Good copy, bad copy

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain

Good copy often takes you by surprise. It’s the sensation of leaning in, a smile forming across your face that signifies it. Good copy draws us in through its simple, everyday ease. When you happen upon it, it’s like meeting up with an old friend at a particularly fine pub and slotting back into warm conversation.

Bad copy confronts us like a prickly bureaucrat. It frustrates us through its complexity and brings on that exam question-like panic of misunderstanding. Our shoulders sink as we read until we inevitably give up.

So, why is good copy so important for websites and user interfaces? It’s because good copy, with its authentic, everyday familiarity, creates cognitive ease. In plainer English, this means it lowers our guards, helps understanding and makes us more inclined to do as the copy says. As Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, fast and slow, non-complex language oils the cogs of decision making. That’s why it’s such a powerful marketing tool.

Writing it right

Copy is incredibly subjective. We all have our favourite words and ways of saying things. The slippery nature of meaning can also make agreeing on copy a huge challenge. Writing things right is hard work.

In a talk I gave at last year’s Collaborate Bristol, I spoke about how we should review and agree copy using an empirical process. By ’empirical’, I mean using tried-and-trusted tools like the Flesch-Kincaid readability test or the Hemingway app to check your words. Both are free and the former is built into Microsoft Word. Both tools will tell you how complex your words are and even tell you how old you’d need to be to understand them. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t getting a computer to write your copy (you still need a decent copywriter to do that) but it’s an objective and highly-effective way of checking whether your copy is fit for your audience.

You’ve got to do it this way. If not, it’s like passing a pen around the room and asking each person to write a word until you’ve formed a paragraph. Unless you’re producing a particularly niche piece of modern literature, this isn’t a good way to write copy.

Writing it wrong

There are plenty of examples of bad copy out there but I’m not I’m not going to name and shame. What I will say is that they’re often found in places where the cogs of task-efficiency could do with a healthy squirt of linguistic WD-40.

Corporate intranets and internal tools and systems are rife with language that gets in the way of getting things done. Why is it that we’re often happy to talk to people outside of our organisation with everyday ease but, inside it, we’re overly formal? Do we really believe that the only way to come across as professional is by speaking to each other like robots?

Good copy is fundamental to the user experience of any digital product or service. Don’t believe me? Consider this cautionary tale told to me by Paul Annett at a conference.

Paul was working at GOV.UK and was testing out a new version of its homepage. At the time, the homepage featured a large, Google-style search box that let people search for government services. Underneath the search box, they’d placed some helpful copy. ‘Search for a government service’ it said ‘e.g. I’ve lost my passport’. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Lots of people didn’t get it and didn’t know how to use the page. Why? Because a large number of people who tried using the page were non-native speakers of English and didn’t know what ‘e.g.’ meant. I’ve never heard a better example of why you need to make sure that your copy speaks to your audience.

Cult of personality

In his excellent book Designing for emotion Aarron Walters implores us to be more human through the design of our digital products. Whether we realise it or not, all our digital products have a personality whether we’ve consciously crafted them or not.

As in the analogue world, personalities have the power to ‘attract and repel’. We have the power to decide which of these our digital products and services does. It’s how we, as designers, can help people to see beyond the machine to the humans on the other side of the screen. Oh, and, when we’re doing this, we should remember to proofread.  One thing’s for sure: letting grammatical errors creep into your live products and services is unprofessional…

A screenshot of a Tweet showing a message from Cineworld's website where they've used 'it's' instead of 'its' within a confirmation message

The case for QR codes

Thinking of using a QR code? Here's a helpful flowchart.
Thinking of using a QR code?

I feel sorry for QR codes. They get a bad rap. In technological terms, they’re fast becoming the Betamax of our times.

Some tech people hate QR codes so much that they’ve inspired numerous vitriolic blog posts and even a book: QR codes kill kittens. This seems a little harsh.

Here’s the thing: QR codes aren’t rubbish. Rather, the way that a lot of companies and organisations have used them is.

Slow responses

Did you know that the ‘QR’ bit in ‘QR code’ stands for ‘Quick Response’? Well, now you do.

When you saw that lorry on the M4 with a QR code on its side, you thought, ‘wow! that’s a quick and easy way of getting to that company’s website’, right? No, I didn’t think so. That’s the problem with how they’ve often been used. Not only do you need to download a separate application to scan the QR code, you also need to scan it (at motorway speed, of course) and wait for the app to take you to the website in question. Not to mention getting pulled over for scanning and driving.

Why do QR codes persist in being used as a way to point people to websites? There’s already something that does that – it’s called a URL or web address. Since when is it faster to download an app, scan a code and wait to be pointed to a website than searching for that website? The advent of services like Siri for the iPhone and Google Voice Search make this embarrassingly redundant.

The right tool for the job

Getting digital user experience right is all about choosing the right digital tool for the job. In the majority of cases, QR codes have been matched to tasks with a degree of suitability akin to choosing a damp tissue to dig your garden. The good news is that there is a better way.

A timid new world

Flown Easyjet recently? Booked a ticket for a film with Cineworld? If you have, you’ll have caught of a glimpse of the timid new world of QR codes.

Some brave companies have ignored the haters and thought a bit harder about how QR codes could be better used. In these shining examples of task-efficiency, you save paper, hassle and time by scanning a code as you wander into your film or onto your flight. Soon, we’ll also be able to use QR codes to pay for things. Neat, huh? You do, of course, have to make sure your phone’s charged but let’s not ruin the moment.

An example of Cineworld's QR code-based digital ticket
An example of Cineworld’s QR code-based digital ticket.

Museums, art galleries and tourist attractions have also made good in-context use of QR codes. Used well, they can be a great way of providing helpful, extra info about what you’re looking at with immersive immediacy. Much more useful than simply directing you to a website.

I’ve even heard of a company launching a smartphone app for its staff and putting the QR-code link to download it on posters. This is better than just directing them to a web address, of course, because you’re cramming a number of tasks (remember the poster, remember the link, follow the steps to download the app) into one action. It also worked well because the smartphones in question were provided, free, by the company. Incentives will also yield better results.

So, where next?

The examples I’ve given are just a few ways that companies are using QR codes better. In concept, they’re still a good idea. We mustn’t dilute their potential through poor implementation.

If QR codes are to be all about doing things quickly and efficiently then there’s an obvious partner for them: the smartwatch. Scanning your cinema, gig or flight ticket or paying for something on a device like a smartwatch is a great idea. Not least because it does away with the clumsy logistics of handing your phone to someone in order for them to scan your code.

Up until now, QR-code ready apps like Apple’s Passbook have resided somewhat dormant on many smartphones. In fact, most iPhone owners that I know forget that it’s even there. Marrying up QR-code scannability and smart watches suddenly makes them an intriguingly useful part of modern life. I just hope that companies remain brave enough to give QR codes another chance.

Digital versus analogue

Digital design used to be all about skeuomorphism. What’s skeuomorphism? It means designing things to look like real and familiar objects. Remember TVs and stereos with ‘wooden’ sides? Remember how Apple’s iOS interface used to look with its wood-effect bookshelves and leather-bound calendar ? Yep, that’s skeuomorphism in action. It’s all about designing virtual things to look like familiar physical things. Why? To save our poor brains from getting too confused and to encourage us to use them. I prefer to call it ‘analogue design’, mainly because the word skeuomorphism is hard to spell and to say.

A screenshot of Apple's notes app
Apple’s ‘Notes’ app from its iOS 6 operating system.

Apple’s departure from skeuomorphic design to so-called ‘flat’ design has challenged skeuomorphism as a design approach to digital things. You could argue that some had already done this (Microsoft’s Windows 8 interface springs to mind) but, of course, Apple is the most Designer (note the capital ‘D’) of all virtual brands. When it does something in the world of design, people sit up and take notice.

A screenshot of an iPhone's home screen showing use of 'flat' design
The home screen from an iPhone after Apple adopted ‘flat’ design for its iPhone operating system.

Just because Apple has stopped doing it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t design digital things to remind you of physical things. Did you ever imagine that the ‘floppy disk’ save icon would still be used in 2014? No, neither did I. It doesn’t escape me that when my daughter starts using computers, she’ll probably use this icon without ever having seen an actual floppy disk. That’s weird.

Relics of the analogue world such as the floppy-disk icon remind us that we often need to rethink design once conventions become obsolete. This said, do we always need to banish the analogue from our digital spaces? Is ‘analogue’ design always indicative of out-dated design? I’d argue it isn’t. Here’s why.

The joy of analogue

Bellroy makes wallets. Beautiful wallets. Wallets that remind you that analogue things are often beautiful things. Their website could simply sell you their wallets using a digital store but it doesn’t. It embraces the joy of its analogue products in every inch of its digital space. From the stitched fabric of its backgrounds to the ability to compare its wallets to other physical things, it’s a celebration of analogue.

Bellroy’s wallets are said to have a healthy dollop of ‘old-school craftsmanship’ at their heart and its website certainly reminds you of this. You can almost detect a whiff of the rich scent of its leather as you work your way through its pages. Bellroy has created a perfect marriage of digital and analogue. Its website reminds you of the joy of analogue.

A screenshot of Bellroy's virtual try-on feature
Bellroy’s ‘Virtual Try-On’ feature. Image taken from Bellroy.com

 

When’s a watch not a watch?

Digital watches have been around for ages. I had one when I was 10. It had a pathetic light in the left-hand corner that let you see a quarter of the time when you were sat in the cinema. Some of my friends had ones with calculators. Most chubby, adolescent digits couldn’t use it, of course, but it looked pretty rad on your wrist. Plus, there was always a rumour that someone had managed to sneak one into a maths exam to jab their way to numerical victory.

Apple’s watch is the latest attempt to make us think again about digital watches. Once again we’re being asked to reconsider the scant real estate of our wrists to see if we can make better use of them (lazy wrists, always along for the ride).

Being a bit of a watch aficionado  (I have 5, including a watch that tracks my runs), I’ve been keeping a close eye on developments. I even managed to configure Motorola’s Moto 360 into something that looked about half as good as one of my watches. As I did this, I noted that the default display option for most digital watches is analogue. Why is this? I’ll be the first to say that an analogue watch face is not a quick or efficient way to tell the time. Particularly at a glance. The reason analogue reigns in the watch world is because we’re used to it and it represents time-honoured, trusted design. It’s become a sign of quality. For some reason, a digital watch face makes a watch seem less of a watch.

And the little hand is pointing to my email…

The problem with the latest iteration of digital watches (smart watches) is that they’re not watches at all. In nearly all cases they fail to meet to two basic success criteria for a watch:

  1. can I use it to tell the time without fuss or bother?
  2. will it keep telling the time, accurately, for a reasonable amount of time?

I’ve yet to see a new digital watch that does both of those things well.

Shifting paradigms

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that smart watches have no future. What I’m getting at is that smart watches aren’t watches. They’re wrist-worn computers better used for micro interactions with your smartphone and to harness the power of the internet of things.

If you want to tell the time in a useful way, get an analogue watch. If you want to start exploring how to carry out digital micro interactions without getting out your (now considerably cumbersome) smartphone, then get a smart watch. I’d recommend you wait until at least the second iteration of your chosen watch though. They’re not all that useful yet.
A screenshot of Rory Cellan-Jones' smart watch showing 319 unread emails. The caption reads: 'My smart watch tells me I have 319 new emails. Now how useful is that?'A screenshot of Luke Puplett's wrist showing a drawn-on picture of a watch that says 'You always have email'.

 

 

Thoughts on becoming a dad…

All going well, I’ll be a dad in about five months. I can’t say that I’m delighted. I can’t say that, because that’s a deeply inadequate way of describing how I feel. Rather, I’m effervescent. Yes, that works much better.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. That’s why I’m so unbearably smug about it. I shouldn’t be, really, because five months, each packed with devastating potential, still lie ahead of us. I can almost see them, stretching out like an unintelligible map to a longed-for destination. I’d just like to enjoy the fact that, right now, in this moment, I’m going to be a dad.

It’s funny really because I wasn’t always convinced that I wanted to be a dad. I was happily bumbling through life, living week to week, year to year, lazily content. My life was quietly unremarkable. It still is.

One day, a chemical change took place within me. I needed to have a child. I wanted – desperately – to look into the face of a person that is the beautifully imperfect fusion of Isabel and me. Our good bits, our bad bits (heck, it’s inevitable), us. Writing this, even now, makes my eyes fizz with emotion. That’s how badly I want this. This probably all sounds rather selfish. That’s because it is. Well, strictly speaking, it is and it isn’t. I’ll explain why.

When Isabel and I got married, I made a speech. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I over prepare for everything. Everything. This means that I took this duty very seriously indeed. I’m not the kind of person who Googles ‘Groom’s speech’, nicks a template and adds in their own bits. No. I thought long (too long) about what I should say. I wanted it to be authentic.

When it came to the bit where I had to talk about Isabel, I got a bit stuck. This isn’t because I didn’t know what to say but because I didn’t know how to distil how I feel about Isabel into words that would do her and my emotions justice. In the end I settled for: ‘Isabel’s the most beautiful person I know’. That probably sounds a little hollow. It isn’t. I genuinely believe this. Why? Because if everyone was like Isabel (me included) the world would be a better place. Ok, ok, I’ll give you an example of why it’s true.

We used to live in Bristol. This meant that, twice, every week day, Isabel would walk across Bristol bridge to get to work. Sat up against the side of the bridge was a homeless man. He sat there every day. Most commuters ignored him and walked past him. Isabel didn’t. She stopped, each day, and talked to him. She learned his name. She took the time to learn about the desperately chaotic life that had led to him sitting by the bridge. She knew, by the state that he was in each morning, whether he’d managed to get into a shelter the night before. She bought him food, bandages (for his ulcerated legs) and (non-alcoholic) drinks. Sometimes he wasn’t there. When this happened she worried about him. When he reappeared, she asked where he’d been and, oftentimes, consoled him.

I only found out about this by accident. When I did, it made me love Isabel more than ever. I added it to my speech because I wanted people to know about it. Things like this are what make Isabel a beautiful person. My hope is that, our child, will be full of this innate kindness. That he or she will create and continue this beautiful legacy. I want to be part of making that happen. Heck, I guess it is rather selfish after all.

So, right now, I’m going to be a dad. I couldn’t wish for anything more.

It’s good but it’s not quite right: let’s make wine apps even better

As I’ve said before, wine’s kind of my thing. I’m a oenophile and I’m not afraid to admit it. Because of this, I’ve downloaded a whole bunch of wine apps. Heck, I even gave the producer of one some tips on usability.

The problem with the wine apps that I’ve downloaded is that none of them quite hit the mark. Some do a few things rather well and some do a lot of things rather badly.

Being the insufferably opinionated type of chap that I am, I thought I’d write a blog post about them. My naive hope is that someone will weave all of my recommendations together and produce the one wine app to rule them all. Fingers crossed.

App under a hot tin roof

Picture the scene: it’s a Friday (or possibly a Wednesday) evening. You’re having something special for dinner and you want a wine of above-average decadence to go with it. You stop off at your local supermarket on your way home and stride confidently to the wine section. Just at the point that the dizzying selection of bottles makes you slightly hysterical, you whip out your phone. You open your trusty wine app only to discover that your pocket sommelier has abandoned you. The supermarket’s metal roof stands between you and the greatest sensory pleasure that £9.99 can provide. You’re close to tears. You reach for the Wolf Blass and shuffle off home.

One of the biggest frustrations with wine apps is that they rarely work when you need them most. I learned recently that supermarkets often have mobile signal-nullifying metal roofs. What’s the use of a wine app that doesn’t work when you’re in a supermarket? I’ve almost stopped using Olly Smith’s wine app because of this flaw.

Thirty fifty’Find a Vino tackles this problem rather well because it downloads its wine database and lets you use it offline. A nice touch and probably the only example of this that I’ve seen. Why aren’t more people doing this?

I didn’t realise I’d entered a spelling bee…

Most good wines are hard to spell. Reckon you can spell ‘Nicolas Feuillatte champagne’ right first and every time? I can’t. I’ve just pasted it in from a Google search. 

Fuzzy searching has long been considered best practice for a good online search experience. You know the kind of thing: you type ‘mississipi’ into search and it says ‘Did you mean ‘Mississippi’?’.

Not providing fuzzy search makes people feel stupid and like they want to give up. That’s not a good thing. Wine apps and wine websites in general don’t yet seem to have embraced fuzzy search as a convention. If all wine websites and apps adopted fuzzy search tomorrow, sales would go through the roof. I promise you. Phonetic and voice-based searching (how many times has someone recommended a wine verbally and you’ve no idea how to spell it?) would also be cool but, ahem, I digress.

Judging a bottle by its label

6 bottles of Faustino 1 Rioja
Faustino 1 – if looks could repel.

We all do it. How may times have you bought a wine because it looked cool? This is a truly crap way of choosing wine. Some of the best wines look rubbish. Take Faustino 1, for  example. The 2001 vintage is Decanter magazine’s wine of the year for 2013 but it looks silly. It looks like it should have a candle stuck in it and be used as a table decoration in some dodgy tapas bar in Newport.

All wine apps should let you take a picture of a bottle’s label and let you know whether it’s worth buying (based on your individual preferences, of course). Vivino lets you do this but only after you’ve signed up to its online community. What if you’re looking for an expert review? A mixture of expert and amateur reviews would seem the most helpful way of doing this.

Oh, yeah, that’s a really good one. Sorry, we don’t have it…

Do you remember video shops? I do. I remember that you’d wander in on a Saturday night, full of hopes of renting a copy of Back to the Future 3 only to find that it was out. For a month. You’d add your name to a waiting list and head home with something you didn’t want to watch. It probably hadn’t been rewound either.

Wine apps do a similar thing. You search for a wine based on the supermarkets and wine shops that you go to. When you get there, you find out that your local branch doesn’t have it. Why can’t apps tell you what’s available at your local branch? All of that data is published online. Grrr.

Tonight, Matthew, I shall be eating…

Matching food with wine is a tricky business. It’s all too easy to go with what you know. Cabernet Sauvignon with red meat; Sauvignon Blanc with chicken or fish, that sort of thing.

The really amazing matches between food and wine require three things: bravery; chance; and a little bit of information. Buy enough wine and you’ll probably get some good matches through the first two alone. It’s the third that lets you dial up the first two. That’s to say, with a little bit of information about which flavours and which grapes are likely to go with something, you can start experimenting and be braver with your budget.

This approach has led me to one of the finest (and bravest) matches to date: battered cod and chips and Champagne. Try it, it’s an absolute revelation. The drier the Champagne (look for the word ‘Brut’ or ‘extra Brut’ on the label) the better. If Champers is beyond your budget then go for Cava. You won’t be disappointed.

The point of the previous digression was really to say that a really good wine app should let you type (or speak) what you’re eating and give you some wine matches. Ideally, you’d want these refined by your selected supermarkets in your selected location. Olly Smith’s app tries to do this but in a clumsy way. What you get is a list of grape varieties to try with a pretty broad range of dishes. You can then drill down into what’s recommended in the supermarket or wine shop that you’re stood in. That’s all fine as long as you’ve a decent web connection and your local branch stocks the wine you’re after.

It’s not rocket surgery

OK, so that’s probably about enough wine whinging (wineing?!) from me. In short, the people who make wine apps need to up their game. All of my recommendations are based on me having used each of the apps mentioned and so some user testing would have uncovered them. That’s where the problem lies. I don’t think the makers of wine apps are testing them being used in anger.

Do you or would you use wine apps? What do you think is missing?

What’s user experience?

User experience is a difficult term. Ironic then, that it’s all about making things easy.

Inspired by a fab new podcast (@TheUXIntern, since you ask), I thought I’d try to explain what user experience (UX) means in fewer than two hundred words. We’ll come to that. Before then, a bit of background on where my understanding of user experience comes from.

I first became aware of the notion of user experience whilst watching Tom Hanks’ 1988 fantasy-comedy Big.  It wasn’t called user experience back then, of course, but a pivotal moment in this hit film captures things rather well.

The bit that I’m talking about is when Tom Hanks’ character (‘Josh’) gives his opinion on a new line of toys. Now, Josh, as you may remember, is a 12-year-old boy trapped in a 30-year-old man’s body and so lacks the inhibitions of the adult world. His verdict on the new line of toys: ‘I don’t get it’.

Josh isn’t stupid; he understands how the toys are supposed to work. What he’s really saying is: ‘I don’t understand the logic of this and why it’s supposed to be fun’. This sense of interactive disappointment was my first exposure to what bad user experience is all about.

So, to the point. What, more concisely, defines user experience and what’s a good user experience? Here’s my definition (and, yes, you can start counting the words from now on):

User experience is all about how we, as humans, interact with physical and virtual things. Good user experience is about removing the ‘why?’. It’s about having the courage to not ‘get it’ and championing the needs of those who won’t or don’t ‘get it’. We shouldn’t need to understand how things should work, only that they do – beautifully and intuitively – the first time and every time. Good user experience turns a can’t into a can and a won’t into a will.

How did I do?

Things of 2013 – another pointless list…

Just when you thought people had stopped publishing their pointless lists, another one rears its obsessive-compulsive head. Mine’s a little different though, I promise. Here’s why:

  1. it’s hopelessly, almost inappropriately, late; and
  2. it’s not a top ten or anything so logical. It’s a random assortment of things that floated my boat in 2013.

Film: The Great Gatsby (in 3D). Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece distils the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into a stratosphere suitable for 21st-century audiences.

Wine: Chateau Figeac ’88. This experience was, to me, what being a wine aficionado is all about. The bottle looked like it’d been rescued from a sunken pirate ship, the label rendered the exact vintage a mystery but what was inside was one of the finest sensory pleasures I’ve experienced. It was like opening a wine-filled oak barrel and curling up inside. Cheers!

Technology: Amazon Kindle. Yes, I said it. Buying a Kindle has transformed the way that I read. Not least because its percentage-read status indicator gamifies reading. If, like me, the modern world has turned you into a distraction magpie (ooh! shiny…) then anything that helps you commit to a book is a fabulous thing.

Place: Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. This medieval city is majestic, charming, pretentious and workaday. It’s also a melting pot of some of the best wines in the world. Not many places can claim that.

Music: The Next Day, David Bowie. The fact is, this chart-botherering sexagenarian could probably have banged out a glorified best-of album and we’d have bought it. The Next Day is exciting, relevant, tender and raw. There are moments of shuddering electricity even when Bowie’s not singing. Check out 00:20 – 00:33 on If You Can See Me if you’re not sure of what I mean.

Book: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Hang on, hang on! Before you say anything, I will say that this isn’t one of the best books I’ve read. What I will say is that it contains one of the finest sentences (‘He was a man of jagged risings’) I’ve read and is unputdownable. I’d also say that its narrative chicanery would put Dickens to shame. You’re right though: it is a bit baggy towards the end.

Event: Glastonbury Festival – because I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin.

TheatreBorges and I, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bedminster, Bristol. This came as a true surprise. The tale of one of the greatest storytellers of modern literature and his heart-wrenching love for literature and tigers was tender and exquisite. The realisation of the near-blind Borges that he’ll never see his beloved animal again was devastating and beautiful. I’m not a crier but this moment tipped the emotional equilibrium within me until I sobbed uncontrollably.

Person: Mrs. H. 2013 was, at times, an incredibly tough year for us both. Despite all this, my wife’s optimism, charm, support and loveliness have held things together. Thank you, you’re wonderful x.  

Meal: Home-cooked (by Mrs H) Chateaubriand (bought from: http://www.donaldrussell.com/)  served with goose-fat chips, stilton sauce and a rocket and parmesan salad. Eaten at home and thoroughly complemented by a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1998. Perfection.

So, that’s my list. I told you it’d be different. Are any of those things on your lists? Not the last two, obviously, that’d be a bit weird.