Web copy techniques that alienate users, and why not to use them

Ever read something on a website that makes you a feel bit… off?

Aug 21, 2018 · 6 min read
Image for post
Image for post
This post is by Patrick Stafford

You might not be able to explain it. But you can certainly feel it. And one thing’s for sure: you’re second-guessing about whether you want to buy anything from that site ever again, or even set your browser sails in that direction.

We talk a lot in UX design circles about making sure we get the right copy on the page. But it’s just as important to know what types of copy to avoid, so we don’t alienate users. Or leave them feeling gross.

Related: Good UX copy doesn’t have to be short

Unfortunately, in a rush for a sale some unscrupulous writers may feel as though they’re “challenging” the user, when instead they’re really just putting them down. And although this type of copy can be caught in user testing and changed, all too often that step is eschewed in favor of getting quick results.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by @criene via Twenty20

Just a few words make all the difference

What we’re talking about here is not simply challenging a user. It’s often appropriate to push users out of their comfort zone and have them consider something they normally wouldn’t. For instance, a brand like Nike has the type of brand attributes that are easily associated with pushing boundaries and achieving goals.

“Copy is unique for every website, just like a design.”

What we’re talking about here is alienation. The feeling that the website doesn’t care about anything other than a pure transaction. Who would want to repeat that type of visit?

See, pushing boundaries should always keep the user at the center. Visiting Nike and being told to push your limits, keeps everything user-focused because the site is concerned about their wellbeing.

On the other hand, there are multiple techniques that can leave users feeling alone and to be perfectly honest, feeling bad about themselves. These are the ones you want to avoid:

Asymmetric language

The first is a usual “sign up now” type of CTA.

The second is the “dismiss” option, but it’s usually encroached in some kind of derogatory language. “No, I don’t want this amazing deal,” or something similar.

I don’t want to name or shame anyone here — y’all know who you are. But just know that using this type of asymmetry doesn’t usually work. It just makes the user feel badly, and they often won’t return. Not to mention the fact that it’s unnecessary — just put an “x” in the corner and let them navigate away if they want to.

Just remember that the more you’re shaming the user into an activity, the less likely that user will be engaged in your product or service. Then they’ll just end up churning later down the line, and you won’t be able to figure out why. (Try explaining that to your head of acquisition.)

Not using headlines appropriately

That is, is the page structured correctly? A common mistake is to write headlines that seem clever or funny, but don’t actually deliver any value.

“One of the worst things you can do to your users is mislead them.”

Put yourself in the context of your users. They’re often time-poor and scrolling quickly. A good rule of thumb should be to ensure your headlines give users the key concepts of what they need to know. If they just read the headlines, would they come away with the right information?

I often witness this in user testing. I spend time crafting paragraphs of copy and fine-tuning it, only to see people just read the headlines again and again. Users aren’t wrong, so design for that — don’t write “clever” headlines that don’t provide any valuable info.

Talking about yourself too much

People get offended in person if you talk too much about yourself, so why will your web users forgive you for it? You need to frame what you’re writing as a benefit and center all the copy on the user: what do they get out of this transaction?

By doing so, you’ll get all the attention and validation you were seeking in the first place. This is like a date; don’t try too hard. Let your benefits do the talking.

Writing for a search engine

Trust me: they notice. Sure, it might not be a big deal. But it doesn’t have to be. Users will notice quickly if something isn’t written for them, and all you’re doing is pushing them out of the communication process.

Work with your SEO team as early as possible to weave those keywords into the fabric of your copy. This isn’t a last-minute fix, and doing so will just make the users feel as though they haven’t been prioritised — because they’re right. They haven’t been.

Related: How to craft more usable, useful, and engaging content

Being inconsistent with your copy approach

If you picked any page from your web structure, that might be their first impression. So why is it that all too often we put up with inconsistent copy and even words that sound like they come from another company altogether?

You know what’s super alienating? Reading a page in one tone, then heading to another page and having it sound like it comes from somewhere else. And then going to a third page, being unable to recognise the tone of the copy there either.

Human beings love patterns. We love being able to recognize what’s in front of us and categorize it, which is part of why we love brands so much. They’re easily identifiable, and the same goes for your copy tone. Users should feel something” when they read your words. So what’s going to happen when there is too much of a shift between tone on different pages?

“Users should feel something when they read your words.”

Every single page is an entry point. So write like that’s the case.

Don’t shame users into action

You might get them to spend some money, sure. But it’s unlikely they’ll be one of your most loyal customers — so do the right thing.

Originally published at www.invisionapp.com on August 21, 2018.

Inside Design

Stories by designers. For designers.


Written by


The world’s leading prototyping, collaboration & workflow platform. Sign up free at http://www.InVisionApp.com

Inside Design

Stories by designers. For designers.


Written by


The world’s leading prototyping, collaboration & workflow platform. Sign up free at http://www.InVisionApp.com

Inside Design

Stories by designers. For designers.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store