Getting Real: Copywriting is interface design 19 May 2005

34 comments Latest by Tom Holzel

CSS, HTML, XHTML, Standards, IA, flow diagrams, charts, boxes and arrows, color schemes, textured backgrounds, buttons or links, tables or floats, fixed or liquid layouts, etc. All important at some level. But where’s the talk about copywriting?

Copywriting is interface design. Great interfaces are written. If you think every pixel matters then you also need to think every letter matters.

Do you label a button “Submit” or “Save” or “Update” or “New” or “Create” ? That’s copywriting. Do you write 3 sentences or 5? Do you explain with general examples or with details? Do you label content “New” or “Updated” or “Recently Updated” or “Modified” ? Is it “There are new messages: 5” or “There are 5 new messages” or is it “5” or “five” or “messages” or “posts “? All of this matters.

And then there’s Defensive Design. Who writes your error messages? Hopefully a writer and not a computer.

Good writing is good design. It’s a rare exception where words don’t accompany design. Icons with names, form fields with examples, buttons with labels, step by step instructions in a process. Clearly explaining your refund policy is interface design.

Do not skimp on writing. Pay attention to what you are asking people to read. Read what you write out loud. Don’t use seven words when four will do. Hire good writers.

Write good interfaces.

34 comments so far (Jump to latest)

dmr 19 May 05

I’m tired of hearing this; I’ve asked this before, and here it is again: where is this magical pool of wonderful writers waiting to be hired?

Why am I so bitter? Come work for a .gov agency and find a good writer to work for you. No one wants to parse boring nonsense into clean human writing.

Obviously the problem isn’t with agencies like 37 signals, second story, terra incognita, etc, but who cares about you guys. It’s places like Microsoft and the IRS; and objects like a TV product manual or mortgage contract that need help.

Where are the wonderful writers and how do we hire them?

SH 19 May 05

Where are the wonderful writers and how do we hire them?

I think what you’re speaking of are *technical writers* and there are plenty floating around colleges and universities a dime a dozen. People who get degrees in any kind of technical writing (or “business communication”) actually *do* want to “parse boring nonsense into clean human writing” and are constantly on the look out for the kinds of jobs you speak of. I think a big problem lies in the hiring techniques those companies employ. Unfortunately, they tent to not want to invest very much for that clean human writing.

Copywriting isn’t something to be left to the guy on your team who writes long emails, or the other guy who won a spelling bee once. It really is a craft that is unfortunately not regarded highly in technical fields, but I guarantee you this: Put an ad in your paper advertising a contract or perm technical writing job and you’ll have a stack of resumes to leaf through before the days end.

Alexandre 19 May 05

But where’s the talk about copywriting?

Huh, at Jakob’s?

Seriously, copywriting is always severely overlooked. I’ve worked at an ad agency, where they had a creative writer produce the error messages. That can be even worse than computer-written ones. The only true solution is to have developers and designers who know how to write themselves. So your hiring tip is spot on.

Time for a new summit: Writing for Web 2.0?

Alexandre 19 May 05

Oups, correct Jakob link: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html

Messed up my Command-C,Command-V sequence, there…

Darrel 19 May 05

Come work for a .gov agency and find a good writer to work for you.

I work for a .gov and we just hired to writer-ish contractors to work on our web site redesigns with us.

Seriously, copywriting is always severely overlooked

Agreed. I spent the first several years of the .com era at a large design agency. The process:

- spend 70% of the budget on visual design
- spend 30% on functionality
- slap some random text on it

And that, from what I’ve found, is how 90% of design/ad agency work when it comes to interactive design. They won’t think twice about hiring a copywriter for the annual report, but a web site? Pshaw…

Darre 19 May 05

er TWO writer-ish…

dmr 19 May 05

Darrel can you send me an email please, I’d like to pick yer brain for a few… use the web contact link

Dan Boland 19 May 05

Seriously, copywriting is always severely overlooked.

I also agree. I’ve designed websites where I have free reign over way too much of the copy. Now I’m no slouch with the written word, but I’m not a copywriter, either. I usually end up infusing my dumb sense of humor into the mix…

David Benton 19 May 05

How timely: I’ve been thinking about this recently. As a freelancer I manage all areas of a web project, except (usually) the copywriting. I hand that over to the client. I tell them just how important it is, give them some pointers and links to good articles on the subject, and generally try to convey a sense of responsibility and awe. The results tend to be disappointing.

So, I’m considering adding copywriting to my list of responsibilities, but I don’t really feel qualified (just moreso than most of my clients).

I’d like to learn to write better. Anyone have any suggestions? I’d also be interested a professional copywriter that understands the web, ux, and search engines.

Noah 19 May 05

Write good interfaces.

It’s the communication, stupid!

Peter Cooper 19 May 05

Where are the wonderful writers and how do we hire them?

A lot of the best writers come from other fields, are self-taught, and have minor educational background in the field. Yet.. almost every technical writing job requires a closely-related degree. All this results in is competent, but soul-less, hacks who learned their grammar and punctuation but little about “how” to write.

Of course, this is why anyone who is actually good works for themselves, much like professionals in other fields.

Jonny Roader 20 May 05

“But where’s the talk about copywriting?”

Jeez, try any of the following:

Gerry McGovern
Lisa and Jonathan Price
Steve Krug
Rachel McAlpine
Jakob Nielsen
Crawford Kilian

They’ve all been banging on about writing for years. And they all have more to say than ‘great interfaces are written’, ‘hire the better writer’, etc.

Ant Coleman 20 May 05

Hello. I’m a senior copywriter at one of the Midland’s largest creative agencies. One of the reasons that many companies choose us over the competition is that we have a team of very good copywriters - doing precisely what some of you are looking for: turning technical waffle into plain English. If anyone wants to know more, please drop me a line, visit our website (www.jupiterdesign.co.uk) or give me a call on 0115 965 1186.

Arne Gleason 20 May 05

“Who writes your error messages? Hopefully a writer and not a computer.”

Thank you. My writing very often has missing or extraneous words (perpetually reminding myself not skimp on the proofreading after-the-fact, with no success). It’s some small comfort that those who actually can write, occasionally slip too.

Brad 20 May 05

I think one of the primary skills a good copywriter (for this kind of work) needs is the ability to put him- or herself in someone else’s shoes. You have to write and think like a user, and that’s not easy to do.

Good teachers probably make good copywriters because they’re used to explaining things to non-experts and they’ve learned how easily people can misinterpret instructions.

chandy 20 May 05

Amen, Brad. I’m a copywriter at an ad agency working on digital products and it’s often a matter of balancing right/left brain, user expectations as well as managing the information gathering from both marketing folk and engineers/developers and then on top of that knowing when to be “creative.” (Plus letting them know when to leave you the eff alone and let you do your job ;-)
IMHO creative copywriters too often get bogged down in their own aspirations toward poetry.

brent 20 May 05

What I like best among these comments are the retorts arguing that you just need an engineer/developer who knows a smattering of grammar rules. They are especially delicious when those comments are written poorly. The big problem is simply that people don’t put weight on written communications. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s important, but in the long run, no one really wants to be bothered. Hence the fact that no one will read an ad, no one will read a book, no one will read the paper, and no one will even listen to a news “brief” that’s not a two second blurb. That’s not so much because “good” writing is so hard (which it is), it’s because good listening and comprehension are even harder.

Alexandre 20 May 05

What I like best among these comments are the retorts arguing that you just need an engineer/developer who knows a smattering of grammar rules. They are especially delicious when those comments are written poorly.

I’m not sure if this is directed at me or not. I could always use the classic “English is not my mother tongue” defense, I guess. But I’d rather explain myself more thoroughly.

I think that the word “copywriting” should not even apply to all the bits of text that are part of an application. These bits of text are part of the design of the application, which I think was Jason’s original point.

Now, how can you make them so that your application works better? You’ve got two courses of action: hire a specialized writer to take care of it or hire developers/designers with good writing skills. If you choose the first one, what happens most of the time is that a list of strings written by a programmer is sent to a copywriter for editing. Most of these strings have absolutely no meaning for the copywriter, therefore he can not make a good job at it. You get really well-written strings that don’t correspond to the application’s function. Now the solution would be to have the writer constantly present during application design and development, so that he’ll have a good understanding of the application itself. Unfortunately that’s not realistic, because it would be a huge waste of writing resources.

In my experience, the best compromise has always been to have people with many skills on your team. If your writer can also code, he has a reason to be there all the time. Same if your graphic designer can also write. You’ll lose in the overall quality of the writing itself, but since the act of writing will be closer to the design and implementation, it will produce much more useful “bits of text”.

Paul D 22 May 05

I think writing is a lot like design; there are many people who dabble in it and many more who think they’re good at it but really aren’t. Even when an organization actually does go and hire copywriters, the people doing the hiring frequently don’t know what good writing looks like, just as companies that hire designers usually don’t know what good design is.

I guess my point is that writing well is a skill that requires inborn talent as well as practice, and it’s actually quite difficult. On top of that, there are a lot of under-talented people trying to make a living at it. It’s probably not the easiest thing in the world to sort through the chaff and a good copy writer when you need one.

I’m fortunate enough to do both writing and design for a living. I like to think myself competent at both, and there’s no lack of opportunity to keep my skills sharp.

David James 23 May 05

In line with the last post, I want to add my two bits. Writing for a web interface and for optimal usability, requires DESIGN. I mean this in a much broader sense than “graphic design”. I refer to the ability to design systems that are both functional-for-the-purpose and give the user a “peaceful easy feeling”. I’m not saying “assume the user is really dumb”, but rather that the user is likely not a “computer person” and is at the site for a specific purpose that has nothing to do with the genera — “web applications”.

Fortunately for me I am a designer, developer and copy writer rolled into one. Not 5 star in any, but high enough to have a certain “integration” — “synergy” if you will. So, allright fine, but at the end of the day I simply must run my latest designs by my wife. She has complete objectivity and can immediately see what is wrong. If it doesn’t make perfect sense to her, there’s no use in my explaining it, because I won’t be there to explain it when the other 99.9% of traffic to my site is sitting there with a dazed look, followed by some frustrating “errors” and ending with a resolve never to use my site again.

Jerome 25 May 05

It is all poetry. Bad is not bad. It is worse.

half empty 09 Aug 05

Good copywriters already make more money than you want to pay them. One bonus of old school copywriting is that you don’t have to deal with offensive programmer types. The hiring pool of people who want to do web UI and are good copywriters is very limited. You are lucky if you can find a programmer-cum-blogger who doesn’t start every run-on sentence with the word “basically.”

Jens Meiert 10 Aug 05

Spread the word! Good content, good writing, good microcontent is ultra-important and one cannot overemphasize this.

Saeed 10 Sep 05

You folk are raising some interesting points, but Goethe was a few steps ahead of us all when he said:

“If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would like to write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In my experience, excellent copywriting is borne out of the fusion of empathy for one’s audience, confident knowledge of the subject matter, and trust in one’s intuition. Without intuition, there is no creativity. And without creativity, words and letters are best locked up in the dictionary.

Sure we need technical accumen. Sure we need logic. But these are secondary in the craft of copywriting… resonant copywriting.

Caroline 13 Sep 05

If anyone needs copywriting/grammar/spelling help, just give me a shout. I’m a freelance copywriter in the UK and I’d be delighted to help.

You can see my work and awards at www.carolinegibson.co.uk, or call me on +44 (0)7957 567766 and pass all your content worries onto me!

Frank Johnson 21 Sep 05

Good service

Johny 22 Oct 05

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Nigel 05 May 06

Hello, wonderful writer reporting for duty. Sorry I’m a year late.

Marie 25 May 06

I agree with Brad. It is important that ‘one must write and think like a user’. This will ensure that the reader will understand what he is reading and will follow the ‘procedures’ explained; and/ or that he will be so engaged in that he would want to follow it step-by-step; or simply put, it gets him so involved that he goes through the whole procedures manual and decides to keep it as a reference.
Technical writing is made easy when the writer keeps it in mind that his or her main purpose in writing at all is to make things ‘user friendly’. The key in all this is simplification — simplify, simplify, and simplifly.

Saeed had mentioned key points : “empathy for the audience”, reader, or user; and, ‘confident knowledge of the subject matter’. Confidence gained through research.

Lina Penalosa 21 Jun 06

Just found your blog and was intrigued by many of the comments.

Several people expressed interest in learning more about copywriting…I recommend Joe Vitale’s “Hypnotic Writing” course as well as studying people like Dan Kennedy, Yanik Silver, Jay Abraham, etc. Joe’s stuff is applicable to all types of copywriting. The others focus on direct mail and Internet copywriting for purposes of selling a product or service online.

I’ve studied them for years and use many of their techniques in my own writing for clients. May not be right for everyone, but my clients have had a lot of success with it.

Let me know if anyone is interested in more copywriting tips and I’ll e-mail you some resources and such that I’ve put together/accumulated over the years.


Laurence Blume 16 Aug 06

UK based copywriters/wannabees might find my blogsite (which twins with my commercial site www.freelancecopywriter.co.uk) of use.

I post tips and advice based on over 25 years as a copywriter in London, 5 of them as an always busy, marketing-focused freelance.

Anonymous Coward 25 Sep 06

Iron Rules of Selling Your Copywriting Skills:
1. Everyone is an interior decorator.
2. Everyone is a copywriter.
3. Everyone knows pornography when they see it.
4. Everyone can tell when some one is lying.
5. Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.

SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Tom Holzel 25 Sep 06

Iron Rules of Selling Your Copywriting Skills:
1. Everyone is an interior decorator.
2. Everyone is a copywriter.
3. Everyone knows pornography when they see it.
4. Everyone can tell when some one is lying.
5. Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.

SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Tom Holzel 25 Sep 06

Iron Rules of Selling Your Copywriting Skills:
1. Everyone is an interior decorator.
2. Everyone is a copywriter.
3. Everyone knows pornography when they see it.
4. Everyone can tell when some one is lying.
5. Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.

SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

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