How to design words

From a writer who hates to read

Technically speaking, I’m a writer. I get paid to write words. But here’s something most people don’t know about me: I hate to read.

Now don’t get me wrong—I still read quite a bit. I wade my way through books and blogs, news feeds and magazines. But when writers get wordy, my eyes get glossy. My brain gets bored.

All I see is a wall of words.

As a kid, I always thought my aversion to reading was a weakness. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this weakness helped me become a better writer.

You see, I mostly write interface text for apps and websites. It’s a style of writing where brevity beats brilliance, and every character counts. Writing interface text is actually a lot like design—designing words for people who hate to read.

People don’t read your interface

Numerous studies have shown how people don’t read on the web. The same goes for apps, games, or any other screens you interact with. Most people just scan around, picking up words here and there.

You’d be surprised how many people would tap “Continue.”

Are people lazy? Careless? Or do they just hate to read? Whatever theory you go with, the results are always the same. People don’t read most of your interface—no matter how great your words are.

Because of that, you shouldn’t just write words and paste them into your design. As you write your words, you might find that your design needs to change. If you can’t explain an action in a few words, it’s a sign that your design is probably too complex.

To put it another way: You shouldn’t design with lorem ipsum. You should design with words.

7 tips for designing with words

As an interface writer, I’ve learned a few things that can make your words a little easier to read. Hopefully these tips can come in handy as you write and design your own words.

1. Trim it down

The most important thing you can do to help people read is to shorten your text. After writing your first draft, trim it down, again and again. Cut out details, use simpler words, and just get to the point. Be ruthless.

The shorter your text, the more likely it’ll be read.

As a writer, I know how tempting it is to stretch your ideas and flex those writing muscles, but an interface isn’t the right place for that. That’s what Medium is for 😀

2. Add headings

Sometimes, you just won’t be able to shorten your text any further. When that happens, see if you can add a heading that sums up your text in a few words. Use keywords that your user might look for. They can always read on if they want to learn more.

Headings make your content more scannable.

3. Make lists

When viewing webpages, our eyes tend to scan up and down. Because of this, lists are usually easier to read than paragraphs.

If you find yourself using words like “and” or “also” multiple times throughout a paragraph, try rewriting that paragraph as a list.

I love making lists.

4. Give them a break

Some products, like Medium, are inherently heavy on content—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it can be hard to read paragraph after paragraph after paragraph.

When I need to write a lot of content, I try to add a lot of visual relief—line breaks, images, headings, examples—anything that breaks up the walls of words. It gives people a breather. It lets them think and skip around if they need to.

For example, in my Medium posts, I try to keep my paragraphs to just a few lines, and I sprinkle in lots of visual relief.

Sprinkling in some visual relief.

5. Prioritize your words

Some writers tend to focus too much on the choice of words. Word choice is important, but I think the presentation of those words is just as important.

As you design your words, think about how to prioritize the most important words on the screen and how to de-emphasize the less important stuff. In design, this is referred to as visual hierarchy.

Think about font weights, size, colors, contrast, typography, capitalization, spacing, proximity, alignment, movement — all these things affect whether or not people read your words. Dial some attributes up, and dial other attributes down until you find the right balance.

Which is easier to read?

6. The slow reveal

When you’re trying to educate users how to do something, it’s tempting to just throw all that info into a single screen and hope they’ll get it. But chances are, if your text is longer than a couple of lines, many people won’t read it. So what do you do?

Sometimes you can show the user a little bit of info at a time. In textbook-speak, this is called progressive disclosure, but I like to call it the slow reveal. (Sounds more dramatic, doesn’t it?) Try breaking up your info into small chunks and presenting it step-by-step.

Too much text? Try revealing it a little by little.

Another thing you can do is remove some of the more detailed info and link out to help docs. Many products do this by adding “Learn more” links. Clicking those links can take you to a help page with the nitty-gritty details.

7. Write in mocks, not docs

Have you ever written something that looked good on paper, but ended up looking too long when it went live? That’s what happens when you do your writing in Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, or any other writing app.

When you write words for an interface, seeing the full context is so crucial. You need to know how your words are going to look next to everything else around it.

That’s why I prefer to write in Sketch mocks, not in docs. I find that writing in mocks helps inform my writing decisions, because I can see how my words will look in context.

Parting words

Words fill our world with meaning. They help us make sense of the world around us. But the sad thing is that a lot of people just don’t like to read. If you work with words like I do, our goal should be to make reading as easy as possible. Help people make sense of the world around them.

The tips above are just a few of the things I try to do when designing words. Got any tips of your own? Feel free to share your ideas, stories, and comments below.

And to all of you who hate to read—thanks for reading.


Much ❤️ to Brandon Land for the sprinkling illustration!

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