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.

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?

The meaning of ‘like’

‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’

Pablo Picasso

I saw something very strange the other day. I was leaving the lounge at a foreign airport and, just by the exit, was a machine that asked me what I thought of my visit. It had three buttons on it: ‘like’; ‘neutral’; and ‘dislike’. At first, I was impressed by this social media-style approach to gathering immediate feedback. On reflection, I think this is a clumsy attempt to superimpose the Facebook-like feedback model on the physical world. It’s a good idea but its creators, like many others who’ve done similar, have missed a trick. They’ve missed out on the opportunity that seeking inspiration from another’s work allows. To paraphrase Picasso: if you copy an idea or a concept, then you’re simply reproducing it; if you steal the idea, then you’re capitalising on the opportunity to make it your own. This also allows you to innovate.

The value of ‘like’

I understand why Facebook introduced a ‘like’ button. It’s effectively a peer-recommendation tool and makes good marketing sense. Within the context of Facebook, it means ‘endorse’; ‘recommend’; ‘advocate’; ‘advertise (sell) to my friends’. It’s clearly very powerful too as it compels 2.7 billion of us to click it each day.

When ‘like’ buttons are used within other contexts, their meaning and purpose becomes clumsy, confusing and unhelpful.

What does ‘like’ mean?

The ‘like’ button is not an effective means of gathering meaningful feedback. That becomes clear when you consider the fact that many sites, including Facebook, don’t feature a ‘dislike’ button. In these instances, your feedback options are:

  • I care about this and think this is good and so will click on a button;
  • I’m indifferent to this and so can’t be bothered to click on a button; or
  • I don’t like this but can’t show this other than by appearing to be indifferent to it.

When ‘like’ goes wrong

Many producers of content management systems have jumped aboard the social bandwagon and delivered social media-style features such as ‘like’ and ‘follow’. Similar to the sentiment machine that I described at the beginning of this post, they, at first, seem both clever and useful. It’s only when you start to use them that you realise that you’re using a lazy reproduction of a workable concept put to use in the wrong context.

I came across an acute example of this quite recently when I went to visit an organisation to talk to them about their new intranet. Said new intranet was very impressive and featured a dizzying array of social media-style feedback options. Said organisation was quite conservative and so the adoption of their new tools wasn’t great. A lot of good work was done to explain the use of the site’s new features as well as new concepts such as liking and following in order to get people on board. It was when a news article was published announcing the death of an esteemed and long-serving colleague that things went wrong. Understandably, people were confused and, in some cases, unhappy about the fact that they had the option to ‘like’ an article about someone passing away. Things got so bad that they’re now exploring options to remove the ‘like’ button completely.

What, exactly, do you ‘like’?

The word ‘like’ is deceptively complex. This unassuming four-letter word can be used as a preposition, a noun, a conjunction, an adverb, an adjective and a verb. Its use is heavily dependent on its context. For example, if you click on the ‘like’ button beneath this blog post, what is it that you are telling me? Are you telling me that you like this post, the ideas within this post, the way that I write or that you like me? Feel free to ‘like’ this post anyway, of course, and, if you’ve any feedback, leave me a comment. 😉

Making ‘like’ meaningful

Let’s return to the sentiment machine that inspired this post. I think it’s safe to assume that the people who put it there want to know what people think about the lounge. Ultimately, they want to know whether they need to do anything to improve it or whether things are ok as they are. They might also want to be able to play those figures back to say how satisfied people are with the lounge or, conversely, how much they’ve improved things based upon some poor feedback.

Wouldn’t it be better to ask people ‘How was the lounge?’ and then give them options like ‘couldn’t be better’ and ‘could be better’? If most people said that things could be better then they could set up a more detailed survey (maybe face to face?) to find out why with an irresistible incentive offered for taking part. If most people said that things couldn’t be better then you probably don’t need a follow-up survey. Instead, you can simply play the glorious stats back through flat-screen TVs within and outside of the lounge. Perfect.

Measuring indifference

‘Neutral’ options within surveys have always kind of bothered me (yes, I’m that kind of person). The thing is, you see, they don’t seem to offer any value. To me, they’re the equivalent of a ‘meh‘ button.

Research suggests and experience shows that a fair number of people will go for the sit-on-the-fence option if given the choice. Some say that this is good because it means that people don’t feel bullied into committing to a particular sentiment. I take this point but if feedback that you can do something with is your goal, then this option won’t help. I suspect that Brits (like me) are particularly inclined to click on such options for fear of offending someone. Perhaps we could have a ‘Dislike (but I’m terribly sorry)’ option instead?