Take the Time to Use Fewer Words

tl;dr: If a user experience needs an explanation, something is fundamentally broken. Consider redesigning the experience until people no longer need it explained to them.

As Blaise Pascal wrote, “I made this [letter] very long only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.”

In hundreds of languages, over thousands of years, people have known that reducing text takes time. As a professional writer, here’s how I use that time. 
In my first draft, whether an email or short story or user experience, I usually get to the point I need to make somewhere near the end. I start by moving that point to the top.

Then I examine the meaning in the rest of the content. I remove obvious information — anything that the reader would already know. I take out details when those details can distract the reader.

The last step is grammar. I seek out prepositions; many of them can be removed without losing meaning. Everywhere I’ve written “is” followed by a verb ending in “-ing,” I rewrite without the “is” and “-ing.” I also remove adverbs; not only are the sentences shorter, they’re better.

Fewer words make better experiences

In my work at Microsoft, I write text that appears to customers on screens. It’s part of the user experience (UX). When customers are confused by the UX, and aren’t taking the action we anticipated, I’m asked to wordsmith. Often, I’m asked to add more words so that the customer will understand.

I understand the urge to add more words. We want to explain until all the relevant facts are displayed. When a student is struggling, an explanation can provide a new way of thinking about the subject. Explanations can help a patient choose among treatment options.

Most often, the urge to add an explanation comes from a basic social impulse to ease experiences by talking.

It’s the same way people use conversation in waiting rooms, as social lubrication. When we’re adding words, it’s often because we think the experience is going to be uncomfortable.

Fewer words 101: In the classroom

Here is an example where a teacher has just created a new class in Microsoft Classroom. There are a bunch of permissions that help keep the school system secure and running smoothly, and those take a while to complete. But we don’t want to show the teacher a blank screen! So we initially wrote:

Screenshot of Microsoft Classroom in-progress design. Screen text says “Making something special takes time! We’re working to get your classes ready. Please check back soon.”

(These images are from design drafts. Microsoft Classroom is currently in preview.)

The title could be read at least two ways: We either are demonstrating enthusiasm that the teacher’s class is special! Or, we are defensive that it’s taking so long! The text communicates to the teacher what’s happening: we’re working to get your classes ready. It will take an indeterminate amount of time, but isn’t immediate.

The technical challenge is unavoidable, on our side: the delay time depends on how their school set up their system. We’ll just get the class data back when the system is ready.

So here’s the text I recommended:

Screenshot of Microsoft Classroom in-progress design, after I reduced the words. Screen text says “Almost ready…”

There’s no more information to tell the teacher except that it will be ready soon. There’s nothing they can do but wait, and check back later. 
Teachers are astoundingly short on time. Why make them read more? We don’t have to tell teachers that their classes are special, nor that our product will be special.

Life or death example: Airplane safety placard

I’ve never been in an airplane as it made a water landing. But I have told flight attendants that I would be willing to open the emergency door, if I were asked to.

I’ve even imagined being in that state: panicked, but still alive; adrenaline coursing; heart pounding. Even as a word-savvy person, this is not the moment I’ll stop, read, and understand with great clarity.

On a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I took this picture of the door:

Interior door of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, where a label says “VISUALLY ENSURE THE MODE SELECT HANDLE IS FULLY INSIDE THE RED PLACARD FOR ARMED AND GREEN PLACARD FOR DISARMED”

The label on the door has 19 words: “Visually ensure the mode select handle is fully inside the red placard for armed and green placard for disarmed”

My rewrite uses 11 words…

My rewrite for the interior door of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner: “CHECK BEFORE OPENING / HANDLE IN RED: ARMED / HANDLE IN GREEN: DISARMED”

…but this gets dangerous. Personally and professionally, I have no idea what it means for a door to be armed or disarmed. I estimate that 99% of people on a commercial 787 flight don’t know, either. If I were a UX writer for Boeing, I’d ask: What should most people understand when they read these words? Could we label the red and green areas directly, and serve people who are red/green colorblind, too?

Getting from A to B example: Good To Go website for Washington State’s toll roads

Washington State’s Good To Go! program exists to pay for highway and bridge infrastructure. Customers go to the site so they can pay tolls electronically, at lower cost than paying them by mail.

I am a citizen of Washington State, and I use the Good To Go service. I appreciate that the service allows me to pay at highway speeds without stopping at a toll plaza. I like that I can pay by credit card, without generating extra paper bills.

I am also frustrated each time I use the website, because it includes so many extra words. Here’s the first screen of the “open a new account” experience. It has so many words that it requires a scroll bar:

When a customer scrolls, only one missing item is revealed: the “Begin” button:

In contrast, if they used fewer words, it could take only one screen:

Interpersonally: Using fewer words face to face

There’s a rhetorical technique of inundating the listener with words. Sentences never end; instead, phrases are strung together with a series of conjunctions.

A flood of words is a red flag: If someone won’t shut up, they might be using words to wear down the other person. The words don’t even have to be true, if they are said constantly.

The listener may get details about the glorious future — details that are so specific, they feel like they must be true! Those are often alternated with stories of doom: how horrible it is for “those others” –the non-listeners — who were so foolish as to not be convinced.

It’s the script for every meeting where one person is convincing another to do something that’s not in their best interest.

To be more trustworthy, I use fewer words, in shorter sentences. That clarity gives the listener mental “space” to formulate their own considerations. I trust them to reach the same conclusions I’ve come to — without needing to drown them in words.

Using fewer words isn’t a panacea to fix every user experience; it’s just one guideline, together with all the others employed by excellent writers, designers, developers, program managers, and researchers. It’s how UX writers reduce the text to create experiences that let people to do more of what they want to do — not waste their time reading explanations of how to do it.


Related reading:

Revising Prose by Richard Lanham and How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark.