UX Writing and Content Design — A few tricks of the trade

I’ve been working on my portfolio website recently — trying to distil large projects into succinct case studies. In a way it’s been a test of good content design in itself!

Something I realised when I was getting this stuff down on paper was there are a few things I tend to do consistently when working on projects, be it a new app or service, or a large content-heavy website.

I thought I’d share them here because a lot of the tips and ideas I’ve found previously for my work have been from scrappy, ad-hoc, stream-of-consciousness blog posts like this one!

Hopefully this will give you some tips for your own projects, too.

Leverage established norms

Before you create your controlled language and vocabulary for your project or site, research what’s already being used in the real world. Sounds obvious, but there can be a tendency to get your head down and start creating content straight away. And it’s good to give yourself a bit of time early on to research what’s out there.

I recently designed an online bank account feature for the Education and Skills Funding Agency. I tried to make the interface as intuitive as possible by researching online banking apps from major retail banks, then I modelled the site’s language on established norms.

Use whatever data you can get

It’s great to use established data sources such as Analytics navigation summaries and organic keyword search, Google trends, SEMrush, user research sessions and support centre data.

But if you don’t yet have this data, there’s a lot you can do to find the all-important vernacular language that your users actually use online.

Try searching online for discussion boards and message boards, join social media communities and groups. You could also read specialist news sites and blogs, read the comments sections, or go to community events and meet ups.

This way, you’ll really tap into the vocabulary of your users and get to grips with their concerns. This will also help make your content better for your users by making it easier to find and easier to understand.

Help users to orient themselves

Helping users orient themselves around a site or service is one of the perennial challenges of content design.

You can help users find their way around your site by including a ‘Next steps’ feature at the end of each transaction.

I did this recently at the UK’s Department for Education. I worked with the UX design lead to create a widget that could be dropped into the final page of each transaction on the site.

I then worked with our User researcher to create and send out a browser-based card sorting exercise to 200 users to identify the typical ‘next steps’ that users would like to do after each transaction.

Avoid saying “Back”

One thing that I’ve seen a lot is users getting stuck or confused during a transactional journey. Transactional journeys are typically linear, and are designed to allow users to submit data, make a payment, or do something else other than simply read information.

As soon as users lose confidence, their lifeline is the back button. But aimlessly clicking “Back” can quickly turn what could’ve been a straight-forward step by step journey into a really messy experience.

To prevent users from getting lost, try to label back buttons as precisely as you can. For example, “Previous page” or “Start again”.

Users will occasionally want to retrace their steps, and it’s best to try orient them as much as you can.

Check ARIA tags

To assist users with impaired vision, you can use aria tags that allow you to provide additional text that will be read when someone is using a screenreader.

It’s a good idea to work with a front end developer to populate aria tags with your content, and made sure the code is structured so that language can be read using screen readers as naturally as it could be read using the visual interface.

You can use Apple Voiceover or Vision Accessibility or other free screen readers to show you how screenreader will interpret your pages — use the Tab key to jump to each subsequent section of the site and make sure it is structured and ordered correctly.

Reduce cognitive load

If it’s inevitable that you expose lots of information on the interface, one thing I’ve found helpful is to reduce the effort users have to make to read content by using a consistent syntax to all messages (where possible).

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

You can also reduce cognitive load on users by ‘chunking’ information up into bits.

I did this recently in an online bank account system that was used by a number of different user types that needed varying levels of detail. I chunked the financial information into a series of hierarchical levels — this meant users saw only the level of detail that they needed.

Avoid choice paralysis

Most people’s working memory is around 4 pieces of information, so you want to try keep below 4 pieces of information on any given page, especially when users are being presented with choices.

In a messaging system I developed at the UK’s Skills Funding Agency I helped avoid this “choice paralysis” by only ever showing users 4 ‘alert’ messages at any given time. I choose to use an even number of options because an odd number of options tends to create a bias towards the ‘middle’ option of the list.

If you really want or need to present users with more information, you could try experiment with “choice tournaments” — something that Shlomo Benartzi refers to in his book The Smarter Screen.

He gives an example where a user is choosing between 16 different pairs of shoes on a shopping website. To avoid choice paralysis, you can show the user 4 options and let them pick one of the options, then repeat that 4 times. This way the user sees all 16 options, without being overwhelmed by too much choice.

Follow things up

One final thing that I think sometimes can get overlooked on fast-paced projects with tight deadlines is content maintenance.

It’s good practice to monitor how your content is performing by measuring page impressions and bounce rates, ongoing call centre data and email enquires.

If people still have questions and are calling you and emailing you — then you’ve got some gaps in your content.

If no one is reading your content — remove it!