you add are kept in sync with your phone, so you can access them when you’re on the go!” Ahh, now I get it.
  • Consider Search Engines (SEO) where appropriate.

A good copywriting resource is Copyblogger.

Copywriting shouldn’t be an afterthought… build it in from day one.

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