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


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


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'.