From Google Ventures: 5 Rules For Writing Great Interface Copy
JOHN ZERATSKY GIVES POINTERS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CRAFTING THOSE LITTLE BITS OF TEXT IN THE UI DESIGN OF SOFTWARE PRODUCTS.
For many technology companies, design is mysterious. So when I work with startups, I try to demystify design by talking about processes and skills. The idea is: Design is not a magical creative thing that designers are blessed to do. It's rational and objective, and the components are pretty easy to understand.
People are often surprised when I tell them writing is a design skill. I used to work with an excellent visual designer who hated being called a visual designer. His defense was, "Isn't all design visual?" Well, no. Most of our design work is expressed visually, but we use design to figure out all sorts of things: What a product does, how it works, and what it says. The last one--what our products say to the people who use them--continues to surprise me as one of the most important things we need to decide as designers.
At Google Ventures, my partners and I get to try different approaches to design all the time--we work with different startups every week. As a writer and designer, my approach is to focus on writing great copy and use basic visual design to highlight the most important parts. Daniel Burka recently wrote about how my visually unsophisticated (it’s okay, you can say “ugly”) prototypes often perform well in user research--regularly beating out beautiful, polished, sexy prototypes.
We think this is pretty amazing--and no one is more amazed than me! Curious, I started collecting tips and guidelines that help me design solutions that are clear and easy to understand. Here are five of my principles for great interface copywriting.
(What’s interface copy? It’s the little bits of text--labels, buttons, descriptions, etc.--that you find in the user interfaces of software products.)
Some say short is best. Some say longer is better. Some point out that people scan text on the web (they don’t read), so it doesn’t matter as long as the keywords are in place.
My principle: Clarity is king. We should always strive to clearly, succinctly, and elegantly say what we need to say. So how do you do that?
• Be specific. Don’t say “search” when you mean “filter.” “Save” is not the same as “submit.”
• Watch for jargon and abbreviations. It’s easy to let these words creep in when we’re not paying attention. “Website” is better than “site.” “Invitation” is preferable to “invite.” “Repository” is clearer than “repo.”
• Front-load your labels (i.e., put the important words up front). Form fields should say “first name,” not “name (first).” Buttons should say “Continue,” not “Click to continue.”
• Don’t be lazy. Instead of defaults like “okay” and “cancel,” say exactly what those buttons do.
These are small things, for sure. But when done right, our interfaces are easy to understand and lend our products a sense of quality.
Everyone wants to stand out. Many startups try to develop a brand with personality--they want to be the young upstart against the establishment. Writing plays a big role in branding, and it’s important, but it’s a minor concern relative to clarity. And a little goes a long way.
When we’re obsessed with personality, we might write headlines like “Okay, let’s get started!” and buttons like “Sounds good!” Headlines and buttons are the pillars of our products and need to be 100% focused on communicating clearly. I always aim for descriptive and helpful. For example, “Tell us about your business” and “Save and continue.”
After we’ve nailed the basics, we can use subheads and supporting text to interject personality. But don’t try too hard--your personality (and the personality of your company) will come through naturally.
Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer impersonates the Moviefone guy? After realizing he cannot differentiate a touch tone "2" from a "3" from a "4" (and so on), Kramer resorts to asking: “Why don’t you just tell me what movie you want to see?”
The best approach to interface copywriting is usually to just tell your users what you want them to know. I’ve seen too many marketing websites with headlines promising “a better way,” “the best way,” or “a new way” to do something, without actually describing what it is.
In many interfaces, a simple label can really aid understanding. I was working with a company recently whose product features a list of updates from companies you're following. But the list was not labeled, and it wasn't clear what it was. Adding a headline--"Updates from companies you follow"--made it instantly clear.
This principle can be very helpful in multipage wizards (where users have to enter some information and click from page to page). Instead of a simple "Next" button, try telling the user what will happen: "[Save and continue »] Next, we'll ask for some personal information."