I'm working on a large, complex web project that--as seems to be the rule--is driven by "the visual experience." Before I joined the project, a huge amount of work had already been generated: spreadsheets, wireframes, design comps. Very little had been said or written about the writing, which nevertheless is a large piece of the puzzle. (Almost the entire existing website must be rewritten.) Instead, I hear repeatedly that "we don't want a lot of words," "we'll design it first and just flow the copy in later," and "we want more charts and graphs, less writing!" I also hear the imagery and design called "the creative"--creative here is a standalone noun--while the writing is called "the text."
The audience for the site? Without violating any confidences, I'll simply say it's highly educated and hungry for information.
This, as the King of Siam said, is a puzzlement.
Now, I tend to harbor the predictable biases on this subject, so I was delighted to stumble upon a well-reasoned defense of web writing written by a self-described "pixel person," San Francisco-based designer Derek Powazek, on the extremely worthwhile blog A List Apart ("for people who make websites"). To my surprise and delight, Derek recommends that designers learn to write. "When it comes to experience on the web," he says, "there’s no better way to create it than to write, and write well." Well, golly!
Let’s look at everybody’s favorite example of Doing it Right: Flickr. Ask a bunch of people what they think of their experience at Flickr and they’ll use words like “fun” and “friendly” to describe it.
Why? There’s nothing uniquely fun about black text on a white background. There’s nothing friendly about uploading and tagging, no matter how many whiz-bang AJAX tricks you use. Sure, the photographic content lends itself to a personal experience. But nobody ever talked about how much fun Ofoto was. And the community-oriented social networking features lend themselves to an emotional experience, but I think there’s something more going on here.
I say: It’s the writing. The friendliness comes from good old fashioned text. When you visit the site, it welcomes you with a random language. Hola! Salut! Shalom! When you log in, the button says “Get in there” instead of “Submit.” When you upload a photo, join a group, add a contact…all of the associated text is open, encouraging, happy, and excited. And it has a significant impact on the overall user experience.
"Happy, excited" writing can't entirely overcome poor site architecture and ugly design. But a website doesn't stand a chance of reaching its goals without strong writing. Unfortunately, people who create websites often forget that while websites are indeed experiential, corporate websites are rarely if ever "visual experiences," nor should they be. As Derek Powazek makes clear, they are informational experiences, and the lingua franca of information is still, well, lingua: language.
People who design corporate websites often forget that people who use websites are readers. They must read. Many of them even like to read. So let's give them something to reassure them of our intelligence (and our respect for theirs). Let's give them something that expresses our appreciation for their business. Let's give them great writing.
More on the importance of writing tomorrow.