Editorial voice in the design process

With the growth in digital screens – not only in our homes, but as we work, shop and travel – an increasing amount of our time is spent familiarising ourselves with and navigating user interfaces, or UIs.

Functionality is at the forefront of the minds of every good designer, from product design through to graphics, but for the user experience (UX) designer, ease of use is the primary concern, above all else.

One often overlooked aspect of UX design is the need for the right words. Words are slippery things, often with multiple meanings, cultural significance and aesthetic values all of their own. It may not be the most glamorous job for a writer, but ensuring menu items, navigational prompts and Quick Start user guides are quickly intelligible and intuitive, as well as consistent with an interface’s design and the brand being represented, is far from straightforward.

As the creative lead on the first iteration of the BBC’s lifestyle-altering iPlayer (a web-streaming and download service for all the BBC’s broadcast content), Alex Osman knows better than most the importance of getting user interfaces right.

“It’s proven that emotive calls to action are more likely to be used than ones that are merely descriptive, e.g., ‘Make something happen’ as opposed to ‘Write a post’ – bad example but you get the gist. An added challenge in recent times is that touchscreen interfaces are often forced to be more descriptive, as they’re less able to provide visual clues to a user via feedback from a cursor. And very few icons can stand alone without a text description to accompany them – print, email, ‘like’, etc. – which can make for interesting design challenges.”

When you consider the variety of actions required by a user in all but the simplest of interfaces, you begin to understand exactly how difficult some of these challenges can be to resolve. Mike Reed, founder of Reed Words, was responsible for the copy used across YouView, one of the UK’s major IPTV services.

“YouView was an education,” he says. “I’m not sure how typical it was of a UI job, but I was there from literally scribbling ideas on big sheets of paper to ploughing through reams and reams of wireframes, ‘user stories’ and spreadsheets. It was all incredibly detailed and organised.”

“Most interesting for me, as someone who is usually working off a brief with little input from readers, was the feedback from our ongoing user research. It’s humbling when you make an argument that something is so clear it can only possibly mean one thing, only to get results back that show six different users had six different interpretations of it.”

Sadly, having a writer involved at so early a stage is not a common feature of user experience projects, as Osman admits. “Generally speaking copywriters are brought in at the end, when the project is nearly ready to go live to add that dash of brand voice, which is so important. The problem can be when this writer is good with the brand but not so good with the basics of UX. You can end up with a very confusing experience.“

Reed concedes that brand voice, and even humanity, often have to give way to function. ”Working on YouView I gained huge respect for Information Architects and visual designers who balance aesthetics with incredibly demanding technical requirements. It’s a real struggle to retain a human tone when the space you’re working in is tiny and the technical requirements overwhelming. Clarity becomes the only real benchmark.“

“I think there’s a place for writers in UI design,” agrees prominent writer for design Nick Asbury. “But it’s not always going to be a place where you can flex your writing muscles. The right answer is often the straight, un-showy one. By and large, people will understand what a ‘Contact’ or ‘About’ option means. As soon as you try to make it tonally distinctive by changing the wording to ‘Say hi’ or ‘Stuff we do’, you’re creating a distraction where it’s not needed.”

Is there then, a requirement at all for UI writers beyond filling in menu item boxes on a spreadsheet?

“When it comes to the words themselves, there is occasionally scope for making them creative and interesting. But by and large, it’s more about getting out of the way and letting the user get on with enjoying the product.

“I think the best way writers can contribute to UI,” Asbury suggests, “is by acting as editorial thinkers, doing the behind-the-scenes work to plan how information can be structured and presented. It’s a skill that writers use regularly in other contexts and definitely comes in useful here.”

And just when you think you have writing for user experience sussed, another writing discipline raises its head for global companies looking to rollout a product across multiple territories: translation. “With multilingual websites there is often a problem where a word from one language does not fit well into the dimensions designed for another,” explains Osman. “Awareness of this needs to be carefully factored in at the start. Literal translations are often misleading and always should be checked by native readers for coherence.”

That’s without even taking into account the design ramifications of right-to-left scripts such as Arabic, or Chinese characters that run top-to-bottom, which highlights the importance of an editorial voice being involved in the design process at as early a stage as possible.

By Neil Ayres


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