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Writing effective, user-centered content

Being a good writer doesn’t mean you can write good web content.

This is something many businesses don’t anticipate when deciding to write their own website copy, often resulting in project hold-ups, if not a last-minute scramble to prepare content that may or may not hit its mark.

Web content isn’t what it used to be (like, back in the 90s). Writing for the web is a discipline unto itself nowadays, borrowing from the fields of design, ergonomics (usability), marketing and psychology — and it requires an appreciation for web technologies. And you need time to write something decent, especially if you’re starting with a blank canvas and a loose brief.

That said, it’s easy to pick up web writing skills if you already know the basics of good writing. So let’s say you’ve already nailed grammar and basic composition. Here’s how we’d recommend approaching your next web content project, especially if you get tasked to write on top of your regular workload.

Side-by-side comparison of wordy vs punchy homepage copy

Design for simplicity and readability. Both examples (above) were taken from homepages, but the one on the right is more likely to capture a user’s attention.

Get to the point quickly and clearly

First, identify the purpose of the page or section you’re writing for. Users typically have time to read 20% of a page, given how long they tend to stick around. Visually engaging pages (like homepages and landing pages) require simple, readable and quickly digestible content with clear calls to action. For feature articles and technical documents, you can afford more words as long as you keep them concise.

Note: “concise” doesn’t mean skipping key details or writing without personality. It means offering just enough to get your point across without losing it in fluffy wording or unnecessary information.

Structure your content so you’re delivering the goods up front, elaborating on the details further down the line. This “inverted pyramid” style is considered best practice for the web, as it supports both attention-rich and attention-poor readers.

Look beyond the bounce rate. Visitors leave a page for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they don’t find the information they need (it’s just not available). Sometimes they can’t be bothered looking (because the content is too detailed). But sometimes they’ve simply found what they’re looking for, and they leave knowing you’re a brand who won’t bullshit them.

Appreciate the overall user journey

For any piece of content you write, you should be asking these three key questions:

  • What is the user trying to do when they see this text?
  • What do they need to know in order to get it done?
  • What’s the best way to give them that information?

This approach applies to copy intended for anywhere on your site — homepages, internal pages, index pages, calls to action, form microcopy, teasers, taglines, descriptions, captions, ALT text and more — as well as your off-site channels. Remember, you’re writing for people who, for whatever intensity and duration, are engaging with you for information.

Sometimes the answers will be obvious. Other times, they’ll require more data, research, an understanding of user psychology, or testing to see what works best. Remember, you can always check with the designers, UXers and marketers working on the project with you — pulling together effective, user-centred content is best done as a team.

Write for people first, robots second

Don’t ignore good SEO practices, but realise it’s possible to go overboard when it comes to the tone of your writing. At the end of the day, it’s a person you’re aiming to convert — not a search engine crawler.

That’s not to say that dry, robotic-sounding content will necessarily fail. More that it may fail next to other sites and brands (aka. your competitors) who come across more relatable and, as a result, more trustworthy.

Give your human audience content they can understand, content that speaks to them as people. Get to know the relevant subcultures, microcultures and trends — the stuff that matters to to your readers — and use language your readers can relate to.

Snapshot from 2018 Budget For Millenials parody infographic. Text says, "Get ready for grandma to hop back into the workforce with the Restart Wage Subsidy. YAS QUEEN! The ATO is throwing shade on your tech side hustle with increased review activity on R and D claims. Extended small business instant asset write-off increases odds of getting free stuff from your boss #instagiveaway. No worries getting turnt AF this weekend - increased spending on GPS technology will make it easier to find your Uber."

Is your content fit for its purpose and respectful of its audience? Writing relatable copy also means staying mindful of current affairs, appreciating how you come across, as well as reflecting on what values you express between the lines. Source: “2018 Budget For Millenials”, William Buck.

Consult a diverse review team

Aka. “Don’t be tone-deaf”. When companies fail at content, it’s typically because they’ve:

  • failed to show they understand their audience,
  • failed to deliver information or their message, or
  • failed to maintain their authority and credibility in their field.

What makes this aspect of web writing so difficult is the need to maintain perspective beyond the task at hand. When you’re hyper-focused on wordsmithing, it can be hard to judge your work objectively. You’ll need a diverse team of reviewers to ensure the final piece hits the right notes.

It’s one thing to write a relatable bite of copy, and another to appreciate the larger conversation around it. Thinking only in terms of the campaign, project or page in front of you, along with peers who are too like-minded, will inevitably make it harder to tap into vital, lateral perspectives — for example, the changing values of society, audience expectations of your industry, or any previous blunders that people still associate with your brand.

Harness design as a storytelling tool

While writing, take a moment to appreciate how your content looks. At a glance, does the appearance of the page make you want to pay more attention? Are chunks of information easily identifiable and scannable, or are you confronted with a wall of text?

(Traditionally, we imagine walls of text as long swathes of un-paragraphed words, however long swathes of uniform paragraphs can also come across un-interestingly wall-like.)

Words do a lot on their own, but you can increase user engagement and the impact of your message by adding visuals to the mix. Informative content can be as simple as a body of text and a gallery of images, but by making imagery, colour, layout and text work together, you can tell your story in a richer and more interesting way.

Flower Bros homepage screenshot

Flower Bros combines art direction and content for a colourful, high-impact homepage.

Finding yourself limited to a pre-designed environment (like a blog template) doesn’t exclude this approach from your toolkit. Consider where your headings, text styles (bold, italics, etc.), lists, separators, pull-quotes, and any other visual media (like Twitter cards or embedded videos) might help you present your content better.

Write inclusively (aka. uphold readability and accessibility)

Consider what your words might mean to a reader who can’t see them. Where’s the “menu on the left” and “the button below” when you take the visuals away?

Now consider readers with cognitive impairments, elementary reading capacity, low language fluency, or low technology fluency — how could you effectively explain a new concept, technical requirement or infrastructural change in a meaningful way?

Even without the prevailing statistics about accessibility, you can pretty much count on every user experiencing a ‘disability’ at some point in their lives.

Infographic: Your users may be experiencing permanent, temporary or situational disabilities.

Your writing might not cover every situation, but making reasonable efforts will broaden the reach and usefulness of your work. Source: “Inclusive 101”, Microsoft Design.

You’ll almost never get asked to make information more convoluted or harder to understand, so do your readers a favour — learn to write accessible content, explain essential concepts as simply as possible, use consistent terminology, link your points logically, and ensure all your content follows a sensible structure and flow.

In summary…

  • Get to the point. Don’t string readers along.
  • Write with one purpose: to tell users what they need to know in order to do the thing.
  • Address your human audience first, search engine robots second.
  • Before publishing, get your content reviewed by a diverse range of people.
  • Consider how your content appears to visual readers.
  • Write inclusively to reach a broader audience.

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