June 8, 2011

Write From the Start: Functional Online Writing

A New York Times article recently revealed that Groupon employs over 400 writers and editors to produce the humorous sales pitches that move their discounted wares. Banter such as “Like the seedpod of the sacred lotus, golf courses are filled with holes and cause feelings of euphoria when chewed” is intended to capture the attention of online shoppers. In the crowded “deal-of-the-day” space, Groupon is betting that their heavy investment in the creation and craft of words, and their unique voice, will put them at the top of the heap.

Often, when we begin brainstorming a new online experience for web or mobile, the first things our clients talk about are functionality, architecture and design. Copy and voice are recognized as important aspects of the brand, but most people feel it can be slotted in later in the process, even after the site is completed. But the words we select and craft play as important a role in the function of a site as the backend code.

Take a look at the Schooloscope website. This straightforward website allows parents in England to browse schools in their neighborhood, comparing demographics, exam scores and leadership. The home page presents the value of the site in a single simple sentence: “Schooloscope tells you how your school’s doing.” Schooloscope’s school profile page integrates voice directly into the function of the site. Here, the status of the school is presented as two brief, data-rich paragraphs, giving the user the information they need and a half-dozen links to dig deeper. The site has avoided using a clunky table or a standardized list of links, instead demonstrating the importance of copy writing in the user experience through a friendly, conversational tone that clarifies data and makes it actionable.

Schooloscope School Profile Page

Other examples of stellar functional web writing include the “I Want One!” button on woot.com, Banksimple‘s “Save Your Spot” plain English registration form and subtly surprising interaction messages such as “psst” and “hooray” on Flickr.

As you look more closely at these examples you see a trend. Applications that are intended for frequent use steer towards subtle injections of personality and short bits of voice-driven copy. Experiences intended for less frequent use can benefit from longer functional copy that assists user comprehension, especially when trying to draw in first-time visitors. And sites like Schooloscope and Banksimple show a new way to integrate functionality with voice, allowing users to write their own stories. Through all of these examples you see a tight integration between functionality and copy writing that necessitates the need to think about and plan for copy from the inception of your online project.

What kind of value are you placing on copywriting in your user experience design process? Are you planning your UX voice from the start of your project? Let us know!

Tip of the hat to Carl Collins. His talk at IASummit 2011 pointed out some of the examples discussed here.

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