Taking the leap with copy

The role of copywriting in big leap product launches, from when not to persuade to what to ask your users

Sofia Tiira
Booking.com — UX Writing


When you think of Booking.com, you think of A/B experiments and data-based decisions. In our previous articles my colleagues shared their stories about running experiments with copy and using data to guide our copy decisions, as these are commonly the ways in which we work. But even A/B testing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to all problems.

I became acquainted with a very different way of introducing users to something new when my team shifted from running experiments and to a big leap product launch, which challenged both my ways of working as a copywriter, and the copy I wrote.

Big leap approach — what and why?

My team works on a calendar tool that our accommodation partners use to manage their inventory, prices and other availability details. These actions are crucial to both their business and ours, and so constantly experimenting on this page would be disruptive to our users — imagine coming to work and every day the tools you use to do your job have been changed. This would create a stressful experience for you and probably impact the results of your work, as more of your effort would go towards learning the new systems instead of getting your tasks done.

Another reason to steer clear of A/B experimentation was that we were looking to improve things that would not be easily measurable. Our main goals included making it easier for our partners to do the actions they needed to do, and improving their confidence in the changes they make. This would be difficult to measure in any other way besides asking the user themselves how they felt.

Photo by Doran Erickson on Unsplash

So we opted for something new instead of an A/B experiment approach. We first gave a small number of partners the chance to opt in to a beta programme to test the new page while it was still in development. Their feedback then guided what the final calendar would look like. After the beta, we introduced the improved page to all partners with the option to switch back and forth between versions to get used to the new page before it became permanent.

We referred to this as a ‘big leap’ because instead of introducing small changes one at a time, like we would with an experiment-based approach, a user was now introduced to all the changes and new features in one go.

Get involved — early!

The first lesson I learned was that the copywriter should be involved from the get go. We were learning directly from the users through interviews and showing them our new product early on, and this provided a new way of learning for copy too. Being in the discussions with users early gave me an insight into how they talked about these issues, how they worded their needs and let me begin drafting in what way copy could be part of the answer.

The new model of learning also challenges the borders of ownership for the copywriter. I needed to broaden my scope, be active in meetings where copy wasn’t the topic, take trainings to be available for interviewing users and in short be there every step of the way with my team. This is because to produce the copy for such a large scope of user issues at once, the copywriter needs to be aware of every step of the user’s journey and everything that plays into it. We were building a puzzle, together, from many sides at the same time, and I could not limit my scope to only seeing my piece in it.

A good example of the importance of copy being part of the development process early on is one of our first tests showing the redesigned page to partners, where we had some unpolished placeholder copy as well as promotions and other data that did not match the set up the user had for their property. This completely threw the partners off, and kept hijacking their attention, which means time and attention was lost from the topics we did want to discuss in that session and all the attention they did give the copy was not very helpful to my process, as the copy was not the finished version anyway.

To not miss out on valuable feedback from interviews, the copy should be the quality users are used to. This will not only help you gain learnings about the copy, but keep their focus on the relevant changes in the product. For a more detailed breakdown of why including your copywriter in research is important, I recommend checking out my colleague Melody’s fantastic article about the topic.

Copy stepping in only at later stages can also lead to problems that could otherwise be avoided later on in the process. For example, we experienced issues such as translated copy not fitting into the planned design. This came up quite late in the process, and had these kinds of kinks been worked out before gathering user feedback, we could have shown the testers the version we ultimately ended up shifting to, to accommodate languages properly.

Making sure copy was represented in the spectrum of research we did from interviews to hotel visits and phone calls to gather feedback all helped me shape my strategy and put the user at the centre of everything I wrote. Which brings me to my second point…

Delight in the details

Once the copy is in place and the interviews can begin, it’s time to listen to your users. And I mean listening to every word — not just what they talk about but the specific words they use.

The new calendar included more guidance and advice to our partners than before. Writing the copy brought up a lot of questions for me about how to best explain something or what terminology would be clearest to partners around each topic. To gain a better understanding, I started taking detailed notes from interviews about how exactly partners talked about something, seeing if I could incorporate words that came naturally to them into what things were called on the page.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

For example, when your user says they would ask for help, do they say they would call ‘the helpline’ or ‘customer service’? If you ask them to explain that tricky paragraph of copy back to you, do they have the correct understanding of what you meant?

Especially in early interviews when the focus is still on validating general ideas, it can feel like the sessions aren’t offering much in terms of specific copy insights. But paying attention to how users word their needs or wants can prove valuable later, so I recommend noting it down at these early stages.

This also applies to written feedback. Weeding through pages of user submitted feedback can seem like looking for a needle in the haystack, but it is worth it when you come across the needle that helps you piece together what users have been misunderstanding about your page.

Pause the persuasion

Usually a part of introducing a new feature your team has painstakingly crafted for the good of the user is showcasing the best aspects of that creation with copy and coaxing the user to give it a go.

However, when you are continuously developing the product based on user input, you must fight those persuasive instincts. When the calendar was launched in beta, I stripped the copy of persuasion to keep it plain and functional instead of descriptive and alluring. This was necessary to ensure the feedback we got was not biased, so our users could tell us how they felt about the product — not the other way around.

So, for example, instead of telling users the new version has a ‘new, faster and easier way to make changes’ I would simply write ‘a new way to make changes’. It’s then up to the user to tell me if they think it’s faster and easier.

This will be challenging at times, and you might face pushback from product roles who want to showcase the best of the new creation — but rest assured the time for that will come as well. Once the product is finalised you can again put your persuasive powers to work. After the new page was finalised and we started migrating all users, I would write new, persuasive copy, since the permanent version is something we wanted our users to embrace as it is.

Invest towards impact

Launching a product in one leap brings along a heavy workload for UX roles, and with it a need for intense prioritisation. To make sure you invest most of your effort towards things that have the most impact, you should (whenever possible) consult existing data and insights from previous launches or experiments.

During our launch, we discovered that only around 20% of users went through the onboarding flow educating them on how to use the new page. For similar future launches time can be saved by not creating a complex flow like this, and effort can be put into educating our users in a way they respond to better.

What we saw was that (surprisingly to us) the emails educating users about the launch of a new calendar and its new functions had an opening rate much higher than similar emails on average. This turned out to be the best channel to educate our users about the new page — and was minimal effort compared to the whole of the onboarding flow. Looking into data and product level knowledge like this can help guide the writing process, as you know where the users will most likely pay attention and where your best chances are at educating them. This will help you load the most crucial information at the right place and time for the user.

Slow and steady will win if you let it

A final, crucial, adjustment the copywriter needs to embrace is a new mindset toward the process of writing and learning from their copy. Big leap approach means continuous iteration, often over a long period of time — so patience is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity.

Users must be given enough time to adjust to major changes, and during the adjustment period you can gain insights from feedback and make improvements before making the change permanent. The more drastic the change, the more initial resistance you’re likely to face — and the longer it takes before feedback becomes more fruitful than simply ‘put it back the way it was!’

Relying on user input instead of metrics means you might not be able to prove what the ‘right’ copy is as easily. You’ll likely need to make many changes, create new copy at a moment’s notice or sometimes revert back to previous versions of copy. When changing many things at once, you need to see it all play out together to know what works best, and you shouldn’t get discouraged by constructive criticism. In fact, criticism from users is often more valuable than compliments — it helps you find what to improve.

A big leap approach may sound daunting, but in the end can be hugely rewarding and teach you more about the needs of your users than quantitative metrics could. This approach offers a great chance for a UX copywriter to develop their skills and truly step into their users’ shoes.

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Thanks Chris Cameron and Steven Baguley for your editorial advice