Breaking Best Practices to Write a Better UX
When I was a stupid teenager, we had a thing where we’d add “in bed” to fortunes in fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants. “You will have much success this year… in bed”. “Great things will come to you if you are open to them… in bed”. Teenagers 🤷♀️
It just struck me that there’s a parallel in the world of UX writing/content design and best practices. To every best practice, add, “if it serves your users”. “Be concise… if it serves your users”. “Use plain language if it serves your users”. And so on.
I’ve been saying this about “be concise” for ages. I work in complex products, that’s my niche within the UX writing/content design world. I wrote a genetics product where I guarantee you that explaining to consumers the results of their polygenic risk scores more concisely would have been a very bad thing because in this case, concise was not what would serve them. Concise would not offer them value, they would not walk away understanding the product at all. They would not trust our brand or recommend us to their friends. Concise is a best practice that would have taken away from the user experience, not added to it.
Similarly, Sarah Walsh at Citibank doubled the word count in a financial form and increased conversion from 26% to 92% while decreasing support tickets, both increasing revenue and deceasing costs at the same time. Talk about an ROI win. And all by flying the face of the best practice of sticking to concise copy.
I’ve also worked (and currently work) on financial products where our customer-facing teams are constantly asking me to add words to our interface because our users need them. So many questions and points of friction can be solved by preempting questions with more explanatory, conversational copy in the UI itself. Concise does not serve our users, and in turn, our business.
In Writing is Designing, Michael Metts gives an example of “plain language” not working. It would have increased friction for his users in one product that he wrote. That’s because these users are so immersed in certain technical concepts and terminology that breaking down the jargon would actually have slowed down their workflow. He sums up the whole idea of thinking critically about best practices, essentially, of adding “if it serves your users” to each one, in 5 words: “Clarity is a moving target.”
Best practices are a useful set of guidelines and I’m not saying that we should throw them out the window. Not at all. But they are only guidelines. They are only a starting point; reaching them is not the final goal and certainly not the definition of good product copy. Lean on them, but adapt them to better serve your users.
Like in Madeline Grdina’s talk at the Button conference where she talked about how “good design is obscenity” in the sense that neither can be defined but you know it when you see it, design, including content design, is good when it serves its purpose. First we need to define the purpose because there are a range of possibilities. Most simply, our purpose as UX writers/content designers is to serve our users and good copy meets that goal, not a list of best practices. We can leverage best practices, but ticking off that list is not what inherently makes for good copy.