A few days ago I got so frustrated with Korean Airlines’ online booking system I decided to share the horror with the rest of the world.
I admit, because of what I do I am a bit more sensitive about bad web pages. Sometimes I overreact and get cranky (you web designers know what I mean). But this is the second time I’ve ever gotten so far as to write about my bad experience on the web.
The whole thing started the previous night, when I lost my patience with their web site and called the sales line to make the order with a live person. I was surprised that the toll free number connected me to the USA (I live in Europe). The overseas call was paid by Korean Airlines so I did not care. I was connected to a nice lady, who spent about 20 minutes with me trying to find the right flight. What was very surprising to me was that she couldn’t email me the options she found, that my only options were either to buy the flight right then and there or write down all the times and flight numbers and hope I could find the paper again the next time I call the sales line. The lady was so kind and helpful I took a deep breath and wrote down all the details. Which I lost the next day, so I had to give the web a second chance.
I was buying two long distance flights for approximately three thousand dollars
The next morning I opened the Korean Airlines site, which is a narrow (760px) stripe looking a bit funny in the middle of my big monitor. Approximately 90% of the narrow space was covered with ads, menus and options I did not care about. What I needed was the flight booking form displayed using gray on gray tiny font, where the select boxes with dates are so small the data does not even fit and is partially hidden.
(This is a screenshot in actual size, the letters blending into each other is what gets displayed on the actual site)
When filling this form one has to choose the continent and then the city for the departing and return destinations. It is not possible to type in the airport code, or the date, which has to be selected from a miniature calendar. This turned out to be quite annoying when I filled out the form for the tenth time.
The next page showed the date I had selected with a price matrix displaying three previous and following days. I was flexible in the dates, so I wanted to make sure the previous or following weeks are not significantly cheaper, but I could not change the dates in the matrix, I had to go back to the home screen and keep filling the booking form again and again. Filling the stupid form from scratch every single time!
After about ten iterations I found the flight I wanted for $1200 and proceeded to selecting the flight times and other usual stuff. After 10 minutes of fine-tuning our journey to the maximum degree of perfection I realized I forgot to add my soon-to-be wife (I was booking a honeymoon) and I could not add another passenger at this point.
I had to start all over again.
At this moment I was getting really irritated, so the next obvious thing was that I made a mistake in the date. My excuse: I could not clearly see the date in the booking form, because it was half hidden in the small “select” box. When I discovered my mistake, the only option was to start all over again.
The next attempt got me almost there. I had gone through the price matrix, times, and even the inconvenient login form, this time I typed my and my girlfriend's names and proceeded to the checkout, gave my card number, billing address, expiration date, security code and all that. At the final check I realized my girlfriend will have different name after the wedding. Being so far in the process I could not believe I could not go back to change the name and my only option was to start all over again!
I thought it will go fast this time. But after filling the destinations, dates and number of passengers, the price had changed and the flights were now $350 more expensive.
And here I have to admit I lost control and almost broke the keyboard.
I had spent almost two hours with this, did not accomplish anything and felt angry and defeated for the rest of the day.
How is it possible that airlines with billion dollar budgets give such a poor user experience when they’re booking a ticket - the most crucial part of their business? Fixing this problem by adding a back button is probably less expensive then the tickets I have bought. Changing the layout of their web, such that users can see the important information, would cost less than what KA must have paid for the phone call I made the to customer support centre?
How can a company be so ignorant and blind about how users interact with their systems?
Investors have totally lost confidence in the leadership of the Danish windmill giant, Vestas. Earlier this week, on October 31, 2011, their stock plummeted almost 25% - the most recent, most dramatic swing in a roller-coaster ride that started in 2008.
This most recent disaster was triggered by a discreet announcement late Sunday evening that a German turbine factory, owned by Vestas, couldn’t deliver on time, which was going to severely reduce earnings for the year.
I’ve been monitoring Vestas for over a year, not as an investor, but because I am fascinated by how poorly this company handles social media. Let me be blunt: Vestas just doesn’t get it - and it has cost them millions.
A story about “Black Tuesday”
On the morning of October 26, 2010, I read the headline on the Danish business newspaper, Børsen, that Vestas was going to fire 3000 employees. At 9:45, someone told me that Vestas’ CEO, Ditlev Engel was holding a press conference at 10:00. Around 10:15, another colleague told me that a Danish windmill company was declaring bankruptcy and that there would be a statement at 11:00.
About 10:20, as Engel rambled on to the press corps (streamed live on the internet), the first remarks started to appear on Twitter: “So when is he going to tell us the company has gone bust?” Actually, another, smaller windmill company, Skycon, had gone into receivership. Although this news had been announced earlier that morning, the particulars were overshadowed by the happenings at Vestas. No interesting statements were made at 11:00.
However, looking at Vestas’ stock price that morning, there was a curious, minute-by-minute correlation between the tweets and the stock. About 10:20, when the stock was falling, but not yet in free-fall, the first social media messages appeared. And during the next 15 minutes, Vestas lost almost DKK 20 million in stock capitalization. After 11:00, when it was clear from the news updates that Skycon, not Vestas, had gone broke, Vestas stock rallied briefly. But only briefly; the company lost a bundle that day - the company’s communication punctuated by occasional tweets providing a link to the online video of Engel’s press conference.
Coincidentally, a senior VP at Vestas told me later that day that the company had a community manager responsible for their social media. But what does this person actually do? For the next 26 hours, there wasn’t a single tweet - during which time Vestas lost over 10% of its total market capitalization.
Late in the evening of October 27, 2010, Vestas finally posted a tweet. Too little, too late.
Could social media help?
If you had looked at social-media activity related to Vestas on October 26-27, 2010, it was clear that people - including Bloomberg - were looking for some kind of useful communication. But there was none.
On October 27, 2010, Vestas had roughly 450 followers. A couple of days ago, Vestas stock again plummeted, this time by almost 25%. They now have 3,600 followers on Twitter. But did Vestas tweet? No. A repeat performance from a year ago.
Finally, a tweet - at 9:20 AM on Tuesday November 1, 2011. Throughout the dismal Monday, Vestas remained silent.
So here’s my message, dear Vestas: people WANT to talk with you. The dramatic rise in your number of Twitter followers shows this. So why aren’t you engaging with them? Do you have a social-media strategy or are you just making this up as you go along? If so, consider taking a different approach. The most recent debacle reduced the value of your stock by 24.3%. The costs to prepare a professional social-media strategy and the salary for an effective community manager are far less. You do the math.
I am proud to announce the opening of FatDUX Prague. Our offices are located just minutes from the famed Wenceslas Square in the heart of the Czech capital. Over the past few years, our sister company, ExperienceU, has grown to become one of the most respected usability testing facilities in Central Europe. Now, working hand-in-hand with FatDUX Prague, we are able to provide a full range of UX services – from strategy and design to usability and search optimisation.
To help celebrate our new company and build our local user-experience community, FatDUX Prague is subsidising 20 registrations for residents of the Czech Republic to the upcoming EuroIA
conference. The conference is possibly the most important event of its kind in Europe. We are honoured that this year, it will be held right here in Prague on September 22-24.
Rather than the normal registration fee of EUR 430, with our discount code, you will only pay EUR 150. We will take care of the rest. For details and your personal code information, please write to me directly: stepan (at) fatdux.com
Rádi bychom oznámili oficiální otevření pražské pobočky dánské designové agentury FatDUX. Naše kanceláře se nachází na okraji historického centra Prahy. Díky spolupráci s agenturou ExperienceU, respektovanou zejména v oblasti testování použitelnosti, dodáváme celé spektrum služeb v oblasti UX, přes strategii a design po audit použitelnosti a SEO.
Abychom oslavili oficiální vznik nové pobočky a zároveň podpořili místní UX komunitu, FatDUX Praha sponzoruje registraci 20 zájemců z České republiky o nadcházející konferenci EuroIA
. Tato konference, která se řadí mezi nejvýznamnější svého druhu v Evropě, se bude konat v Praze 22 – 24. září.
Místo plné ceny 430 Euro zaplatíte pouze 150 Euro a FatDUX doplatí zbytek. Případní zájemci, neváhejte mne prosím kontaktovat na: stepan (at) fatdux.com
The Danish appliance retailer, Punkt 1, has just released an ad that sums up the problems of the online industry in 31 seconds and two boobs (or four, depending on how you define "boob").
Summary: Are you confused by the offers for cheap appliances? Look here. Pris = Price (i.e. low price). Prut = Haggle (name your own price). WWW = WWW.
"Confused? I know what you're feeling. Come down to Punkt 1, we make sure you go home with the right product at the right price."
Curiously, after having characterized competing media/techniques as something from a cheap sideshow, Punkt 1 immediately offers vacuum cleaners at a 20% discount (Spar = Save). Uh...and you claim you don't belong to ANY of these groups? Hypocrites!
But there are three more serious problems. All of them relate to the portrayal of the web as an air-headed bimbo.
First, the clear suggestion is that the web is merely a sexually driven con game, which it certainly is not. Searches on Google for business-to-business and business-to-consumer information now outnumber searches for porn.
Second, the advertising agency that produced this crap apparently believes this (and the Punkt 1 marketing team bought into this goofy concept). In general, ad agencies steadfastly refuse to accept the dynamics of online communication and do their best to twist electronic media until it looks like print. Sorry, things don't work that way.
Third, the Danish business community continues to ignore the fact that the WWW is now the number one source of business intelligence. Stick that in your marketing mix and smoke it.
Two days ago, I heard from a well-rounded business executive that "we see our website as our subsidiary in cyberspace." Yikes. I wrote this 11 years ago in Practical Information Architecture
. This notion has been out of date for at least six years. Today, your website needs to be an integral part of your business plan. Think, are your telephones your subsidiary in the communications infrastructure? Hardly!
Punkt 1, you should be ashamed of yourselves for promoting these various myths. You are harming your business (when I bought my expensive dishwasher a few months ago, I didn't even visit Punkt 1 because your site was so lousy). By espousing this uninformed attitude, you are actually harming Denmark's GNP (Gross National Product). And I won't even go into the matter of sexism.
Friends of the user-experience community: we will never grow and mature until our potential clients understand that crap like this particular advertisement are ultimately not in anyone's interest.
Punkt 1, for what it cost you to produce this abomination, you could have put together a website that actually built your brand and contributed actively to your bottom line. Rethink your strategy. There is money to be made.
I recently had the pleasure of connecting with colleagues in Croatia Vibor Cipan
and Darko Čengija
about Wall of Tweets
My first experience with Wall of Tweets was while watching talks at the TEDxMälaren
event in June; and I really enjoyed the interaction!
Context is easily lost, and often misunderstood on Twitter. Live tweeting is another popular process, but unless one is sitting in on the presentation it is very difficult to convert the value of the ideas into meaningful actions in only 140 characters.
At the TEDxMälaren event I was able to watch the presentation (from Ottawa, Canada) and connect with others around the world simultaneously.
While current solutions like Twitterfall are free, they don’t look as nice and end up showing some of the tweets late, due to a limit on the API calls from the centralized Twitterfall server. Wall of Tweets is a paid service, so they do guarantee it will work, as well as letting you host it on your own server if you really want to.
As a special promotion, Wall of Tweets is offering all UX, IA and design-related conferences worldwide with free licenses – both online HTML versions and rich, venue-based versions. All you need to do is to send Vibor an email and ask for a free license. You can reach him at vcATfatduxDOTcom
Recent examples of Wall of Tweets:
Over the years, I've personally written over 30 mission and vision statements for clients throughout Europe. As internal documents, these are incredibly important. We (management and I) invest a lot of energy in defining the business position and the strategy that will help achieve this. But, to be honest (and despite the current fashion), these mission/vision documents don't really stand up very well when companies broadcast them on a website. An internal tool is just that - internal.
Vision statements are particularly dangerous. Like watching two people make out in a darkened cinema, the better the content, the more distasteful it is to an outside observer:
"We're going to be number one in our market by...[action item]."
The more effective the action item, the less likely it is that you'll want to broadcast this information to your competition.
"Don't write naughty words on walls if you can't spell"
The "boilerplate" text printed on the rear cover of a brochure, or the front of a website is equally political. Enthusiastic sales reps and other unskilled laborers think that adding useless adjectives and overworked buzzwords will improve the message.
I just looked through some of the strategic mission/vision stuff I've written the past 10 years or so. Curiously, the text that was screwed around with the least, often belongs to the companies that have done the best.
As a public service, I have glued together some of the blather and buzz I've witnessed into a single, universal boilerplate.
About [the company]
Headquartered in [someplace], we are leaders in [something]. Since [sometime], our client-centric core competencies have represented the highest standards of quality and reliability, coupled with service that truly delights. We align our customers’ needs with current best-practice usage paradigms and thus enable people to seamlessly leverage their abilities and maximize their efficiency in a truly proactive manner. Our ongoing commitment to sustainable innovation ensures that we will remain the preferred supplier for our clients around the [world, region, country, neighborhood, wherever].
Use it with my blessing. It's free and could save you thousands of euros in short term copywriting fees. But hey, no one reads this anyway...or do they?
Frank Lloyd Wright said that the two most important tools for an architect were the drafting pencil and the sledgehammer. Of the two, the pencil is the easier to use as well as the more effective. As it is with building design, so it is with designing websites and their discoverability by search engines, the tool used by a majority of users. The Web has become so vast and the search systems have become so sophisticated that retroactive optimization can be only marginally effective.
My mantra of late has been that search engine optimization must be part of the strategy at the beginning of a site design or redesign project. I believe that user experience is as much about how users find the site as with their experience once they get there. At the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, I presented a poster session on an SEO/UX design framework that sees search optimization as part of the UX engagement throughout the project lifecycle.
- Discovery comes before experience. Including search optimization in discovery sessions with the client provides opportunities to illuminate the state of the competitive landscape and the current search visibility state of the existing site. During this stage, I give the client a brief education in how search engines work. Despite the sophistication behind how results are presented, the core functionality of search technology is still based on information retrieval methods from the early days of electronic data storage. In order to appear in the results, the search terms used must appear in the content.
- Planning reduces the signal to noise ratio for the search engine spider. Search engine spiders do not have eyes, ears, thumbs or fingers. They cannot read the messaging in sticky Flash and Silverlight applications. They cannot hear instructions or compelling evidence contained in videos. They cannot “click” anything to move forward. Provide on the page or in the code annotation for all rich media to make sure that the messaging contained here makes its way to search results.
- Build a relevant site structure. Something that you keep in the attic of your garage is likely less important to you than something kept in the cabinet over your coffee machine. Search engine spiders interpret your site structure as an indicator of relevance. Content buried deep in the structure is seen as less relevant that content found closer to the home page. Design site and link structures that reveal context and importance.
- Create a flexible design to ensure ongoing visibility. There is no “set it and forget it” in search engine optimization. Post-launch optimization continues with analysis and measurement. Analyze search terms driving traffic to the site, bounce rate, time on site and other analytics to discern patterns and anticipate customer needs or interests. What were they looking for? Did they find it? Benchmark positioning for key metadata phrases prior to redesign. Run regular placement reports to chart progress and provide quantitative evidence of effectiveness.
Following a roadmap of optimization through the stages of a website project is a step is extending the user experience to from start to finish.
Download the Search Engine Optimization and User Experience Design Framework Poster
Denmark is a small market for advertisers - about 2.2 million households. And with the general cutbacks in advertising budgets due to the financial crisis, the TV channels are hurting. The result is that we're seeing a lot more badly produced ads from companies that have never used television as an advertising medium.
But let's not excuse crappy ads strictly because of low budgets. The fascinating thing is, organizations that can afford decent advertising are spending their money unwisely (i.e. the return is less than the cost). I sometimes think that many advertisers are economizing by bypassing the expensive creative department at their ad agency and going directly to the film producer.
Result? Nice films, lousy messaging. Don't think that "all advertising is good advertising", the Schlitz Brewery, once America's second-largest, actually reported a downturn
in sales among people who could remember their advertising.
Here are seven methods guaranteed to deliver unacceptable results.
1. Irritate viewers
For some reason, this is an incredibly popular technique in Denmark right now. It seems advertisers think that if you yell, scream, and do stupid things, people will love your brand/product. Sorry. Most of you are actually suggesting that your brand or product is as stupid and/or irritating as your spokespersons.
My current "favorite" in this category is the jerk who advertises for the food-chain, Spar. I can't find the more absurd ads on YouTube, but this is the one in which his character is introduced. The basic premise is, that this guy loves his supermarket so much that he decides to "help" the store owner by creating absurdly stupid advertising gimmicks. In this case, it's a new version of the Danish birthday song. Even if you don't understand Danish, you can't help but wish this idiot would disappear:
Message: Don't assume that "dumb" is necessarily entertaining. You cannot irritate people into buying anything. And you may get people to actually boycott your brand! (Ariel, I've still not forgiven you for your awful Helle Virkner ads).
2. Overestimate your brand recognition
When you've built a brand, it's easy to convince yourself that the whole world knows what you do. This is dangerous. The following ad is a classic example of this. The production values are high, the story piques ones curiosity (is she Princess Diana?). But unless you know the brand, the advertising is actually useless.
I have much more to say about this, but I would like you to visit their website first and view the ad they're currently showing on CNN and other international channels. This will open in a new window, so when you're done looking at the ad, come back and read on. Do not explore their site (yet):
Go back and click on the link above.
Blank line. Don't read ahead until you've seen the ad.
Another blank line.
Gosh, how many blank lines can we afford? Seems like such a waste...
Right. Now that you've seen the ad, tell me what does this company do? Can you remember the name of the brand? I couldn't. And since the ad airs so infrequently, I didn't get a chance to have the name hammered into my conscious mind. (in the ad biz, we talk about OTS - Opportunities To See).
Because I know Paris, I recognized the Place Vendôme (with Napoleon's copy of Trajan's Column in the middle). In the film, this monument seems to be right next to this shop. But no joy. I even used Google's street view and could not find the red awning. All I could remember from the ad was that the brand name started with an "H" and the bags were red.
Searching for luxury brands didn't help either. I was stuck. (and yes, this had become a slightly obsessive quest at this point)
This was my experience. But perhaps you know this brand. What would your reaction be?
Anyway, if you now return to the Hediard site, you'll find that they sell fine foods. And they're on Place Madeleine, just next to another of Paris' fine food shops, Fauchon. No wonder they mislead with the Place Vendôme reference.
Basically, this ad could have been made much
more effective simply by adding some shots of luscious displays within the shop and writing a better narration. It appears, though, that this ad may be an offshoot of an artistic installation produced by Comité Colbert (http://www.ccolbert.fr/
), which aims to promote 70 French luxury brands, but doesn't seem to know much about advertising. It also looks like they ripped off a concept developed for the Texas-based photographer, Matthew Mahon, whose site is well known in Flash communities (http://www.matthewmahon.com/
Message: don't assume everyone knows and loves your brand. Telling a story is good. But telling a story that communicates your brand essence is much, much better.
3. Use ineffective sales arguments
Some arguments work, some don't. Some arguments that used to work no longer do. Car safety, for example, is no longer a brand advantage or product position (e.g. Volvo), it's now a prerequisite for all car manufacturers.
These days, there are a variety of anti-smoking campaigns running. Horror and disgust are often the creative keys. Alas, Jerry Bruckheimer's CSI
and Navy CIS
feature so many gory, computer-generated journeys through bullet holes and other bodily damage that it's tough to scare or disgust folks these days. Particularly hard-core smokers. We've seen it all before.
The University of Missouri claims that these scare campaigns work (see http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/11/17/scare-or-disgust-work-best-in-anti-smoking-ads/3360.html
). But this is not entirely true. Although Napoleon rightly said that fear and self-interest are the two levers with which one can set a man in motion, the scare campaigns are only effective when people have already decided to change their behavior
; in fact, the "Smoking Kills" message on cigarette packages has actually created a boomerang effect in some markets and increased the number of smokers - the forbidden-fruit-is-attractive syndrome.
The Danish National Board of Health published an excellent review of the problem back in 2004 (see http://www.sst.dk/publ/div/metodekataloget/skraek_som_virkemiddel.pdf
) Alas, it's only in Danish. But Google Translator will help you get the gist.
In short, if you want people to stop smoking, there are more effective ways than scare campaigns. And I speak as a 27-year veteran of the non-filter brigade (Camels, Senior Service). Why do most hard-core smokers finally quit? Because it pegs you as a social loser - the habit is no longer glamorous. It prevents you from getting promotions, it hampers your social life, it makes you stand outside your office building 20 times a day instead of staying inside, exchanging gossip at the water cooler. Most importantly, it signals "stinky and boorish" rather than "suave and sophisticated. Yes. Times change. Check out Allan Carr's Easy Way to stop smoking
for a far more effective method.
Message: If you want to effect behavioural change, don't preach to the choir. Moreover, threats only produce short-term results. True long-term behavioral change comes about by providing a positive alternative to the current situation.
4. Practice pseudocreativity
Sometimes lack of brand promise or genuine product/service advantages encourages advertisers to disguise the lack of message (or lack of a creative idea) behind an artsy-fartsy facade. The folks promoting Abu Dhabi are doing this right now.
We see a fellow in native Arab garb piloting a Mercedes through a Middle-Eastern city. The voice-over was written by a wannabe-poet-turned-copywriter: "As night crackles electric, a million promises are held." The effect is hypnotic, but the commercial message is unclear. In fact, there is no brand promise whatsoever.
In the final frame, we see the name, "Abu Dhabi". Alas, this only appears for a second and almost immediately whites out as the "Abu" in the text blends into the desert background.
What does the UAE want me to do? Should I visit this city? Invest? Shoot a feature film? Complain about their crap advertising on a blog?
Here's the clip. Judge for yourself:
Message: Art is fine, but are you out to entertain or communicate? As advertising guru Rosser Reeves once said, "Do you want art, or do you want the goddam sales curve to go up?"
5. Switch media in mid stream
We all know this scenario: we're watching TV and an ad tells us to visit a web address. No other explanation, only a URL. Or we're reading a magazine and a full page ad displays nothing more than a URL.
Yes, online/offline convergence is critical in any modern media plan. But when I'm sitting comfortably in front of the TV, don't expect me to boot up my laptop - or even write down the web address. Granted, it's reasonable to let me know where I can go for supplemental information (e.g. the web) . But don't make your address your primary message. Make your message your message!
Message: Make every medium self-sufficient when it comes to stating your case and selling your product or service.
6. Upstage your message
If you've got something to say, say it. Make sure it comes across in clear, unmistakable terms. Unfortunately, a lot of advertisers get so wrapped up in the story they're trying to tell that they forget to give us viewers a concrete call to action. They create scenaria that are so fascinating that the message is pushed to the background.
We've already seen how Hediard and Abu Dhabi blew their budget on ineffectual advertising. In both cases, the message was clearly upstaged by high production values and an artsy-fartsy story. But here's another example that takes things in a decidedly lowbrow direction.
The leading Danish telephone service, Teledanmark - TDC - has introduced two characters in their television ads. They are named Klaus and Britta and are nudists (does TDC thinks nudists represent a core market?). The ads are fascinating, primarily because Britta is played by a well-known male Danish comedian. And Klaus is played by a well-known female comedian. Cross-dressing nudists? Hell of a campaign concept. But the rubber suits are fantastic. See for yourself:
Message: Make sure people remember what you're trying to tell them from a branding/product/service point of view. If they remember your commercials, but not your message, you've lost the battle.
7. Rely on spin and lies
No product or service can rely on one-time sales. You can con folks into buying almost anything once, but you won't get them to buy your stuff a second time. Moreover, the service-industry gurus estimate that every time you have a good experience with a company, you tell three people. But if your experience is bad, you'll end up telling 17.
Right now, L'Oreal is being sued by the Swedish Consumer Protection Agency for their smooth presentation of an anti-wrinkle cream. Dan-Sun, a Danish producer of solariums, is being chastised in the press for making health claims that can't really stand the light of day. And almost all of the Danish banks are working hard to tell prospective customers that they are solid, honest, and are willing to extend credit. Incredible...
Message: Don't lie. Good advertisers don't. Only the amateurs really believe "all advertisers lie".
Got a good war story? Share it with us!
(Last updated 25 April 2012)
The truth is, most online readers don’t care much about how web writers tackle grammar, spelling, and punctuation as long as they get the information they need. That said, good grammar does build trust in your organization. Proper spelling does, too - so proofread your text and ask a professional copywriter to look it over if at all possible.
Here are some of the many tips I give our online clients during my popular “Writing for the web” workshop.
1. Kill your darlings
This is a quote from the American writer William Faulkner. Basically, it means you should take a critical look at what you’ve written. I often discover that if I cut out my first paragraph, I will improve the text 100%. On the web, visitors want you to get to the point. They’re not on your site to admire your fine writing.
2. Apply George Orwell’s rules
George Orwell, the English author of 1984
, Animal Farm
and other classics, has six rules of writing. Here they are – they’re all gems:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use the passive voice when you can use the active
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous!
3: Build shared references
This is about getting your readers to understand what you already know. For example, if I mention “the soup Nazi”, you may or may not recognize this reference from the TV comedy, Seinfeld
. As writers, we cannot take any chances - our job is to make sure that people understand exactly what we mean and what we say on each web page.
Just for fun, read this description and create a vision in your mind:
“Ordinary 60 W lightbulb with standard screw-in base (E27)”
Pause a moment before you read on. Make sure you see the lightbulb in your mind's eye.
OK, continue reading.
Most people envision a typical frosted lightbulb. Yet, we lack a true share reference – after all, what does “ordinary” mean? For example, is this lightbulb 110V or 220V? Clear? Colored? Frosted? Does the lightbulb work or is it burned out? Do you know what an E27 base is? (probably not: it stands for Edison 27 millimeter, which is something of a defacto standard the world over).
This simple description of the lightbulb left a lot of questions unanswered. As web writers, our task is to leave nothing to chance. And it’s no surprise that marketingexperiments.com discovered long text outsells short text by 41%!
This point could be a whole lecture unto itself. But if you understand the generic principle, you’ll create much better web copy. Here are five tips for creating stronger shared references:
1) Don’t take anything for granted
2) Anticipate the questions people may have
3) Answer questions they didn’t think to ask
4) Examine your content in the context of what your site visitors probably want to do
5) The communication environment will affect the information needed at any given time
4. Write front-loaded paragraphs
Start with your conclusion. Here's an example:
“A special tax on automobiles will be used to finance road safety improvements.”
You can then continue with the rest of the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions that you’ll want to answer in your introduction:
“The Prime Minister announced this yesterday at a press conference in London in response to the drastic rise in road fatalities.”
Your site visitors want information fast. Don’t make them wade through a lot of text to get what they need. And from an accessibility viewpoint, putting the conclusion up front means that automatic screen-reading devices (such as JAWS), can “tell” sight-impaired folks what they need to know immediately – including that this might not be the page they want to be on.
5. Accept that people read differently on the web
Reading from a screen isn’t particularly relaxing. The mention of “website” doesn’t conjure up images of a comfy sofa, a crackling fireplace, and a warm cup of tea. Fact: people read differently on the web (and about 25% slower, too). This is what they do:
1) Scan to find areas of interest
2) Scan subheads to zero in on subjects
3) Skim copy for keywords and phrases
4) Read to get detail
5) Click to interact
So, don't get too wrapped up in creating atmosphere. Let your readers get on with the task at hand - whatever that may be.
6. Respect levels of detail
Web readers appreciate getting a basic idea of where they are when they dump onto a page from Google. Levels of detail help establish this understanding, even when other cognitive devices (breadcrumbs, for example) are not available.
In a newspaper, there will be three levels of detail:
- Full story
On a website, you’ll find:
- Label (often the same as the link)
- Short summary (executive summary)
- Detailed presentation (main subject page)
- Supporting evidence (data sheets, photos, and other contextual elements)
When writing web copy, it helps a lot to understand how your text will be used and where it is positioned in relation to other content elements. That means good writers will also understand the structure of the site on which they are working – the information architecture.
7. Don’t make things too granular
“Granularity” means the extent to which information is spread across multiple web pages. Well, sometimes a cracker is better than a handful of crumbs. So make sure that information that is needed simultaneously appears on the same page. This is a particular problem when plucking interesting features from a data sheet available elsewhere on a site. Again, this is directly related to the work you should be doing to create shared references.
8. Define your goal
Before you write anything, ask yourself:
WHY am I writing this
WHAT is my main message
WHO am I talking to?
HOW do I want them to respond.
Hey, no kidding. How DO you want them to respond? This is how you increase conversion rates! When people have made it to the bottom of the wonderful page you created, give them someplace relevant to go! Don’t make them scroll back to the top.
9. Minimize instructions
Here’s a fabulous example from Steve Krug’s outstanding book, Don’t Make Me Think
“The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with information that will help us improve the site and make it more relevant to your needs. Please select your answers from the drop-down menus and radio buttons below. The questionnaire should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete.”
OK. Either folks know what a drop-down and radio button is or they don’t. Is there really a reason to tell people which techniques you've built into your survey? There’s also too much reference to “us” and “we”. You're asking the reader to do you a favor. Act appreciative. ´
Here’s how Steve edited out the instructions and turned the message into something that was useful and potentially valuable to readers:
“Please help us provide better on-line service by answering these questions. It should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete this survey.”
Looks easy, but it requires thought. And you have to be aware of the problem, which you now are.
10. Eliminate “happy talk”
Any page that starts with the word “welcome” needs serious rethinking. Get rid of this kind of crap. As I suggested earlier, Kill your darlings – and cut out the first paragraph. This often helps.
Happy talk is often the result of a copywriter not knowing what to say. Go back to No. 8 and revisit your goals. You should have no problem - unless the page is really unnecessary (in which case it should be dropped).
11. Be objective
Drop the hype. People come to your site voluntarily. You don’t need to make a verbal fuss in the same way you would if you were trying to get a magazine reader to stop and read an advertisement. On the web, you want to get to the point and give people valuable information.
In traditional advertising, we use the AIDA model:
But we're not talking about traditional media, are we? By the time folks have landed on your site, they’ve passed beyond the “interest” stage. It’s your job to create “desire” and encourage “action”.
12. Be personal
Lighten up. Try and use more “you” than “we”. Although your users may be guests in your house, as a good host you’ll want them to feel welcome. Make them feel as though it is THEIR house.
13. Be concise
Get to the point (I know I’ve said it before). Let folks grab-and-go. They’re not here to savour your fine language.
14. Avoid secret language
Acronyms are dangerous. So is industry slang. In the interest of creating shared references, make sure you don’t use words, expressions, or abbreviations that folks don’t understand (“E27” for example). Again, this is about creating shared references. Spell things out as often as you need to – and don’t worry about repetition.
15. Make stuff scanable, skimable, usable
Start by identifying trigger words and keywords make them easy to spot (keyword: “shirt” trigger-word: “non-iron”).
Consider bulleted lists as these are easier to skim than sentences. They improve overview and give you a navigational option (hyperlinked lists) General rule of thumb: use bullets for:
Use numbered bullets for:
- sequential tasks
- lists where the total number is somehow relevant (20 tips, for example)
16. Write communicative subheads
Subheads make text easy to scan, even while scrolling (or perhaps particularly
while scolling). In general, you’ll want a subhead to be visible at all times on your screen.
You might want to consider writing your subheads as questions (as long as you don’t turn your text into a FAQ). In most cases, you should use more subheads online than you would in print.
Good subheads signal that the story is going to get even better. And truly great subheads tell site visitors a story even if they don’t read the details in the actual text:
“I used to be a poor ditchdigger”
“Then I discovered my writing ability”
“Now I am a top content strategist on the web”
17. Write accurate labels
Labels and link text will almost always be the same as the headline of the page on which folks arrive. You want to keep these short and direct. They are often the hyperlinks/buttons on which people are clicking.
Make the first word the most important word. When people scan a page, they rarely read the whole sentence/link, they look at the first word, so make it count!
Avoid “cute” headlines. You need to establish a shared reference. As opposed to the title of a magazine article (which is designed to entice and tease), a good label represents a promise to the web visitor: “If you click here, this is exactly what you are going to get.”
18. Go back and edit your work
Do this before you publish your stuff. Do it after you see it online. Do it again next week (this article will be different the next time you look).
Keep asking yourself:
“Is this clear?”
“Is there a simpler way to say this?”
“Is there a shorter way to say this?”
“Is this even necessary?”
19. Remember to write the “invisible” text
About 10% of all web text is only read by machines - metadata. But it is incredibly important in terms of search engine optimization. Here’s the stuff you’ll need to provide for every page:
Search engines see this first and the title functions as the link on which folks click in Google, MSN, etc. The meta title is primary text in the current search algorithms, so don’t dismiss it lightly! The first word should be the “killer term” but don’t start with the name of your company except on your home page. Most browsers cut the meta title off at about 65 characters, so be concise.
This is the text Google displays on the two lines just under the link, so use it to grab people’s attention and play off your page title. Remember to include keywords and triggers. But kept the description to about 140 characters with spaces or Google will cut it off.
Some experts say that the search engines don’t register the keywords. This isn’t true, so make sure you write them. Here’s how to do it:
- word or short phrase
- new word or short phrase
And remember to write alt attributes for images and graphics, particularly stuff that is hyperlinked. You may know these as "alt tags", which is the incorrect, but more popular term.
20. Don’t let anyone talk you into increasing keyword density for SEO
You cannot bore people into buying a product or exhibiting interest for a service. Keyword density, as a search-engine optimization (SEO) strategy is bullshit, plain and simple. Yes, it will get you a higher rank on Google, but it won't improve your conversion rate. The same is true for keyword frequency (closely related to keyword density even if the official definition is a little different) "Optimization" means getting customers, not getting hits. If you’re really interested in improving SEO, here’s how to do it:
- Write worthwhile content
Build shared references
- Write relevant metadata
Alt text for graphics
- Write clean code
<p>Call to action closing paragraphs</p>
Close “if” and “while” statements
- Get listed:
And in closing…
There’s a lot more to say about the subject, but this should kick-start your "writing for the web" process. Other sources include:
FatDUX bibliography and key links
Very good writing guide from MIT
Excellent links and initiatives from Yale University
Jakob Nielsen’s slightly outdated “Writing for the web”
Sun Microsystems web-writing guide
Books I like
Letting Go of the Words
(Morgan Kaufmann, 2007)
Web Word Wizardry
(Ten Speed Press, 2002)
Web Copy That Sells
Hot Text: web writing that works
Jonathan and Lisa Price
(New Riders, 2002)
Call to Action
Bryan & Jeffrey Eisenberg ( with Lisa T. Davis)
(Nelson Business, 2006)
The Internet Writer’s Handbook
(Allyn & Bacon, 1999)
On Writing Well
The Elements of Style
William Strunk & E.B. White
Content Strategy for the Web
(New Riders, 2009)
Don’t Make Me Think!
(New Riders, 2006)
Blatant commercial plug
I conduct “Writing for the Web” workshops for companies and organizations throughout Europe. These are custom-designed for your own in-house team and can be half- or full-day events, depending on your needs. These generally run from EUR 3,000 to EUR 6,000 plus travel and per diem. Although there are no limitations to the number of participants, 25 per session is a good maximum number. But three to four participants is also fine as there is more time for individual coaching. If you're interested, contact me directly at: er (at) fatdux.com.
In the meantime, I hope you'll follow my ramblings on Twitter: @elreiss.