Writing Site Copy Sensibly With Design Usability Concepts (Part I)

My technical knowledge, relative to the amazing developers I work with, is limited. This limitation doesn’t forsake my responsibility for producing, managing, and editing our content, as well as discussing what we do. The number of times I’ve opened a Slack conversation with, “Hi, it’s Idiot Hour,” and barraged one of my coworkers with a dozen questions (that, to them, must have obvious answers) is innumerable. While there are no shortcuts that will get me on par with the folks I work with, arming myself with a little more knowledge makes me better at my job. Scott recommended Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think (Revisited). I immediately ordered it on Amazon. As I read through the book, I realized that while this book applied these concepts to design, a lot of them apply to writing site copy, too.

Let’s take a look.

Steve Krug defines something usable as:

“A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.”

Throughout the book, he gives examples of the different ways design plays into usability, and how there are certain standards that people have come to expect, as well as insight into the way users tend to seek information.

Krug’s book touches on writing site copy, because it’s impossible to talk about design without talking about copy.

The two are inextricably connected:

Without good design, your good copy (and content!) is lost.

Without good copy (and content), your good design will be all style, sans substance.

We’re going to define usable site copy as the following, based on Krug’s definition:

A person of average (or even below average) understanding of your industry/product can figure out what you are talking about and what you are offering without it being more trouble than it’s worth.

What is defined as more trouble than it is worth?

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, wrote an article in 2014 that offered some insight about the ways in which readers really behave. He said:

“Chartbeat looked at deep user behavior across 2 billion visits across the web over the course of a month and found that most people who click don’t read. In fact, a stunning 55% spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page. The stats get a little better if you filter purely for article pages, but even then one in every three visitors spend less than 15 seconds reading articles they land on. The media world is currently in a frenzy about click fraud, they should be even more worried about the large percentage of the audience who aren’t reading what they think they’re reading.”

Fifteen seconds is about right–maybe thirty, in this scenario, if the user is really determined. That means your copy, when presented by strategic and attractive design, needs to effectively communicate your brand, services, and more–in fifteen seconds or less.

Writing Site Copy for Your Homepage

Krug says that your homepage design needs to help answer the four immediate questions he has when he visits your site for the first time:

  • What is this?
  • What can I do here?
  • What do they have here?
  • Why should I be here–and not somewhere else?

The same principles applies to your homepage site copy. If a user cannot go to your website and know the basics of what you/your company do within less than twenty seconds, your copy is doing you no favors.

We often see this in the tech and web development industry, where buzzwords reign supreme over straightforward copy that actually communicates your services effectively.

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The above example is slightly exaggerated, but how often have you clicked away from a website while wondering, “What the hell do these people do?”

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Since I’ve written a fair amount of copy, I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot. People want to come up with something catchy and important. They forget that it needs to be decipherable to someone who is completely unfamiliar with what they’re offering.

Know your audience–and assume strategically

While you want to be as clear as possible, site copy is typically brief. A wall of text may be further explanation, but it doesn’t help your customer understand–at a glance–what you’re about. Before writing site copy, you have to figure out who is coming to your site–and what they already know.

Let’s use the WebDevStudios homepage as an example:

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We’ve essentially answered all of Krug’s questions–but without stating the obvious.

You’ll notice that the words “web development” or “web design” are nowhere to be found on our homepage. And yet, we’ve still effectively communicated who we are and what we do. How?

Since WordPress powers 25% of the web (a statistic so many of us have heard by now!), we take a gamble and assume that people at least vaguely know what WordPress is and what it does. Even if they aren’t familiar with its full capabilities, it’s clear that we use WordPress (and more) to help enterprise companies improve their online presence. We provide enough information for the user to get a general idea, even if all of their questions remain unanswered.

Your homepage doesn’t need to answer every question, but it does need to provide a quick, high level explanation of what you do.

How do you know what you can assume?

This is a great opportunity to tap into your social circle and/or family. Grab your grandmother or a peer in a completely different industry, and ask them a few questions regarding what they know.

You have a few options:

Do a quick and easy usability test.

Krug gives explicit instructions in the book on conducting inexpensive, straightforward usability tests. In the age of the internet and remote work, you no longer have to rally randos to come to an office to conduct them, and it’s easier than ever before. It only requires a few people–fewer than most people think!

Here are a few resources on conducting usability tests, both remotely and otherwise:

Usability tests are generally focused on design, but they will deliver good information about the site copy, too. Site design and site copy, when done right, powerfully communicate your brand’s values and company’s services. Plus, they hook your audience–and make them want to see and understand more.

Conduct interviews.

Start with finding out who these people are–the demographic information does matter.

If I interviewed my grandmother (who is a shrewd, brilliant woman, but not the most technically tapped in) and interviewed a friend (who is the same age as myself, but a total Luddite), I’d get different, but equally valuable responses. Even though they both lack a fundamental technical understanding of what we do at WDS, their knowledge about WordPress, day-to-day technology, and more, will be different. While they may still be completely outside of this realm, they’re going to have access to different kinds of information that can help me figure out if the copy makes sense.

If I were still using WDS as an example, I might start with questions like:

  • Do you know what WordPress is?
  • What do you think it is?
  • What is web development?
  • What is web design?
  • Do you have a website?
  • Have you ever tried to build a website?
  • Do you have a blog?
  • Do you know what a blog is?

If I were creating copy for a massage therapy studio, I might start with questions like:

  • Have you received a massage before?
  • How would you define “holistic healthcare?”
  • What kind of massage techniques are you familiar with?
  • What’s most important to you when looking for a massage therapist?
  • What kind of experiences have you had with massage?

“These people aren’t my clients, so who cares what they know?”

Sometimes there’s pushback against this approach; people think that they only want to interview those who qualify as their target demographic. They assume that their target demo has a more qualified base of knowledge than someone else. It may be true, but misses the point of this entire exercise.

You’re testing to see if your site copy is comprehensible

If my grandmother doesn’t know what WordPress is, I’m not going to lobby to have a comprehensive definition added above the fold on the homepage. I want to make sure she can get a general idea of what we do–even if that requires providing context. If she gets the idea, then I know I’m getting somewhere.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t interview your target demographic, too; knowing who they are and what they know is extremely valuable information when it comes to creating a marketing and branding strategy. However, it’s not the only–or even the best–way to test the coherency of your site copy.

The above strategies will tell you what kind of common knowledge you’re dealing with–and that’s how you can determine what you can assume and which minute details you can leave out.

Something that aids me in editing our team blog posts is that my knowledge is adjacent to theirs. By being out of their bubble, I can quickly spot things that aren’t explained fully enough. Someone in the bubble may miss those things; they bridge the unclear spaces with their own advanced knowledge.

Effective writing doesn’t force the reader to fill in the gaps with their own guesses. It demands greater clarity than that.

It’s worth the effort!

If you apply the fundamental concepts of usability to your copy, just as you do to your design, you’re going to reap the benefits. Making your site clear only helps you reel in your customers–and keep them looking for more information. Hook ’em instead of driving them away!

Stay tuned for part two! We’ll talk about why you want to write site copy for the least informed person in your audience, and more.

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