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

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 of 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.

Hemingway, cats and me

‘I do know that I do not love dogs as dogs, horses as horses or cats as cats.’

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

For many, Hemingway is the definition of sturdy masculinity. The first picture I ever saw of him reinforces this. It was the one on the front cover of The Essential Hemingway. Here we have Hemingway depicted as leathery, defiant sea captain, replete with cable-knit sweater and luxurious beard. He looks so tough that you’d think twice about mocking his impressive combover.

A picture of The Essential Hemingway book, courtesy of Amazon.co.uk

Inspired by a friend, I’ve been revisiting Hemingway’s works over the last few months and I’ve discovered something surprising. I expected to be reacquainted with the toughest man (and men) of modern literature but, instead, I’ve discovered that Hemingway was, at heart, a bit of a softie, like me.

My image of Hemingway first started to change when I found out that he had a thing for cats. I’d always had him down as a dog person. Not least because of their fierce loyalty and innate ability to fetch the charred-and-scattered remains of the thing you’ve just shot. Hemingway’s fondness for cats (by 1943 he owned an impressive 23) made him seem human, tender and vulnerable. This made him more interesting but seemed to betray the image of him that I’d always had.

I’ve always been a cat person. We live with a deeply moody one now and, at one time, I lived in a house with five of the furry lodgers. I never would have imagined that cats would be the thing that Hemingway and I have in common.

A visit to Hemingway’s house in Key West last year provided even greater insight into Hemingway’s feline world. We met (and stroked) relatives of cats that Hemingway owned whilst he lived there. I was delighted to hear that this literary tough guy gave his cats names like Snowball, Uncle Wolfer and Furhouse. Some of the cats that we saw even had have six toes (known as ‘polydactyl’ cats) just like the one that Hemingway was given by a ship’s captain all those years ago.

A six-toed cat at Hemingway's House in Key West, Florida

I used to read Hemingway because he and his protagonists were the types of men that I knew I’d never be. It was a form of escapism. Spending time with his characters was a vision of lives lived by men more confident and self-assured than I. The more I get to know Hemingway through his works, the more I see glimpses of his less-familiar, fragile, sensitive side and I like him the more for it.

Hemingway didn’t love cats as cats, he loved what they represented. To him, they were the embodiment of fierce individualism, profound affection but also an innate capriciousness. Perhaps the kind of heart-breaking capriciousness embodied by Lady Ashley and suffered by Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

I often wonder if Hemingway’s fondness for six-toed cats had something to do with their apparent defectiveness. Perhaps they were outwardly imperfect in a way that Hemingway identified internally? Heck, even tough guys can be painfully self-conscious. Think about the tender exchange between Harry Morgan and his wife in To Have and Have Not after much of his arm has been amputated. Harry worries that his wife won’t love him because she finds him repulsive. She loves him more than ever, of course, but Harry’s vulnerability is deeply moving.

A fact of Hemingway’s life that seems to make him macho is that he was married four times. Many see this as a superficial sign of heroic womanising but this is only one way of looking at things. I prefer the notion that Hemingway, like his character, Harry Morgan, was terrified of rejection.  Many think, and I tend to agree, that Hemingway ended his marriages out of a desire to end the relationship before he could be rejected.

On that thoroughly depressing note, I’d like to pick things up a bit. Cats, to Hemingway, were also about simple, uncomplicated joy through physical contact. Now, when I think about Hemingway (Ernest), it’s not the sea-captain image that springs to mind but this one of him and his sons blissfully playing with their cats. It doesn’t make him less of a man to me, it simply makes him more human. Hemingway with his sons and their cats in Cuba, courtesy of Wikipedia

From gravitas to graft: perspectives on Bordeaux

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things […] that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”  Ernest Hemingway

We decided on a trip to Bordeaux after I passed my first wine exam earlier this year. We’d hoped to get a candid insight into wine, wineries and the Bordelaise way of life. We weren’t disappointed. Our trip offered up a range of sensory pleasures and some unexpected perspectives too.

Picture of the sign for 'Margaux' from the road

Route Soixante Six

Driving slowly through Bordeaux is a thrill. Seeing names like ‘Pauillac’, ‘Margaux’, and ‘Saint Emilion’ on signs is like being on a wine geek’s Route 66. These names, for wine aficionados like me, have taken on an almost mythical quality, they’re stamped on my consciousness after years of reading them off of wine lists, wooden crates and the pages of my wine course book. Visiting Bordeaux, however, throws this into relief. Vines next to the road in Bordeaux

Wine, in Bordeaux, is a way of life. Vines run through the landscape like veins, delivering lifeblood to the local economy. Wine, here, has both workaday and romantic qualities. Everyone’s at it.  It’s as common to see grapes growing alongside the scarred remains of an ancient Bordelaise church as it is to see them flanking a railway line or cheek by jowl next to the local carwash.

Chateaux, wine factories, boutiques and farms

A ‘chateau’, in winespeak, means anything from an exquisite seventeenth-century mansion to a farmhouse filled with battered winemaking paraphernalia. It’s simply the name given to a self-contained estate or stretch of land that grows its own grapes and produces its own wine. This means that, despite the dizzying number of chateaux, they, like the subtle differences between their wines, are unique in their own way. In some cases, strikingly so.

Take Chateau de Bonhoste, for example. Our visit here was undoubtedly the most candid insight into winemaking that we’ve had. Our guide, an enthusiastic 23-year-old with impeccable English, allowed us inside the process. We watched grapes being hurled (at eye-watering speed) into the press, smelled wine as it was maturing in oak barrels (delicious! by the way) and met two generations Grapes going into the hopper at Chateau de Bonhosteof the family that own and run the place. Their ageing room is a cave, hewn out of Saint Emilion rock, that maintains a natural fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Within it are such gems as the tiny vintage made to commemorate the birth of the owner’s first son. Delightful. They do passion by the case.

Stainless steel vats inside Chateau DauzacAt the other end of the scale is somewhere like Chateau Dauzac, situated on Bordeaux’s famous left bank. Its wines are outstanding but its chateau is not. Dauzac is owned, not by a family of ruddy-faced Gallic vignerons, but by an insurance company. Dauzac is about as soulless as it gets. Walking around the ‘chateau’ (there is a mansion but it’s empty and used for business meetings and conferences only) is like walking around a wine factory, with its eerily clean stainless steel vats and temperature-controlled ageing room. Dauzac is what a vineyard run by a team of accountants would be like.

Celebrity fruit

Driving through deepest Margaux is like driving through the Hollywood hills, stealing glances at iron-gated celebrity mansions as security guards stare on.

Tastings in this elite world are for ‘professionals’ only and the intimidating presence of the top chateaux feels entirely (almost comically) contrived, intended to dispel any myths that what’s inside is merely fermented grapeChateau Margaux - glimpsed from afar juice. Instead, as they would have you believe, is a rare chance to try the ‘greatest perfection’ of ‘natural things’ of which Hemingway speaks. It’s there, of course, but not to buy. That, it would seem, is even too vulgar for the world of the elite chateaux.

The universe of Bordeaux is pompous, ridiculous, charming, intriguing, intimidating and utterly fascinating. That’s why we’re going back next year.