Today I finished “Writing is Designing” by Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle, published by the design publisher Rosenfeld Media. It’s a light read chocked-full of great information on writing for applications.

One of the most difficult parts of designing is the writing aspect. Should this button say “Submit” or “Go?” Metts and Welfle teach us that words in the design are just as much important as the designs themselves. Broken up into eight digestible chapters, the two go over topics using examples from both their own work and well respected designers in the industry.

  1. How Words Shape Experiences
  2. Strategy and Research
  3. Creating Clarity
  4. Errors and Stress Cases
  5. Inclusivity and Accessibility
  6. Voice
  7. Tone
  8. Collaboration and Consistency

I’ll provide a brief overview of each section and some of the key points.

The first chapter is an introductory/ teaching the reader how writing is also a way of designing as well. We learn how important words can mean, with examples showing how empty and uninformative an application can be if all the words were stripped away. A big highlight was how informative and helpful less words can be than more words. Instead of describing to the user where to find the information that they’re looking for, simply provide a link to that location. Another thing to keep in mind (to be thinking about all the time, really) is whe is using the application and how it is helping the user reach the business’s goals. Stating legal terms may be understood by lawyers, but to everyone else plain text free of jargon is more enlightening.

The second chapter focuses on getting the rest of the team involved in creating importance to the words that are written. One of the “Mad Lib” strategies used to help determine what needs to be done to accomplish business goals is the phrase “We will provide [user types] with [user needs] so they can [value provided to user]. This will help (application) [business benefit]. It might take a while to pin the exact wording down, but having each member of the production team give this statement, reveals what each other’s priorities are for the project. Just like designing for visual components, research and usability testing needs to be done for textual components. Testing with users reveals problems with communication that you may not have realized, and helps improve the functionality of the system. 

Chapter 3 involves understanding who you’re writing for and what kind of tone they understand. Some of the most important topics are one of Nielsen Norman Group’s Usability Heuristics: “Recognition over Recall.” By not requiring the user to remember a large amount of key information, you are lightening the load and making the system more accessible. This starts going into the level of preciseness you have to be in describing actions to the user. One example is the problem with Metts’ chat bot application, where it would greet the user and describe what it could do, but people were too casual with its interactions and only said “Hi” to it. This chapter also walked the reader through the process of removing waste and jargon from their writing to create something concise and plain. 

In chapter 4 we learn the mindset of users when errors happen. More often than not, when users run into a problem they blame themselves. With this blaming they are more pressured to get something correct and if that doesn’t happen, they could quit the application in frustration. It’s always important to question the emails surrounding the experience of the text: “Why does this scenario exist? What happens before this? What’s causing the error?” The authors encourage us to ask while designing response and error messages. There are three different tactics the authors give to handle error messages

  • Avoid – Find ways to direct the user from never receiving an error
  • Explain – Explain to your users what the problem is
  • Resolve – Give ways the user can solve the problem

Chapter 5 (what I think is one of the most important chapters), dives into inclusivity and accessibility. We’ve all had moments in designing where we think something is a good design because we base the user on our own abilities. “Questioning your own assumptions and learning about the needs of others is critical as technology takes over so much of our lives.” We are just one of many sets that may use the application we’re designing for, so judging our own skills is not the proper way of designing. It’s important to understand the backgrounds of users. Sexuality and gender can be a struggle for some as they fill out forms. These types of things aren’t black and white. When collecting information it’s important to describe WHY the application is collecting it, that way the user can provide the correct data for what is necessary. It’s important to design the layout of information appropriately to make it more accessible. By providing the specifications, for example on a password, then misunderstanding won’t arise because the rules will be spoken first for a screen reader.

Chapter 6 covered the idea of brand and product identity, and deciding which way to structure the dialect to fit one or the other. We learned about voice attributes and how we can use them to keep consistency, especially when working with a team of writers. A good way to decide on the voices the writing should take on is listing “This, not That” examples. Provide a way the voice should be written, then say an extreme version of what it shouldn’t be. The voice of your dialog should always be changing and improving, as technology is always developing.

Chapter 7 describes tone better and how it differs from voice. “Voice is the personality that your brand, or product, or digital interface manifests, which sets it apart from others. Tone is the way that voice is expressed in certain contexts,” the authors explain. Tone can switch between different scenarios that the user is in. The example in the book describes how Geico can be light and fun with its gecko mascot talking about car insurance, but the app’s tone switches to a plain and straightforward text where the user is in trouble and needs a tow. It’s important to not assume how the user is feeling at the time of experiencing your application. A great way to explore how to improve the tone is to do an audit to understand the full experience the user would have with the product.

In the final chapter, Metts and Welfle explain how important it is to include the members of your team, and how you can get others involved in the design process. First of all is to figure out your own process, solidify it, then be confident as you explain to others how you can benefit the team. It may take some convincing, as the design of words aren’t as important to everyone. Providing and receiving critique is important, and the authors describe different ways of being able to receive constructive feedback from everyone. For you and other designers to all be on the same page, style guides and outlines might need to be created and followed. Being able to find reusable chunks is important in standardizing the application and making production more efficient.

In summary “Writing is Designing” is a great little book about knowing what to write at the right time, no matter if you’re a writer or not.

Find the book on Amazon ->

Metts, Michael J., and Andy Welfle. Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience. Rosenfeld Media, 2020.