Good copy, bad copy

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

Blaise Pascal

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

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2 thoughts on “Good copy, bad copy”

  1. “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?” – So much of the way people talk to each other in the corporate world smacks of showing off, consciously or otherwise. Hence the number of awful corporate buzzwords and phrases that take hold.

    Like

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