Copywriting is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of user experience. Great writing helps with simplification. Advertising and marketing personnel are familiar with the effects of great copy, but it seems that this field is somewhat outside of the realm of user experience for most professionals. This is partly because writing is a skill that has so much to do with style and there is no “user experience style” of writing. Rather, great copy on UX websites are usually the work of marketing/advertising/luck.
I say luck because there are some user experience professionals who know how to write. There is a wealth of great writing on UX blogs (hopefully mine included), so it’s clear that there are writers in the UX community, but writing blog posts and writing great website/app copy are two different things. The job of copywriting will be increasingly important to user experience professionals in the future, and I wanted to take a moment today to talk about the past and present of advertising and what we can learn about how to write better texts for a better experience.
Although I hesitate often to use Apple as an example because it’s an overdone reference point, they have made a drastic change to their style of print advertising and I think they also represent larger changes in copywriting. Below are four examples. The examples are from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.
This advertisement is from 1979. It features a provocative image and a two-column block of text with one large headline and one smaller headline. In 1979, audiences may have taken more time to read the text, but today the text would fall to the way-side in favor of a distinct call-to-action (CTA). This ad is not effective in today’s market because it asks something of the reader (write us how you use your computer) and gives nothing back to the reader. The text is featured, rather than the product, and the user is lost in the equation. What do *I* get from this? A possibility to win prizes for free work? No thank you.
In 1983, Apple improved its advertising dramatically. It is still based on what *they* provide and not user-centered, but the product is featured instead of the text. The user is not featured here almost at all. Again, what do *I* get from this? A new computer? Well, I guess that’s great…but how does that help me? I already have a computer. It’s short, simple, and to-the-point, but it’s not focused on the reader. It doesn’t explain in any way how a reader might benefit from this new computer.
By 1997, Apple was on the right track. The Newton was a failure, but the ads were a step in the right direction.This advertisement is user-centered. It explains what the reader gets, rather than what Apple provides. This is a great step forward and it also reflects the changing culture. It should be noted, however, that this still includes a large amount of text. This is from 1997, and only a few years later, audiences would have no use for so much text; they could find the reviews online and read the fine print if they so chose.
Finally, this ad from 2011 is the kind of copy we’ve come to expect online. Product name, features, price, picture, done. It’s simple, to-the-point, and it includes all the relevant information (price may or may not be relevant, but here it is). What do *I* get? I get a thinner, lighter, faster, iPad with a long battery life. This ad is about *me*. I don’t have the time to read 1,000 words, I just want to know the most basic information and be done with it. This is what Apple was probably trying to do in the 1980s, but wasn’t able to truly iterate until recently.
Consumption has changed, and texts have changed with it. In the 1970s, writing was journalistic. In the 1980s, writing was about merging journalism with television. In the 1990s, we found a combination of both, and today we have consumption in it’s most brutalistic form– What do I get?
User-centered text is based on what the user gets not what the company provides. Simplicity is based partly on word count. If you can’t tell me in a few short words what you’re selling me, then I’m not interested. The iPad2 advertisement hits these benchmarks for great writing. It tells me what I get in short, staccato. That’s the hallmark of great copywriting for today’s internet, and hopefully user experience designers take note.