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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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.

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.

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.

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.

Confessions of a wino

I love wine. In fact, that’s not true. It goes much deeper than that. I’m obsessed with wine. Not in a Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction kind of way, you understand. It’s just that what started out as a fleeting interest has grown and transformed into something of which the word ‘hobby’ just doesn’t fit.

‘When did it all begin?’ you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you, and, thanks for asking.

Confused beginnings

I’d always kind of enjoyed wine but found it baffling and certainly didn’t understand why people would consider spending more than about seven quid on a bottle. As a younger man, my taste in wine was largely governed by four motivations:

  1. what cost more than five pounds but fewer than ten pounds in a supermarket;
  2. what was the one up from the cheapest bottle on the wine list in a restaurant;
  3. what sounded like it would taste good; and
  4. what came in a cool-looking bottle.

This seemingly-flawless approach to buying wine meant that my wine vocabulary was very limited. It also meant that – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – I’d often buy Black Tower and that American one that came in a re-usable carafe. I had managed to taste some pretty good wines along the way (usually when out for dinner and when I had the guts to ask the sommelier for a recommendation) but my knowledge was riddled with holes. The world of wine was daunting and inaccessible and, far too often, I’d buy and order wine that I’d had before or definitely knew something about. Clinging to these certainties helped my confidence. I call it the chicken tikka masala-approach to wine.

‘Haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle…’

The turning point came in 2005. How come I can pinpoint the exact year? Well, that’s when the film Sideways was released. I’d heard about the film but it wasn’t until my brother said that the character of Miles (played, expertly, by Paul Giamatti) reminded him of me that I knew I had to see it. ‘Right’, I thought, (quietly outraged that I could be pigeon-holed so easily) and set about getting hold of a copy.

Whilst I wasn’t all that keen on the comparison with the troubled Miles (my brother assured me that he’d meant it in a good way!), the film ignited my passion for the world of wine and convinced me that I needed to crack it.  Now, I know that Sideways is a work of fiction but its message about wine awoke something within me.

After I’d seen the film, I started with Pinot Noir (the subject of Miles’ obsession), eager to sample the ‘[h]aunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle’ flavours that Miles described. I haven’t looked back since and passed my Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) level 2 exam last month. I wouldn’t say that I’ve cracked the world of wine but I’m now a seasoned traveller, able to navigate my way around it with confidence. I can also say that I’ve drunk wines worthy of Miles’ hyperbolic words.

The personality of the earth

In his book, Making sense of wine, Matt Kramer describes wine as ‘the voice of the earth’. I don’t agree. To me, wine is an expression of the personality of the earth and a sensory link to it. Its idiosyncrasies, its good bits and its bad bits. Think about the most delicious wine you’ve ever had. Think about the smells, the taste and how much you enjoyed it. Isn’t it incredible that all of that experience is produced by fermented grape juice? To me, it’s like natural alchemy.

Good old ‘Ho Bryen’

Wine is about shared experience, with our contemporaries and our ancestors. It’s capable of taking us back in time within our own lifetimes and those of our ancestors. I’m convinced that that’s why people like to hang on to it for so long. Cellaring a bottle from a particular year is a way of locking away a fragment of that year to uncork when you fancy a spot of time travel. I recently drank a bottle of Barolo from the year of my birth and, whilst the wine was past its best, it was thrilling to drink something that was born in the same year that I was.

In some cases, wine is capable of putting us directly in touch with our ancestors. You could say the same of antiques, I suppose, but there’s something about the immediacy of the smell and taste of wine that’s far more potent. I love the fact that if you’re lucky enough to be able to sample a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion then you’re in great company. For none other than Samuel Pepys did the same at the Royal Oak Tavern on April 10, 1663. According to Pepys, he ‘drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with’. How cool is that?