5 Reasons Why you Should Simplify your Website’s Copy

Simplify or die.

Imagine you’re writing or reviewing content for a website. You like what you see. The text describes what you do and sounds authoritative.

It has weight because of those double-barreled phrases and mic-drop sentences. Sentences like:

“Instead of employees, job descriptions or long titles, we have diverse in-house critical thinkers who cluster around projects, forming teams according to their skillset – delivering the greatest value for our clients.”
The Architect from the Matrix: complexity at its worst.

That was me. 2 months ago when I was leading a project to redesign 23 Design’s website. I kept getting the same feedback: “Make it simpler.” And I kept replying: “Why? This sounds badass!”

But with every iteration, I found another reason to simplify. More: I realized that successful copy must be simple.

Before we dive into why, let’s start with what:

What is Simple Copy?

Here is the first piece of text on the Spotify US website.

This is a great example of simple copy:

  • Visually: The title echoes the user’s burning question. We know we’re in the right place.
  • Stylistically: The sentences are punchy, but aren’t awkwardly abrupt. Few adjectives and little hyperbole.
  • Conceptually: The text hits you with great feature after great feature, without wasting words unpacking or overemphasizing them.

Now, let’s look at another way to tell the same story. Here’s the first piece of text that appears on the US Apple Music website:

It’s more complex.

Which of the texts did you read and which did you skim? Which can you remember? Which was more inviting?

After redesigning our website, I came to the conclusion that there’s no alternative to simplifying copy.

Simple isn’t a brand attribute. It’s not part of a brand’s voice like “exciting,” or “friendly.” It’s a priority, regardless of what you’re hawking.

Simplicity is the yard stick and north star of successful copy.

So, Why Is Simple Better?

1) Simple is efficient

Most visitors spend <15 seconds on your website. So you’ve got around 10 seconds to communicate your value proposition.

Here’s a great example from Cooper’s homepage:

That’s it.

No ‘us’ or ‘we.’ No ‘our clients.’ Just a promise that reads like a fact and an exciting call to action. The first sentence tells me they know what they’re doing. The second makes me feel they’ve got my back.

We have to start assuming our users are always time-starved. If we don’t, our websites will be inconvenient time-sinks instead of tools.

Our job is to help these time-starved users instantly envision our product on their kitchen counters, or on their phone home screen between Instagram and Spotify.

2) Simple is specific

Good websites are designed with specific users in mind. Simplicity helps us hone in on these users: to get alongside them and speak their language.

Here is an example from First Round Capital.

This copy empathizes with first-time founders. Making difficult decisions with imperfect information is such a specific challenge that it makes First Round sound authoritative. They’ve been there, in the trenches. All this while building trust (‘safety net’) and with a dash of quiet humility (‘bringing together the smartest people we know.’)

First Round know that we can’t design for everyone. We must optimize for the best quality connection with right user from a pool of value-hungry, time-starved visitors.

3) Simple is reliable

We’ve all done it: made our writing more complex to sound smarter (standard practice for least 86% of college students!). But this is the surprising part: when given simple and complex versions of the same text, we instinctually think the simple version sounds ‘more intelligent.

This is a huge contradiction.

We think complex text is less authoritative. BUT we have a natural urge to make things sound complex in order to make ourselves appear more authoritative.

Let’s break the cycle of thinking our job is to impress by sounding smart.

4) Simple is innovative

The more stuff we have, the less creative we are. Clutter is the enemy of focus. And limitations force us to work smarter. I discovered this as a guitarist when I quit the band I was touring with. One-by-one I sold my guitar pedals, culling my pedal board from 15 to 3.

Suddenly, I had to improvise. I started manipulating the guitar itself, using the weight of my body and hands. It made me a better player. It gave me more control.

What does this have to do with copy? When you force yourself to fit your message into a clear sentence, you get clever. Like this example from Swiss Life:

It’s ingenious. The entire story of a working relationship summarized in one sentence. Basic building blocks arranged in a creative way to express a complex idea. Swiss Life reminds us that limitation is the fuel of effective communication.

5) Simple is inclusive

Complexity alienates. 23 Design has joined the conversation about designing for diversity — this means acknowledging differently abled people as well as people who don’t speak English as a first language.

As I’ve said, we can’t design for everyone. But this doesn’t mean we should exclude when there is potential to engage wider audiences.

Simple copy aims at universal understanding. In capitalistic terms, more understanding translates to more conversion and revenue. In human terms, we’re talking about deeper impact and social change.

Two Final Thoughts

Writing copy is effectively solving a problem: How can we communicate value to users? When problem solving, we often over-prioritize arriving at any solution quickly:

“When we find a solution to a problem we are so delighted that we never stop to consider that there might be a ‘better’ or ‘simpler’ solution…We have found an ‘answer’ and that should be enough.”

Preach, Edward de Bono!

With that in mind, simplicity is a process, not a destination. There’s no ‘aha’ moment of perfect simplicity. Copy can always be better. It all starts with recognizing that ‘can we make it simpler?’ is really ‘can we make it better?’

Simplifying copy is an uphill battle. We’re fighting to communicate, grab attention and excite users, all in 10 seconds. We’re fighting against our natural instinct for complexity. We’re fighting ‘more is better.’ We’re fighting exclusion.

But it’s a fight worth having.

How do we write simple copy? Or how do we simplify the copy we have?

All that, and more, in Part 2.

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