A short guide to replying to people like a person.

Today I was reminded of how bad automatic replies can be.

I’d found myself in an unsafe situation, which service staff had contributed to. I wrote to the service via Twitter, receiving this automatic reply.

A short guide to helping users fix errors

Error messages. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bad ones out there. But when they’re good, they’re wonderful. Why? Because they enable users to get stuff done.

Things don’t always run smoothly. Our systems can fail us. And sometimes we’re to blame. So it’s super important we craft clear, logical and accessible error messages.

Understanding the error

Question and define

How do you expect users to know what the heck is going on and how to fix it, if you don’t? Before writing anything, make sure you know the answers to these questions:

  • what’s happened?
  • how has it happened?
  • how do you fix it?

Putting content first with a mutually beneficial relationship

Writers do more than ‘put words on a page’. Designers do more than ‘make things look pretty’. Great digital experiences rely on the bond between language and design.

Writers and Designers: You’re the power couple of content-first design. We need both of you together to plan, design and create content.

Be in it together from the start

If you’re going to make this work, you have to agree to be equals from the get-go. Language influences design. Design influences language. You can’t have one without the other.

“Like designers aren’t just there to finalize colours and choose a font — writers aren’t just around to tweak microcopy…

Understanding the full conversation

To talk to our users in the right way, in the right place, at the right time, we need to consider the whole journey.

Experience mapping is a strategic tool that dissects experiences from start to finish. And we can tweak it to help us plan our written copy and take a content-first approach.

Before you start…

Gather the team

Grab the project stakeholders, designers and engineers. It’s important to involve everyone early so you can agree on decisions about the content and design.

User flows

A user flow is the path taken to complete a task. …

Using tone to ease your readers through your guidelines

Guidelines don’t need to be dry. And they shouldn’t make the reader want to drag their feet. Guidelines should ease your reader through a tricky process.

Imagine someone’s teaching you how to assemble a chest of drawers. It wouldn’t feel natural if they spoke like they were reading from a manual — this is why tone of voice is important.

Tone: How you change your voice to suit a purpose or mood.

Using tone with purpose

When writing a design guideline, the tones we might use are friendly, matter-of-fact, authoritative and encouraging.

We use different tones for different purposes. Throughout a guideline, purpose changes…

Making your content more accessible

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Alt text and captions give people who aren’t able to see pictures these words.

What’s the difference?

Alt text stands for ‘alternative text’. This is the written description of an image on a website. It describes the image to screen reader users and appears if it doesn’t load.

A caption is the visible description that accompanies an image. These are also read by screen readers.

Alt text and captions make sure everyone gets the full experience. Only sometimes should you use them both. This is because they work best for different purposes. …

Taking voice assistants from voice to language

The word voice has taken on a whole new meaning in the wake of voice assistants. But what is the true meaning of the word?


Definition: The sound produced from the lungs and voice box.

Voice is sounds. Sounds without any real meaning — the simplest form of communication. Voice acts as the basis for speech.


Definition: Expression of thoughts, feelings and ideas created by the voice.

Speech is the sense we make of voice. It’s the layer of empathy and self awareness. At this point, we’re still thinking on an individual basis. …

Why the results aren’t always what you expect

160 million people across 191 countries choose to sleep in a stranger’s bed. How did the founders of Airbnb convince people to take part in such reckless behaviour?

Airbnb challenged intuition. They did this by creating a service based on trust.

Investor Ashton Kutcher tells Business Insider how intuition leads to assumptions. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed might sound strange, but it disrupted the hotel industry in a way no one expected.

We base intuition on our own frame of reference. This makes it a weak basis for making informed design decisions. …

Balancing your parent, child and adult ego

You’ve bought a Billy Bookcase from Ikea. You take your trophy home and insist on putting it together. Your partner tries to help. You shout “Clockwise! CLOCKWISE!” at them until they can’t take it anymore. You throw the screwdriver across the room and say you don’t read enough for a bookshelf anyway.

Our old friend Freud pointed out that our personalities are multi-faceted. Games People Play author Eric Berne discusses the theory of transactional analysis. He suggests we’re a sum of three egos; adult, parent and child. This happens in quick succession after an Ikea trip. …

How choice can give children more autonomy

Asking a child if they’d prefer an apple or a banana can determine their personality.

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, giving children choice brings a sense of autonomy. This means our apple and banana kids will grow up with healthy personalities. And, get one of their five a day.

The Children’s Media Summit 2017 looked at technology’s role in the future of our children. Education was a strong theme. Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, talked of how technology gives more ways to learn.

David Coplin, Chief Officer of The Envisoners stated “the future is not linear.” Neither are…

Amy Leak

UX Writer for the BBC spending everyday looking for the right words.

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