7 Ways Writers Can Create Great User Experience
My first gig out of college was as a web intern for Mpls.St.Paul magazine. Every day I’d hop on the light rail to the main office in downtown Minneapolis and spend hours copying magazine articles to the publication’s website.
If only I knew then what I know now, I’d do things very differently.
Besides starting my hunt for a full-time, salaried job sooner, I’d work some user experience (UX) magic on those magazine articles.
“But I’m not a designer!” I can hear my fresh-out-of-college self complain. No problem, you don’t have to be. Writers can improve UX with these seven tips.
Step 1: Ditch the personas
In order to write to a specific set of readers, you need to understand where they come from, their needs, their problems, and how best to deliver solutions and ideas to them.
Wait, hold up. I know this sounds similar to personas, but it’s not. In my experience, personas tend to rely too heavily on potentially flawed interpretations of data to be helpful.
If you look in Google Analytics, some of the in-market segments and affinities used to develop personas can be rather vague.
- “Movie lovers” doesn’t tell you if they love rom-coms but hate horror flicks.
- “Business professional” could mean they’re an entrepreneur — or a recent grad who landed a job at a big company.
- “Pet lovers” doesn’t answer the age-old question of which pet your audience loves more: cats or dogs. (Or both.)
Personas can also be a little too specific.
“Jane is a 32-year-old software consultant who always drinks a cup of tea after her Wednesday morning Zumba class and buys only the most premium food for her gerbil, Winston” is just too detailed to be true. Or to offer anything that helps you write an article for readers like Jane.
Step 2: Empathize with your readers
Empathy relies on putting yourself in a reader’s shoes and becoming them as you read through your work. Nielsen Norman Group recommends a tactic called empathy mapping to better understand your audience.
While Nielsen’s specific exercise focuses on using empathy mapping to inform design, you can easily customize these same prompts for writing. I recently led an empathy mapping workshop for a team of writers and editors, and here’s how we focused on each prompt.
What do readers who are interested in your topic say on forums or in person? Check Reddit, Quora, and social sites to find out what questions they’re asking or what information they’re sharing. Ask your friends and family what they think.
Nielsen calls on us to “try to understand why [readers] are reluctant to share — are they unsure, self-conscious, polite, or afraid to tell others something?” What would you be afraid to share if you were reading your article or searching for the information your readers seek?
What actions do your readers take while they read your work or even after they get to the end of your article? Do they engage with you? Do they click a link to learn more? Do they close the window only 10 seconds into your first paragraph? Why do they do these things?
How does your reader feel while they read your work? Do your words evoke certain emotions — and are they the emotions you want readers to feel? Do your paragraphs take up the entire screen when someone reads your work on a cell phone? Are your headlines clear or confusing?
Step 3: Don’t be afraid of lists and tables
At first, tables and lists may seem cold and out of place in the middle of an article. But when used correctly, they’re extremely handy tools.
In a 1997 study of how people read online, Nielsen found that “79% of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word.” If your writing doesn’t include easily scannable elements like lists and tables, 79% of your readers are missing out on critical information.
If you’re still not comfortable throwing a list or table into your writing, here are some tips to help you out.
- Use tables to provide a quick comparison between two or more ideas or items.
- Make sure you label all your table columns or rows — or both. Don’t make readers guess at what information you’re trying to share.
- Provide a transition sentence or list header that summarizes what your list is about.
- Don’t try to fit too much information in tables or lists. Keep it short and sweet.
Step 4: Break down walls of text
There’s a reason the acronym “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) exists online: most of us sprint for the hills whenever we see a giant wall of text.
If you’re one of the rare birds who enjoys the challenge of wading through a massive paragraph, more props to you. But the truth is, most online readers quickly get tired of sorting through lengthy strings of text. Remember, 79% or more of readers prefer to scan content!
To keep your readers engaged, shorten up your paragraphs. Each one should be a maximum of three to four sentences.
And you should stick to one thought per paragraph as well.
Want an even bigger challenge? Try crystallizing your thoughts into a compelling, one-sentence paragraph for extra emphasis.
Step 5: Use clear copy
Never underestimate the power of a clear headline, subhead, or call to action (CTA). These are some of the best places in your copy to tell your readers how you can help them with a problem — and keep them reading.
In their guide to writing magnetic headlines (which I highly recommend), Copyblogger states that “every element of compelling copy has just one purpose — to get the next sentence read. And then the sentence after that, and so on, all the way down to your call to action.”
This is so very true — and it’s exactly why your headlines, subheads, and CTAs need to clearly speak to your readers’ needs. If your headline isn’t clear and doesn’t connect with your reader, they’re never going to get to your first paragraph.
But just because your headlines, subheads, and CTAs are concise and compelling doesn’t mean you can ignore the quality of your story’s body. This is where jargon and acronyms can creep in — and there’s nothing that makes most of us hit the browser back button faster than a melting pot of unfamiliar lingo.
I like to treat jargon just like I treat acronyms: I spell them out or explain them on the first use. You can chalk that up to my college years studying journalism, but it’s a good practice.
Step 6: Use the inverted pyramid style
Speaking of journalism, there’s one more newsroom technique that can improve your copy: the inverted pyramid.
You may have heard of this writing technique, but in case you haven’t, the idea is to summarize all of the most critical points of your article up front.
Yup, show all your cards right away. You can go into details later.
This is another approach to writing that benefits readers who prefer to skim. The summary of what you’re going to cover in your article acts like a hook. That is, it hooks readers and reels them in to the content that’s most helpful.
Step 7: Break out topics into separate articles
If you’re extremely passionate about a subject, it’s pretty easy to fill pages upon pages with helpful tips and info. (I think my editors are surprised if any of my first drafts end up at less than 14 pages.) But for readers, this can quickly become overwhelming.
That’s no reason to stop writing, though.
Instead of filling one article with your wealth of information on the topic, break it out into several mini articles. You can think of it like a series of books that make up a broader story arc.
To lead your readers to the rest of the content in your series, make sure to link all articles in the series together. You can do this casually by calling out a link to your next article in the copy or include it in a “read more” type of component, if your site supports it.
Recap: How to improve your content’s UX
Good UX can be the difference between a reader signing up for your newsletter or buying your product versus quickly closing the browser window without reading what you have to say. The good news is, UX is still under your control as a writer.
Here’s how your writing can impact UX:
- Toss those personas out the window and use empathy mapping instead.
- Embrace lists and tables to improve scannability.
- Keep paragraphs to one thought and four lines maximum.
- Write simply and clearly — and define jargon if it’s necessary.
- Put the most important information first with the inverted pyramid style.
- Shorten your articles by linking out to more in-depth content on topics you cover.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writing and UX. Let me know what you think — or if I missed any good tips — in the comments.
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I've been writing for 10+ years in a variety of formats: journalism, emails, website copy, you name it. I enjoy sharing my craft with others. I'm also a total geek for all things internet and gaming.