Write Like a Human

Tactical advice for people who weren’t hired to write product content but find themselves doing it anyway.

Every now and then I’ll come across a small example of problematic content and then publicly comment on it, usually on Twitter. I enjoy the discussion that comes from talking about small language choices, like the implication of using an exclamation point instead of a period. I’m always curious about who wrote it and whether their decisions were intentional or the result of words thrown together at the last minute.

It’s surprising to me that so often these harmless discussions catch the attention of a small, often pseudonymous but vocal minority that’s quick to tell me words don’t matter.

“This isn’t worth caring about.”

“If you think this matters, your priorities are out of whack.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Really? What a lame thing to worry about.”

As much as I’d like to dismiss these people and block them from my Internet life, the truth is that they are rudely vocalizing what many other people believe: content, especially the words that live inside interfaces, doesn’t matter all that much.

Companies and individuals spend time on the things they care about and value. They make time, even if they don’t have much to spare. They find a budget to cover critical responsibilities even when money is tight. Still, in the world that I work in, the world of technology, apps and interfaces, there is often no time or money to create great content. I can only conclude that’s because a lot of people don’t think content matters or worse, they don’t think about it at all.

Confusing, jargon-filled and badly considered content may not stop people from using your product if they have no alternative, but shouldn’t we aspire to more than that? We are humans building products for humans. What we say and how we say it matters. How we make our customers feel through our language choices matter.

Bilbo Meets a New Friend by Contando Estrelas

Few words, big impact

Although it’s easy to mistake micro-content as trivial because of its size, when you’re writing words that go into an interface you’re actually doing a bunch of serious things:

  • Making choices that welcome people or alienate them
  • Providing way-finding information to help your customers get around
  • Asking for personal, sometimes sensitive information
  • Explaining how information you gather will be used
  • Giving customers tools to connect with people they care about and informing the tone of those connections
  • Providing people with new ways to explore and experience their world through hints, tips and maps
  • Helping people organize their contacts, manage their expenses, run their business, pay their bills, arrange transportation, gather information or book a wonderful place to stay
  • Making it possible for people to record and save some of their most cherished moments
  • Telling people who you are as a company, what you do and why you should matter to them

In an interface there isn’t a lot of space, so every word is important. Even when we’re being careless, when we think it doesn’t matter, our language holds meaning that can make someone feel encouraged or alienated, or help or hinder them in what they’re trying to do.

Zips N’ Buttons by Mister G.C.

Over half of the adult population of the world owns a smartphone. They’re often what we look at last before we sleep and what we pick up first thing in the morning. When we’re restless in the middle of the night, instead of reaching for another person, many of us grab our little glowing window to the world and gaze into it. Whether this relationship with technology is good or bad, it’s happening. If we’re going to build software, we owe it to our fellow humans to do our best to make sure the design decisions that greet them are clear, honest and kind.

Words by humans for humans

I wish that every startup, app developer, tech company, bank, retailer, government department (and so on) valued content enough to hire at least one expert to help them. There’s no substitute for a dedicated content person who will sit with designers, product managers and engineers and work with them to create language that’s sensitive to the needs of customers. But we’re not there yet and I’m a realist. So to all the smart, well-intentioned people who were not hired to write but find themselves doing it anyway my best piece of advice is: You are not some corporate, technical jargon robot. Write like the human being you are.

This means:

  • Embrace the importance of language and make time to pay attention to what you’re saying to your customers. In tactical terms, this can be as simple as taking a few minutes to read your content out loud and ask: 
     — Does this sound like something a human would say?
     — Is this clear? 
     — If someone I love was listening to my voice say these words, how would they feel?
  • Throw away all the complicated MBA language you learned at your impressive university (ex: “We’re here to drive innovation as we execute against our roadmap”) or other unnecessary industry standard and technical terminology that the average human needs a glossary to understand. Use everyday words that people use when they’re buying milk, having lunch or hanging out after work.
  • Think about how your customers talk, how your family and friends talk, and as much as possible try to reflect that beautiful clarity and simplicity into every word you write.
  • Feel the power of the language that flows from your brain through your finger tips into your computer and then out into the world. If you’re writing, even if it’s not officially part of your job, you carry the responsibility of how your words will impact the people they reach. With great power comes great responsibility.

Learning to write like a human may be one of the most important things you can do for your customers and it will almost certainly help your business succeed. Beautiful interfaces are a wonderful thing to behold but are empty vessels unless they’re filled with clear, direct, kind language.

The good news is that you don’t even have to be a great writer. You just need to pull your head out of your machine once in a while and remember that you’re creating something for weird, scared, vulnerable, sweet, frustrated, loving, complicated people.

How you talk to them matters.

Follow Write Like a Human for insights and tactical tips to help you think critically about language and build better products.