How we write
The way we write at N Brown is separate to our individual brand identities.
It is for everyone in the organisation, and it applies to all the writing we do, inside and out.
The words we put on screen and paper are one of the most important ways we have of showing people what we stand for. Every word adds up to people’s perception of who we are.
And if the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or technical stuff.
# Core principles
# Reading age
The average reading age for the UK public is nine. This doesn’t mean that we are writing our content for nine-year olds, but we are writing copy that can be understood by anyone with that reading ability.
You can use tools like Hemingway App to check whether your content is readable. Just copy and paste into the window and it’ll produce a report.
# Write directly to your reader
Refer to us as ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘us’, and the reader as ‘you’. If you can’t use the first person, make sure the ‘who’ is always clear.
# Start with what matters to readers
Don’t begin a sentence or piece of copy explaining why we’ve done something, or the legislation behind a concept (e.g. when letting a customer know they’re in persistent debt). Instead, lead with what the reader needs to know or the action a reader must take.
Any legal ‘need to knows’ or niche examples can go down the bottom of the page or be linked to.
# Be clear about who’s doing what (active vs passive voice)
Rather than saying ‘A decision has been made to suspend your credit account’. Say ‘We’ve decided to suspend your credit account’ (so you can pay it off).
Instead of ‘An item you have ordered has been delayed’. Say ‘We can’t send your item yet’.
# Write with empathy
Content related to our credit products can often cause anxiety and may be reaching people in a vulnerable state. Use empathy and offer (or signpost to) help where possible.
# Use inclusive language
While accepted in daily life, try to avoid using ‘guys’ to refer to a mixed gender group. Instead use ‘folks’ or ‘everyone’ or similar.
Our brands are heavily tailored to gender. But when communicating directly with customers, be aware that they may have a preferred pronoun or may prefer not to use a title.
# UX writing
While the way we write should be consistent across all channels, there are some specific rules for writing for the web and user interfaces (UI) such as My Account.
# Avoid showing all details up front
Sometimes it might be helpful to provide additional information to users. But all too often such details are presented upfront. Too much information can quickly overwhelm users.
Instead you can reveal detail as needed. Use progressive disclosure to show more details. In the most basic form, you can use a ‘Read more’ link to the full content.
# Make the copy consistent
Inconsistency creates confusion. One typical example of inconsistency is replacing a word with a synonym in a different part of the UI. For instance, if you decide to call the process of arranging something “Scheduling” in one part of UI do not call it a “Booking” in other parts of your UI.
Another common pitfall is combining forms of address. Don’t refer to the user in both the second person and the first person within the same phrase.
- Change your preferences in Your Account
- Change your preferences in My Account
# Avoid long blocks of text
When using a product, users aren’t immersed in the user interface itself but in their work. Users don’t read UI text — they scan it. Help them scan the text by writing it in short, scannable blocks.
Chunk text into shorter sentences and paragraphs. Use bullets and subheadings to separate out your content. Keep the most important text up front and then ruthlessly edit what comes after it.
Write short and then cut it into half.
# Avoid jargon
One of the significant characteristics of effective UX writing is clarity and simplicity. For clarity, you need to remove the technical terms and use familiar, understandable words and phrases instead. It’s especially important to avoid jargon in error messages.
- Sign-in error: You entered an incorrect password
- System error (code #2234): An authentication error has occurred
# Write in present tense
Avoid using the future tense to describe the action.
- Video downloaded
- Video has been downloaded
# Be careful when using humour
A lot of designers say that incorporating humour in UI makes it sound more human. But like any other component of UI, humour should be well thought out.
People are likely to read the text in your interface many times, and what might seem clever at first can become irritating over time (especially if you use humour in error messages). Also, remember that humour in one culture doesn’t necessarily translate well to other cultures.
# Identify interactive elements appropriately
Users don’t like surprises. They hate situations when they’re expecting one thing and end up with another. People should be able to tell at a glance what an element does.
Choose labels that clearly communicate and differentiate what the object does.
When labelling buttons and other interactive elements, use action verbs, like ‘Connect,’ ‘Send,’ ‘Subscribe’ instead of vague ‘Okay’ or ‘Submit.’
# Use language that’s consistent with the user’s platform
The terms we use when describing interaction with a desktop app do not necessarily apply to mobile platforms. For example, if you design an iPhone app, we can’t say ‘click’ when referring to the action. We need to say ‘tap’ instead.
# Use ‘today,’ ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ instead of a date
People don’t use the date when they refer to the day before the present day. They say ‘yesterday.’
The same principle can be applied to UIs. Instead of giving a date, say ‘today,’ ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow.’ It prevents users from using the calendar each time they want to know when the event happened. But remember that these terms can be confusing or inaccurate if you don’t account for the current locale.
# Use graphics if they will help you communicate
Human beings are incredibly visual creatures. An ability to interpreting visual information is hard-wired into our brains. In some context, it might be nearly impossible to say something in words. That’s where imagery can support us and make text comprehensible. Below is an example which helps users to find specific information.
# Grammar and structure
‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’
-- Blaise Pascal, French philosopher and mathematician.
Good content is short, and writing simply for our customers might mean we need to adjust the words we use, or spend a little longer refining what we want to say using less words.
For example, you can often make your language more concise and efficient by questioning the use of each word in a phrase.
- Log in to comment
- You must log in before you can write a comment
# Write using plan English
|Latin / Formal||Anglo-Saxon / Plain English|
|In order to||To|
# Use Ronseal headings (‘does exactly what it says on the tin’)
Headings help the reader scan your content, so break up your copy with headings and subheadings. Try to summarise the essence of what you’re trying to say in one line, then save the detail for the copy below.
# Use contractions
We write how people speak. So use contractions like ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’.
# Start sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘because’
Feel free to break up long sentences by starting new ones with words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘because’ and ‘so’.
# Avoid double negatives
Double negatives make content difficult to read.
# Use specific verbs whenever possible
Specific verbs (such as connect or save) are more meaningful to users than generic ones (such as configure or manage).
# Use verbs rather than nouns
- Hermes will deliver your parcel.
- We’ll review your credit application.
- Hermes are responsible for the delivery of your parcel.
- Our financial services team will carry out a review of your application for credit.
# Use numerals
Use numerals in place of words for numbers.
- You have 2 missed calls.
- You have two missed calls.
Large lists of bullets are no easier to read than big blocks of text. So try to:
- keep them under six per list
- make sure they’re related to each other
- and consistent in style.
Unless each bullet is a sentence, only use a full stop on the final bullet and keep everything lowercase.