Reflections on Nicely Said

Last month, I took the time to read through Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee's excellent new book, Nicely Said. As I’m not a writer, I suppose I won’t get the full benefit of this book—I even skipped a chapter—but as a user experience designer, there is much to learn and apply in my work from the craft of writing. In one of the former chapters, Fenton and Lee provided a short list of guidelines for writing better copy. These stuck out to me, and I know will go a long way towards and providing a better experience for users. They were:

  1. Be clear
  2. Be concise
  3. Be honest
  4. Be considerate

Be clear

It’s easy to forget that not everyone is as technically oriented as we are. Helping others understand what we mean with simple words goes a long way in providing a better user experience. When we unveil a new feature or present a user with an error page (404, I’m looking at you), avoid cryptic terms, and instead explain what has changed or what went wrong—and what they can do about it.

Be concise

We’ve all seen the infamous prompts on Windows, where they expect you to read a verbose question, and in the midst of pressure, answer with an “OK” or “Cancel”. When a user is making a decision, we want them to be confident in their answer, not second-guess themselves.

Getting to the point can help with that. Instead of asking them if they want to delete a potentially important file, provide them with a call to action—such as, “Delete File?”. Helping your users be confident in their decisions will not only help them make the intended decision, but also gain you their trust as they become more reliant on your application.

Be honest

Things go wrong. If they haven’t yet, they will eventually. Whether it’s the user’s fault or your own, be honest and kind about what went wrong. Explain concisely, let the user know that something is being done about it—if, in fact, something is actually being done—and provide them an alternative.

And even if nothing has gone wrong, there are still ways we can be honest with our users. More often than not, that new feature unveiled isn’t going to change their life, so don’t introduce it as if it will. As Fenton and Lee put it, “Avoid being melodramatic.”

Be considerate

Everyone is different. Even if your product was designed for a specific audience, that audience will be very diverse, and they will be delighted and offended by many different things. It’s important to be mindful of this, and avoid potentially offensive words or phrases, and ensuring that everyone is included.

All of these guidelines ultimately help us write how we speak. We’re building products for users. Users who are relying on the products we build to aid their lives and businesses. Users who have real emotions and fears. Users who have better things to do than decipher jargon. Users whom we should empathize with.

As Frank Chimero in The Shape of Design reminds us:

The most important element of delightful design is empathy. Clarity and surprise are only achievable through empathy with the audience.