Making Content More Usable for both Designers and the End User

by Steph Hay

This article is based on a podcast recording from Steph Hay and Adam Churchill. The recording took place after Steph’s UIE Virtual Seminar, Writing Content for Usability. You can hear the full podcast or read the transcript on the UIE web site.

Adam: Is there a difference between Marketing Content and Usable Content?

Steph: Yes. In short, marketing is the content creation and testing process itself and usable is the outcome of that process. In fact, I should have explained this in my seminar because I now realize that some of the practitioners who attended understand “marketing” as home page content and “usability”, to them, means button content or call to action, which I’d argue is too compartmentalized to sustain.

As a reminder from the seminar, I mentioned those four characteristics of compelling content, meaningful, helpful, result oriented, and confident.

Even if you’re just working on a back end, for example UI or writing on a technical document, you still have to have some forward face on 99.9 percent of the cases. That forward face tends to be a home page or a landing page. Compelling content intrigues a user to do something. Unfortunately, a common problem is that content isn’t written by someone whose interacted with the end user.

That person writes blindly based on what she considers to be interesting rather than by using the kind of language and truly substantive content that I think the end user needs. This is really at the core of content that’s usable. People who read marketing content that’s well written, they get it because they think you, as the person behind that, you get them and you’ve already found what sorts of messages they prefer.

Let me use a case study for example. FastCustomer is a mobile app that allows you to never have to wait on hold again for customer service. Most people get it. They don’t need to be convinced that they should have this product. They download it.

The user pushes the button that says “Have them call you”. It’s language that is explicit and came from the user. They didn’t have a hard time understanding that someone at a company was going to call them if they pressed that button. But then, we quickly added the response language ourselves and the response language was “Call in Progress” which, during usability testing, was making people literally lift the phone to their ears. What we were trying to convey is that you can close this app any time and you’ll receive a call from the company.

So here’s an example of a marketing hook using the user’s language to get an action that we wanted the user to take and that the user wanted to take, but then the response that we wrote out of our own developer minds caused confusion and therefore it really wasn’t usable.

Adam: What tools or exercises do you recommend for copywriters and designers to help them work together in creating design and copy?

Steph: I can only speak from my own personal experience here. I start with a text file, just a plain text file. I’ve definitely had clients send me comps, mockups of their new site design, and say here’s where we’re at, we need things for this and that. Frankly, I just tend to ignore them.

I have to think about the user, so I typically start with a text file. I create the content in a text file based on conversations with the client and with end users. I then hand it to the designer and the designer really builds the site around that. Once I hand it to the designer and some comps come back, I might make a few UI/UX suggestions in the notations as part of the content.

Otherwise, I leave it entirely up to the UX designer to create wire frames around the content itself. In all cases so far, the designer has really loved this process. It’s liberated that person from having to think about the content because it’s already there and that’s what’s ultimately speaking to the user. It’s created a structure and a process around the most important stuff to be communicated without requiring the visuals to lead back to it.

Once I see the wire frames, then, in every case, I’ve revised the content. I’m actually not thinking about UX in this case. I’m just revising content based on the structure. It could be a little tighter here and there or it’s missing something here and there. On a few pages, the designer has suggested different content, which is awesome, so it’s very back and forth and collaborative in that way.

Because the content can’t exist as vibrantly on its own, it evolves with the design and vice versa. It ends up being a much more enjoyable process and then a much more powerful outcome, too.

About the Author

Stephanie Hay leads Capital One’s content strategy team and weekly design sessions for 160 people across 10 locations. She’s a resident mentor at 500 Startups, co-founder of FastCustomer, and co-organizer of the DC Lean Startup Circle.

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