When we think about writing, planning or implementing copy for the web, most of us probably picture longer form text: blogs, about pages and information on products and services. As content strategists we audit websites and try to come up with holistic content solutions for our clients. But apart from Help content, we rarely talk about the expanding world of web applications and the implications of user interface (UI) copy for our practice.
Before the web, there was only content. We had brochures, annual reports, newsletters, posters, cards and a whole series of tangible real-world ephemera – things we could touch and smell – and these things were created around content. When I first began working in marketing and communications in 2001, creating marketing material was first driven by a business need, then we would talk about the content, produce the content and then contract a designer to make it look nice. We didn’t talk about user experience because we figured that there was only one way to read a brochure.
As the web became the primary marketing tool for most organizations, this process shifted: we were all so consumed with what we could do with new technology that we forget about whether we should do it, what our users really needed and content became a secondary consideration – something that could be slotted in at the last moment.
I am really excited that in the past year or two this focus is slowly beginning to shift back, not to what it was before all of the wonderful technology, but into something more balanced where design, user needs and content work inter-dependently and are given equal emphasis and consideration. I like that I’m excited about content again and that there is a sense of potential to change the game and innovate. We’ve barely begun to truly explore how our content strategy practice can interface with non-traditional contexts like the expanding world of web apps, including online games.
User Interfaces Need Good Content
For the last two years, I’ve been working on content specifically related to user interfaces without really thinking about it. I was intimately involved in the development of a very complex piece of proprietary Content Management Software, I worked on a game interface and I also created content related to interactive features on websites. Despite this, there’s been a disconnect in how I’ve looked at this content. While I throw myself full on into auditing and strategizing around traditional web content, I’ve often not approached user interfaces with the same level of attention, despite the reality that getting the content right is crucial to their usefulness.
Part of the challenge of trying to come up with a practical framework for dealing with the content on app user interfaces is that it’s such an experimental industry, and one that is growing rapidly. Apple has been offering an app store for years, and recently Google has announced the Chrome Web Store, set to open before the end of the year. These are only two players in what feels like an endless pool of creators, developers and entrepreneurs – these days it seems like everyone is building an app.
Although there isn’t universal agreement about exactly what an app is and what it isn’t, the definition I currently like the most is from Adobe:
A web application [is] a website that contains pages with partly or entirely undetermined content. The final content of these pages is determined only when a visitor requests a page from the web server. Because the final content of the page varies from request to request based on the visitor’s actions, this kind of page is called a dynamic page. (source)
Because a web application generally depends on the user to do something, it is especially important that the language and labeling be clear, concise, considerate of its audience and, if possible, even dynamic with the ability to potentially serve up different kinds of information and assistance depending on a user’s level or familiarity with the product. It’s also important that this content be tested vigorously and revised against data found by analyzing user behaviors.
As much as we champion the importance of content, all too often we mean only traditional content. The result is that user interface content still sits squarely on the shoulders of the technical team, with the lucky ones having some input from user experience and maybe marketing. Too often, the user interface content is slapped on quickly as a last step, with little thought to the importance of language to the overall usability or success of the application.
As content strategists, if we want to stay relevant we need to seriously consider how our role and our tools can be used to improve this expanding area. How can activities such as the content audit and the content life cycle be made relevant and useful in relation to this non-traditional but hugely important sector of online content?
Going Beyond Help Text
Usually when content strategists talk about user interface work, the focus is on ‘Help’ content. While this is an important part of any application, it’s much less messy than other in-app content because you can plan more easily for it up front. It’s much harder to plan for the text on labels, buttons, menus, sub-menus, notifications when a user has fulfilled an action, etc. Part of the reason it’s harder to anticipate or plan in advance for this content is that technology teams – especially those driven by innovation – are like mad scientists who have their heads almost completely in the game of creating something cool. Sometimes they don’t know what solution they’re going to come up with or how they might push the envelop; to expect them to clearly map things out ahead of time is tantamount to asking them to stop being creative. They might try to give you a map, but in my experience, the final destination is going to be wildly different from what was originally planned.
Anyone who reads my writing with regularity knows that brevity is not my area of expertise. Though I am certainly capable of writing concise copy, if given my druthers, I will always choose elaboration. There are a lot of reasons for this, but to be completely honest, it’s much easier to write meaningful longer form pieces than short pieces. Although I love Twitter, sometimes I find it excruciating to say what I mean to say in 140 characters or less. User interface content requires the most razor sharp, concise kind of copy – every word must matter, every word must communicate something important. If words are a form of currency, each one is worth 100 times its normal value in a user interface. This makes strategy, precision and style a matter of almost perilous importance.
Things To Think About
Although I’ve done a lot of user interface writing, I am only beginning the process of trying to work out how to best adapt my skills as a content strategist and writer to address the needs that are particular to this area of development. Just like there is a different set of skills required for those writing for the web verses those who are writing for print, I fervently believe that we cannot apply our existing content strategy processes whole sale to planning for and creating UI content.
- Instead of planning for every piece of content in an application, create an overview of the different types of content that will be required. Although it depends on the size of the application, you should be able to group most UI content types under five general headings. For example: labels, buttons, help text, pop ups, user-generated messages. Think of these as categories of content and begin to consider how you will shape their voice, tone, the approximate length of each message, how users will access messages and whether they will be able to dismiss them, graphical treatment, etc. If you can get on the same page as the technical project lead and the user experience people about these categories early in the development process, you’ll be much better positioned to do your job.
- If the app development team includes a user experience person, ask if you can work with them to develop user personas. If user experience is not part of the design process, as a content strategist, you should think about developing your own. You need to understand who is using the application before you can possibly determine how to communicate with them.
- Develop a short style guide that reflects how the UI content will reflect the brand, the business objectives and how they will be crafted to appeal to the end user. This doesn’t have to be onerous but it needs to be done. The very fact that you have so few words to express a great deal means that you need to be even more sure about your language choices.
- Try to avoid using UI content to push or sell a marketing message. This isn’t the time or the place for that.
- The less words you have to use, the more important each of those words becomes. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because user interface content is short and concise that it doesn’t matter or can’t be strategic. You are responsible for providing people with the language tools that will help them undertake specific actions. This is a hugely important responsibility and one that should not be undervalued.
- UI content does not translate into other languages as easily as a big lump of traditional web text. There are all kinds of elements integral to the design of an app that restrict how much space you have. If you are working on content for an app that will be translated, consider how these kinds of considerations will feature into your strategy: what will you do if a six letter word in English becomes a twelve letter word in Russian? If the app is likely to have an international audience but translation won’t occur, consider how you can craft your language so that it uses terms that are simple enough that they might be more universally understood. Maybe there are design solutions that you can propose to your user experience and design counterparts: are there areas where a symbol might be a more clear directive then a sentence?
- As you begin the process of actually writing user interface content, create a log of everything you write as you do it. Organize your spreadsheet grouping content under the different categories you’ve created (bullet one, above). Use this spreadsheet to make sure your tense, language choices and punctuation is consistent. Once you’re done, this list also becomes an important snapshot of content so that you can revise it, update it or flag it if people seem confused by any element of functionality in the app.
- Ensure that when user testing is done, prior to release or during the beta release, that language is one of the factors that is considered. How are users relating to the language? Do they understand the labels? Where do things seem murky? You are likely too close to your work to be able to see if something isn’t working, it is important to get an outsider’s perspective.
- Schedule time to review and update UI language but remember that this is functional text that people are using to guide themselves to complete actions. If you make a major change to your user interface content, it can have far greater implications than updating the text on your website’s About page. Improvements are good, but once a community of users has invested time in your app, you owe it to them to be considerate and careful when you make any changes that will affect their experience of it. Support tickets are a great way of getting to the bottom of where people are running into problems.
This is a topic that needs so much more thought and consideration then I’ve given here. Content strategists know traditional web content really well – we have the tools and expertise to help you manage, execute, deliver and measure content that will advance your core business objectives. But as the framework of the Internet expands and as app-based experiences gain momentum, we need to continue to re-evaluate how our practice needs to shift to best serve new contexts.
These are exciting times.
Image Credit: Mad Scientist Angela by ScottSchrantz