Why good UX Designers need to be great writers. 

How pages made me care about closing things. And why you should care too. 

The first thing that obviously struck me about Pages on Mavericks was the pop-up for close. Now there are things about the new version of pages that I agree and disagree with — and I won’t digress about this here, but what I do know is I had never noticed the pop-up window until now. Maybe it was in the last version of pages and I hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it has always been there.

I press close without saving.
“Would you like to delete this page?”

Excuse me?

There is something so incredibly striking about that phrasing that it makes me do a double take. Do I really want to delete this page?

The Delete button in Pages

I have closed so many pages before without saving. Usually the prompt is to ‘save’ or ‘do not save’.

But somehow delete feels so much more permanent. Even though I know that I don’t need to save what I’ve written, I have to go through it just one more time, just to make sure.

It makes me wonder: who made this design choice? And why?

I’m not even sure if it’s a real improvement, heck, it almost gives me a heart attack when I try to close a big document that I’ve unconsciously edited:

NO seriously…what do you mean, actually delete it!?”

It is a high-impact difference. Who would have thought that changing the wording from ‘do not save’ to ‘delete’ could have such an impact? But this small difference confirms something that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

I think we’ve all moved on from the stereotype of the designer being the “make-pretty person” (although I’m still suspicious of you, Dribbble). By now most designers working in digital and web mediums take on the role of problem-solver. Sure, some are more focused on the visual and others more on the rational. Regardless, they are both charged with one task — how to make something in a way that entices, guides or even forces a user to behave in a certain manner.

This consideration will often be related to planning user (or I prefer job) stories — how do we take Person X to point A or B? How do we anticipate uses, frustrations, reactions? How do we subtly influence behaviours through the way we design?

One of the key aspects of the job is communication. This is partially ruled by visual cues and intuitive placement of things that move a user forward.

But you could spend years designing the
perfect interface and still fall flat on your face
under the unbearable weight of
‘Really Shitty Copy’

There is a reason that human beings evolved to communicate using language. All the sophisticated design in the world can sometimes amount to not much more than a buffalo on the cave wall in comparison with the pure communicative power of language. And unless you’re designing a product for toddlers or monkeys, language will play an incredibly crucial role in your product.

Now I will be fair to the writers of ‘Really Shitty Copy’ and admit that it is

  1. Not that common — it is more common to get ‘Kinda Meh Copy’
  2. It is usually written by someone with not much experience of copywriting or
  3. …written by someone who really doesn’t care about the thing they are writing about.

Now, if you are working in a product development team that mostly does internal work, chances are you’ll have an internal copywriter that works closely with the design team. If this is the case — you’re all good. If you get trouble, just make sure that communication flows freely between the two departments. If, like me, you work on external client projects, copywriting can be a whole other kettle of fish.

In that case, unless you specifically agreed to do the copywriting for the project, you will be as far removed from the language as you can. You will sometimes be handed a finished document that pays little or no attention to your attempt to communicate efficiently with the reader. Sometimes you make the mistake of just rolling with bad copy and content.

In order for a design to be truly successful, the visual and written language needs to have a symbiotic relationship

What this means is: either you need to buddy up real close with the copywriter and plan your communication strategies together…

or you need to learn to fix it yourself. And fast.

This is why it is so important for you to be a writer — so that you can realise when the copy you have been given simply will not work. If helpful copy is missing. If you need to tweak your design to the content you have been handed.

You need to be able to easily pick out the sentences or paragraphs in the copy that encapsulate what a page is trying to tell the user, or learn to write such text yourself. You need to be able to shorten paragraphs if they do not fit into your design without affecting their integrity.

Of course, a lot of UX designers already know this — this is why Mailchimp is so famous for its Voice & Tone Guide

But the power of language in Interaction design is still
a largely overlooked subject

To go back to the delete button — that was a conscious choice by someone. What were their motivations? Perhaps they thought that ‘do not save’ made people careless when closing documents they really needed to save. That one little tweak could make all the difference.

Sometimes UX design is about finding the simplest solution to your problems. Sometimes the solution is visual, sometimes it is the whole structure that is wrong. But sometimes it can be something as simple as the right word in the right place.

Next time a client asks you for a certain impact, ask yourself — does this really come from design? Or does it have to come from language?

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