John Zeratsky of the Google Ventures design team recently posted this article about writing good copy for user interfaces, and it’s well worth a read. Zeratsky sets out five high-level principles:
- Clarity is king
- Personality doesn’t matter as much as you think
- Just tell me
- By the way, people do read
- Writing is part of the design process
In the introduction to these points, Zeratsky touches on how most designers don’t think of themselves as being responsible for user interface copywriting, and a primer like this is very useful for establishling the right frame of mind. Zeratsky is a very good writer himself, though, and I think he inadvertently glosses over how truly difficult writing is for most designers. I like to flatter myself in considering my writing skills passable, but even so, I admit to struggling with writing for user interfaces. I can’t think of a single project where I’ve tried my hand at copywriting and haven’t felt the frustration and dissatisfaction of wrestling with something that doesn’t come naturally or easily.
One of the things that I’ve found that makes this a little better is to write both within the context of the interface and also outside of that context. I’ll often take a first and sometimes a second pass by throwing text right into Photoshop or Sketch or even in the code. That gives me a sense of how long each bit of text needs to run, and how it all hangs together. But then I’ll turn to a text editor or a word processor and start to rewrite things, more in the abstract, so that I can focus on how the writing hangs together, whether tenses and style and all of that stuff makes sense in aggregate. This is also the time when I start to jot down a glossary of sorts, so that I can keep the terminology straight in my head and apply it across the interface consistently. When I feel good about that, I throw it back into the interface and revise event further. Because I generally feel like I’m not very good at it, I keep tweaking it as long as my team will let me.
Some people would say that this is really the job of a writer or a content strategist, and I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that you want the people best suited for each task to tackle them. But I do agree with Zeratsky when he says, “Writing is part of the design process.” Especially in the early stages of design, and on smaller projects that can’t afford to bring on specialists, having the designer take on some of the writing is enormously helpful, even if it’s revised later by a “real” writer. When you can establish the right interplay between the visual interface and its text, you’re able to communicate the character of the product you’re trying to bring to life much better than if you ask someone else to do it.
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