Some go-to principles for newbie UX Writers and Content Designers

A few weeks ago I was applying to work on a project and in addition to my usual pitch I sent the client a rather self-agrandising summary of ‘my current design principles’.

So pretentious! It makes me cringe.. 🙈

I don’t think it was a particularly good idea either, because it kind of needlessly limited my scope as a designer to a handful of soundbites.

Alas, I thought at least it might make the basis for a useful checklist for anyone who’s getting into UX Writing or content design.

Here it is.

Speak directly, cut out superfluous text

I think it’s a good idea to constantly interrogate your content, ask yourself ‘what can I remove?’ And keep asking yourself this. Over and over again.

The prevailing forces of digital content are always punting for more and more content. Content Designers are the rebel insurgency fighting for less.

Use plain English

Try to find the simplest terms you possibly can — this obviously makes things easier to understand for everyone.

This also makes your life easier when trying to refer to things consistently across different platforms and different devices in different scenarios. Localising to other languages becomes that bit easier, too.

Use data

Use Analytics, Google trends, SMErush, support centre data. Join social media groups, find online message boards and communities, call people, speak to people on the street!

Do whatever you can to make sure your users are being repped in the content you produce.

Make things simple

Sounds easy, it isn’t.

But one way to make complicated things easier for users is to ‘chunk’ content up into manageable steps.

Have a look at your user journeys: if you’re giving users more than a couple of things to decide at any given time, you probably want to split things up into steps.

Keep things human

Your files are ready — Ok, got it.

What next? — I’m done. Take me to my homepage.

Aim to create a dialogue with your users. If you keep things in the first-person it tends to sound more natural.

Think mobile first, create scalable content

Always make sure your interfaces scale properly and feel right on mobile.

You can use fancy mobile browser emulators to replicate the user experience on a whole bunch of different devices. Or just drag your browser window into different shapes and see how your content reacts. Easy.

Give feedback and closure

Aim to give your users a sense of closure and satisfaction by creating clear feedback messages.

And never leave your users hanging. Make sure you tell them what’s happening next — or tell them the implications of what they’ve done.

For example:

You’ve submitted your appeal — We’ll get back to you by email within 14 working days
 
 Settings updated — You can now make payments using PayPal

Make complex things beautiful

It takes a lot of work to unpack complex back end process and create a more elegant interface on the front.

If you’re presenting lots of data points across various parts of an interface at different times to different users, things can get pretty messy!

But you can take a little bit of the pain away from users by keeping the syntax of your messaging consistent across the site or app. Users will learn the pattern and then only need to look out for the variables they’re interested in.

For example, one format I used recently for about 100 different alert messages for a complex interface was:

{Date}: {Variable}{Verb past tense}
 At {Time} by {Name} — Details

Just-in-time content

Try to give instructions to users at the very point they need them.

This is a bit of a clunky example, but recently I did some work for the UK’s Ministry of Justice. One of their services gave users a long and caveated explanation at the top of the page as to when they had to fill in a field about the ‘Name of the organisation’. And by the time users got to the field itself they’d forgotten the instructions they’d read earlier.

Don’t force your users to retain any information. One way of avoiding this is to put in-line instructions at the point they’re needed, eg:

Enter the organisation’s name
Only needed for national organisations — the letters they’ve sent you will say if they’re national or not.

Need-to-know content

It’s always good to try shield users from any words that they don’t need to read. 
 
 But it’s much easier for you just to show them everything! Here are a couple of things you can do to avoid that.

You can use the data you know about your users in order to personalise the messages they see. This is known as ‘adaptive content’.

If you need to do something a bit cheaper and easier, you can use progressive disclosure to hide certain content behind a link. Then only the users that want that content will read it.

For example, clicking the following link reveals further information.

Can someone else submit my appeal for me?

Yes, you can appoint a legal representative to submit your appeal by writing to DWP and telling them who your representative is.

Send your letter to:
 
 Power of attorney
 Caxton House 
 Tothill Street 
 London
SW1H 9NA

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