The Yahoo! Style Guide

by Chris Barr (and the Senior Editors of Yahoo!)

The Yahoo! Style Guide

No matter how many graphics or icons we put in an interface as UXers we cannot get away from the fact that words are going to be part of an interface. And words can be tricky. One word can have one connotation for one user group and can have a completely different connotation for another user group.

In my job I rarely get the opportunity to work with a technical writer. A tech writer’s joie the vivre is spending hours crafting the perfect word to put on a button or figuring out how to phrase a warning message to alert (but not alarm) the user. It has always been a particular interesting to me to work with people who enjoy, for me, one of the more difficult parts of an interface.

But, as I said, sometimes it just isn’t possible to work with a tech writer. It isn’t in the budget, or, because tech writers are usually split across multiple projects, they don’t have the time to help me with my buttons and directions. Ultimately, it usually means that I’m on my own trying to do my best.

To try and come to grips with my lack of UI wordsmithing skills I actually went to a whole conference dedicated to technical writing with my friend Stephanie Saylor (an AMAZING tech writer). The conference was run by the Society for Technical Communications, and we went to present on writing tech documents and doing User Experience for the government. You can check out the slides here. Overall, the conference was pretty eye opening for me because I learned about creating a voice in my interface, keeping that voice active, and understanding how to craft that voice depend on my user group.

But, like most conferences, the part I enjoyed the most was the book table. Since I went with my friend she helped me navigate to the books she liked the most. And, in the year and a half since the conference I’ve had time to read them all. By far my favorite is The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World by Chris Marr (and others).

The problem with style guides is that they are dry. There isn’t much of an arch to something so technical. And, to boot, a style guide about writing is going to be wordy… I’m not going to lie, the book is about 500 pages. However, it is pretty easy reading. This is mostly because the book uses an example for every concept that is covered and calls out the salient points with “TIPS”. For example, “Some usability experts recommend that you cut text by 30 to 50 percent when transferring it from print tot he web. When writing an email, you may want to start by making a 50 percent cut of whatever it is you want to say whether you’re sending a meeting invitation or a customer newsletter.”

I’m usually not a big fan of style guides, but I have returned to this book quite frequently in the year since I finished reading it… maybe weekly. Plus, almost every other technical writing guide compares itself willingly to how it is different from this guide. This is the gold standard. Some of it becomes second hand, but it is always a great standard to return to. If you don’t have the budget for a tech writer, definitely make the tech budget to give this book a read.

Book club questions

How do you collaborate with tech writers? How do you construct a voice for your interface?

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