Zoë Harris
Written by Zoë Harris
Published 2017-06-29

Design and Copy: Secret Best Friends

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the right words, carefully chosen, take you on a living, breathing journey. That is the role of good copywriting.

Let’s begin with a story about a story. As legend has it, someone once challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a complete story using only six words. He came up with this:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Only six words, but you can see the entire thing, can’t you? Imagine if the words in your product were always as carefully chosen as these, and had as much impact on the imagination. Now hold that thought.

Once upon a time . . .

Frustrated writerNow, I’m going to tell you another story. This one is a story about me.

Once upon a time, I was an unhappy tech writer. Don’t get me wrong, tech writing is a noble profession, and I don’t want to malign people who do it and love it – and they do exist. It’s needed, it’s under-appreciated, and it takes special skills to do it well. But, no matter how crucial and well-crafted it is, no one really wants to read it. Like car stereo instructions, people only read tech documentation when they have no other choice. That, for me, as a full-time job, was unfulfilling and utterly demotivating.

I did that job four days a week, taking the fifth day off to write my first novel. When that was finished, I wrote another, then a third started to take shape, and so on. Let me tell you, there’s something about staking 20% of your salary on a thing that motivates you to really put your all into it. So, I did, and in the process, I fell in love with writing again.

The more I worked with the kind of writing I enjoyed, the more detached I became from my day job. When I was writing novels and short stories, I felt alive. The other four days a week, I felt like a worker bee. I was just doing a thing to get the money I needed to support the “real” thing. It was totally unsustainable. The creative part of me, once unleashed, wasn’t content with one lousy day a week. But, like anyone, I had bills to pay and realities to face. I needed to find a compromise.

Reconnecting with the inner creative writer

Eventually, I quit that job to become a freelance editor and copywriter, thinking it would give me more flexibility to work on my “real” writing. (Spoiler: it didn’t.) But what it did do was to send me along a path that helped me understand why it was so important to me that people wanted to read what I write. Sure, some of it is ego-driven – I doubt there’s a creative writer alive who isn’t at least a little bit driven by that – but it was mostly because of the way I write.

picture of woman with laptop computer kissing the screenFinding the right word, or combination of words, feels the way I imagine shaping clay must feel to a potter. I stare into space for longer than is comfortable for anyone to watch; I make faces; I roll words around on my tongue; I try this word or that word out of context and then back in context, and listen to how it sounds. The end goal of all this weirdness is to find that perfect way of expressing an idea or image so that it will have just the right effect on the reader. That’s where the thrill is for me. The careful selection of words to elicit the emotion I want someone to experience.

What is a copywriter?

A man and a woman hold up a sign that says "Clever words! Buy all the things!"Traditionally, when people think of copywriting, they think of things like advertising copy, right? Don and Peggy. Taglines and slogans. Witty aphorisms that inspire you to trust or become loyal to a certain brand. Words that make you want to buy things. That’s the association people make. They don’t often think UX or design.

But, when you think about what advertising copy actually does for consumers, it becomes obvious that UX is where writing for products naturally belongs. I mean, what are we doing with the text in our products if not providing a verbal experience for the user that sits comfortably and naturally alongside the visual design? It doesn’t take a great leap to realize that if words can compel people to buy things, they can also compel them to, say, click things.

UX copywriting? Is that even a thing?

In the past, the job of writing copy for products often fell to marketing people or even tech writers, just because they’re writers and they already exist as a thing. Anyway, how many ways can there possibly be to say “enter your phone number” right? How difficult can it be?

With that kind of thinking, and more often what happens in reality, the task of creating product strings and supporting copy falls to developers, who stick in some placeholder text because it’s needed and it says what the thing does, and maybe down the track someone tweaks it or corrects it, and that’s what goes live. But lately, that attitude has begun to change. Just last year, Facebook and Google began advertising for UX Writers and so-called resident wordsmiths.

And, along the same vein, this is where Schibsted also made a really smart choice. They hired me! Ha! No, what I mean is, they made a smart choice when they decided to create a copywriting role within a UX team.

Narrative design

Why was that smart? Because UX copywriting is about more than just text. It’s about narrative design, and conversational design. When you want to create an interaction that feels human, you need to consider language and tone and formality, because humans use language in varied and subtly nuanced ways to connect with each other. If we want users to connect with our products, the product’s language needs to make their experience feel the same as their experiences of connecting with people.

Screenshot of SiriConsider the way digital products are evolving: language is becoming an intrinsic and vital part of the interface. Think of Siri, Alexa, OK Google and so on – these are products that minimize visual interaction and replace it with an almost exclusively verbal interface. It’s not an accident that UX writing is becoming a real job title at the same time.

Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not working on any AI-based conversational interface products at the moment. But what I am aware of is how these products, products that are designed to feel human, are shaping users’ ideas about how they interact with products in general. It’s becoming the expectation that the copy we use in digital products will be conversational in nature. It is no longer acceptable – or necessary – for digital products to sound, and therefore feel, like soulless robots.

This means a whole different kind of language is becoming more and more essential in our products, and it takes a special skillset to create that interaction.

Enter: the creative writer

My first task at Schibsted was to write copy for the privacy team. While privacy policies tend to elicit the deepest of oh-my-god-boring groans from most people, it’s actually a uniquely challenging area when it comes to copywriting.

Overcoming the groan

Group of bored, demotivated businesspeople in a meeting seated at a table n the office napping with their eyes close slouching on the tableThe first challenge when introducing privacy policy information to users was to overcome that groan reflex. How can we give users information about their online privacy, our policies, the regulations, their rights, our responsibilities . . . see? Your eyes are closing!

How could we get this information across without inducing a narcoleptic seizure? And if we succeeded there, we’d then need to tell them we’re collecting data about them and using it to sell them stuff without them getting paranoid and deleting their account! And if we somehow make it past boredom and fear, can we also interest them long enough to gain their trust? Maybe spark a sense of curiosity? Even delight?

Uh, with privacy information? No way!


The narrative journey

All these topics, presented in a certain order, take users on a narrative journey through both the information we need to present, and the emotions they might experience as a result.

My approach to this was to create a content strategy that involved identifying users’ potential state of mind before their interaction with us, the state of mind we wanted them to be in when they were done, and the one they might end up with if we got the information flow wrong. What I ended up with was this:

A flow chart showing information flow for users

Yes, it looks like hell, but stay with me. Looking at all these potential pathways through the information, at different levels, helped me find ways to use words, alongside engaging design, to bring about education, trust and confidence before presenting users with the option to remove themselves from our data collection efforts – which, of course, we don’t want them to do.

This is different from the narrative flow of a novel or a movie; it’s actually closer to the narrative flow of a video game in the sense that a user will look for ways to get the information and action they want and avoid anything that looks even remotely boring, like, for example, a privacy policy. The difference here, though, is that both we and the user have an agenda, and those agendas are sometimes – or often – at odds.

So, what it comes down to is that we need to guide the user through an engaging experience that gives the right information at the right time, at the right depth, considering users with differing motives and agendas, to end up with the desired effect: in this case, an educated user who trusts us to handle his or her private data responsibly. And that is where a beautiful relationship comes into play.

A sketch of the words best friends forever

Best friends. Aww!

By coupling engaging visual design with simple, friendly language that gives information to users in a palatable way – while assuring them that there is a value proposition in place that offers them both benefits and control – we begin a narrative design that will make the user want to take in the next piece of information.

Screen shot of the SPiD data tour introduction

And the next,

Screenshot of the What is a data profile screen

and the next,

A screenshot of the SPiD data controls

until we’ve created a complete narrative journey, complemented along the way by engaging visuals and easy-to-use controls, that gives users the information they need to become educated users of our products. Once they have taken this journey, they can make an informed decision about whether to stay onboard. And, if we have sculpted the narrative right, the user will trust us, and will even want to stay opted in for data collection because they understand the benefit to them.

So much winning

Euphoric winner watching a laptop on a desk winning at home

When we get the narrative journey right, it’s win-win. It’s a win for the user and a win for us as a business. But it’s also a quiet individual win for writers like me.

Writing is usually lonely work. Even for introverts, which most writers are, it can be all too isolating.

But in the UX environment, writing sits so closely alongside the design to create an experience that it can’t avoid being a collaborative process. For me, joining the Schibsted UX team has killed two birds with one stone: It has allowed me to be both social and creative in my day job so I can take people on emotional journeys with words, and it has placed real value on that journey, making narrative design a part of the experiences we want our users to have.

Close up of old typewriter covered with dust with and they lived happily ever after text

Written by Zoë Harris
Published 2017-06-29