Let's Play Audience Advocate
"'Experience Design' is a Bunch of Horse-s*$#" by Jon Kolko

Every Word Counts

Today's Menu

On the restaurant's Web site: penne pasta, seared oyster mushrooms, greens, basil, reggiano.

At the actual restaurant: penne pasta, winter greens, alfredo.

Not much difference, right?

Except that I was totally starving. I'd walked ten minutes out of my way in the bitter cold, just because this walk-up's food was totally killer. And they didn't say on their Web site the magic word: "alfredo."

I'm not a totally persnickety eater. I have no problem with a little cream on my noodles. They may have run out of ingredients and made a substitution in a pinch.

But what I thought I was eating for lunch wasn't exactly what I'd expected. I'd had in mind an olive oil-based sauce with shaved cheese on top... or maybe with a hint of tomato snuck into the pot while they were making a reduction.. and so on..

You've had this feeling too. This is exactly what happens when your copy on your Web site isn't precise.

Hopefully you've heard that old rule of Web site copy, via Steve Krug: "Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left." I am the worst offender in this category. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I usually don't have time to write less. There are posts on this blog so long, they often make me cringe.

But I think Steve was a little oblique about this in Don't Make Me Think. Beyond considerations of usability, specificity is what generates meaning for your Web experience. He could have added to his book: "After you cut happy talk and rewrite your instructions to be more usable, review the copy that's left and ensure the words you choose provide cues to what your audience really cares about."

You don't need that whole five-sentence paragraph, so you whack it down. But when you cut it down to size, you need to be ultra-precise in your word choice. Users don't just build their mental models from navigational cues.

Why am I writing this on a blog about design?

Because this is where we get burned, over and over again. It's the copywriter's problem. Or the account manager's problem. Or the client's problem. We're making it look good. We're crafting the wireframes. We're building the Flash app.

Then, when the copy gets flown into build, the jig is up. We scramble to figure it all out at the last minute. We try to cut it down to size. We try to salvage the right details.

This happens in all designed deliverables, whether you're typesetting the brochure or that big 'ol advertisement. But it hurts most when you're making something for the Web.

Here's a word of advice: If you're trying to be a partner to your client, you should be "designing" your copy alongside your layouts and wireframes. You should be needling down to the level of what's critically important in each deliverable before you get too far into the production. You should be reading drafts and making comments. You should be billing the client for all of this work, even if they say they're going to take care of it.

Alternatively, if copy just isn't your bag, you should have a content strategist oversee the whole shebang.

It's not just a sauce for the meal you're offering for your customers. Do you want red sauce? A nice pesto? Or are you thinking about a pink sauce, dosed with vodka and cream?

The little details really matter. They are completely different dishes. This kind of problem around copy precision compounds itself. Your site experience becomes dilute.

And when your customer's right at your door, you want everything on the menu to look enticing.

Enough said. I'm going to go eat my (now cold) lunch.

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