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 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?

To e or not to e?

Our basement is full of books. Our dining room is full our books. Our lives are full of books. This is why I’ve finally bought an e-reader. This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in recent weeks (pathetic, isn’t it?). If you’ve read any of my early posts, you’ll know that this makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite but, heck, we live, we learn, and, I can assure you, my decision was borne out of practicality. Honest.

I adore real books. I love what’s in them and I love them as artefacts. I can select a book, at random, from our bulging shelves and recall which chapter of my life it relates to. For example, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy will always remind me of living in a mouldy flat in Southsea and sleeping on a mattress because I was too stubborn to buy a bed. There are happier memories too, of course, but that’s the thing about randomness: it’s kind of random.

The books that my wife and I own are part of us. That’s why we refuse to give or throw them away. They’re our version of Borges’ Library of Babel and losing them would be like losing a large part of the history of ourselves. Inspired by the wonderful Dr. John Lyon of Bristol University, I even started writing my name, the year and where I was living at the time of reading inside each front cover. It’s a trivial but delightfully immediate way of keeping in touch with your younger selves. Each inscription is like a miniature postcard from the past.

Sadly, our obsession with keeping all of our books has left us with little space. Our cramped little house is buckling under the weight of our literature of life.

The most obvious solution to this problem was to place an immediate embargo on buying any new books and to enforce a strict library-only approach to reading. This didn’t work. Mainly because of the frustrating amount of time I had to wait until I get get my hands on what I wanted to read. Plus, having the Amazon app on my phone meant that I’d ‘accidentally’ buy a book or two whilst caught off guard (honest). The obvious and more practical solution slowly came into focus: I should buy an e-reader. That was about a year ago and I’ve been grappling with whether to buy one or not until just a few days ago.

I’ve yet to read a book on my new e-reader but I know it won’t be the same. In some cases, it’ll be a richer experience because I’ll be able to look up tricky words as I spot them using its in-built copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. In others, I feel sure that it’ll feel quite alien and divorced from the haptic and sensual delights of a real book. Don’t you just love the musty whiff of an old book? To me, it’s like an olfactory version of Proust’s madeleine, recalling potent memories of days, weeks, months lost in literature.

I do think an e-reader can neatly complement your reading ecosystem. It’ll work best for reading those books that you just want to read but not physically own. It’s also a nifty way of reading something that you don’t want to be seen reading in public. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to owe a debt to the e-reader for precisely this reason.

I love a beautifully-bound hardback but their format seems almost comically impractical. How many times have you nearly knocked yourself out by reading a weighty tome in bed and drifting off mid sentence? Oh, ok. Just me then. A benefit of the e-reader user experience means that you don’t have to buy a book in hardback if you want to buy it when it’s just been released. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

Ok, that’s enough trying to convince myself that I’ve made the right decision. Will I feel the same nostalgia when I look through the list of titles that I’ve read on my e-reader compared to picking one up from a shelf? No, and I’ll just have to live with that. Well, at least until we can afford a bigger house.

Words, words, words

After considerable speculation, it’s now official: Google is a verb. Well, at least according to the magic lightbox of truth that sits in the corner of my lounge. I saw it used as part of an advert for a film, I forget which. ‘Google [film name]’ it said, like this was the most normal thing in the world. Clearly, a linguistic milestone of this magnitude hidden within the seemingly innocuous confines of an advert for a film has left me reeling.

It’s not all bad…

One of the things that I love about the Web is its unrelenting ability to nudge new words into our lexicon. Never before has a cultural phenomenon (writing this in 2011, the word ‘mainstay’ seems more appropriate) highlighted the breathless inadequacy of a paper-based dictionary (unless as a misty-eyed way of capturing the words of a pre-Web age) as a means of keeping up with the Web’s etymological alchemy.

To say that you’d Facebooked or Googled someone ten years ago would’ve made you sound as mad as a box of particularly bonkers frogs. In 2011, these are legitimate (in the sense that they are used, legitimately, by millions of people every day) verbs with an immediacy of which an Imagist poet would be proud.

It’s funny to think that there was a sense of gentle indignation from the Radio-4 classes (of which I’m one – except for The Archers…) when, a few years back, the words ‘scratchcard’ and ‘gangster (gansta?) rap’ made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. I wonder what the same folk would think about the wave of new words that the Web word machine generates?

A losing battle?

Are paper-based dictionaries relevant in the age of the Web? Would we be better off admitting defeat and making online dictionaries the de facto format for keeping up with the ‘official’ record of languages?

Traditional dictionaries (such as the Oxford English Dictionary) are a good example of where the argument for a soft versus hard format for content is pretty darn compelling. Many self-proclaimed gadget geeks (such as myself) still prefer to read books in their traditional format (when was the last time a paperback stopped working because you dropped it in the bath?) but this argument becomes less compelling when you think about how quickly our langauge is changing. As soon as you’ve bought an ‘official’ record of a language (in the form of a dictionary) it’s already out of date. This can’t be said of the traditional novel: The Catcher in the Rye will always contain the same words and tell the same story 100 years from now.

Keeping up with The Times

Of course, most dictionary providers have an online presence and most, it seems, have been canny enough to monetize (in the form of subscriptions) their services too. I wonder if paper-based dictionaries will ever be phased out altogether? This seems logical if one heeds the march of technological progress but then again who would have predicted that we’d still read newspapers made of real paper in 2011? To me, this suggests that many seemingly archaic formats (newspapers, paper-based books etc.) are still popular because their format (relatively unchanged since their advent) is still the most convenient way of consuming them. Yes, you may be able to squeeze thousands of books onto a device no larger than a broadsheet newspaper but how many of us can read all of those books at the same time? Answers on a postcard, please.