Friday, March 02, 2012

Customer Rightness Dept.

Ahem. Well, it has, again, been unconscionably long since my last post. A case of feast/famine, either I was too busy to have time for blogging or, as of late, not busy at all, hence having little in the way of au courant topics to put down. The latter situation is because I left my job as user-experience writer at Microsoft. A fascinating story in itself no doubt but of little pertinence to UI text in particular.

Anyway, I have now gotten the ball rolling as a “consultant,” that dreaded and vague term known to all refugees from the world of corporate enslavement. And now at last I seem to have attained that optimum state where I have just barely enough work to provide me with blogfodder – there’s a neologism for ye – (although let’s not talk about “income” shall we?) and still plenty of time on my hands (metaphorically red-ink-smeared as they may be) to actually “reify it” “in print,” if I may use those hoity-toity terms.

My first foray into gun-for-hire “content consulting” (also don’t get me started on the notion of “content”) has dosed me with water perhaps not icy, but enough to cool my usually hot user-experience jets. I was asked to write – well, create, shall we say – web content for a local budding entrepreneur. Oh boy, I thought – UI text, my meat and taters!

Now, I’m pretty generous in my definition of what UI text is. In this case, the “web page content” was not articles, but more or less marketing hype (bane of my existence). But at least there wasn’t much of it. It was in fact brief enough that it served essentially as explanatory or informational text, much the way a block of text in a dialog box or splash screen might detail the purpose and functionality of an app, or what to expect from a set of options. In this case the site users were similarly being told what this company was going to do for them, what expectations to have when calling the number.

My client said the three pages needed to be based closely on the pages of a competitor’s site, so there was just as much if not more editing than writing involved. When I looked at the other site, it was plain to see a couple of things: first off, English was not the first language of that site’s writer, and second, he or she had had certain ideas about how to use SEO. Basically their plan was, the more you use a key phrase, the better, in terms of getting your page viewed by the maximum number of punters.

I’ll say right now that I’m no SEO expert. (I’m assuming there a still a few people on the planet who don’t know that stands for “search engine optimization.”) But a quick Google informed me that the old notion of stuffing your website with keywords was not effective. The latest search algorithms are more sophisticated. So I plunged ahead following my better instincts, trimmed out the triple redundancies, improved the grammar and spelling, and rewrote to avoid plagiarism.

I wound up with three concise, friendly, informative pages. The trifecta of UI text, as far as I’m concerned. What I’ve been trained for ten years to regard as the Holy Grail of User Experience. While proudly showing my client my draft I also pointed out the well known truth that people simply do not read big blocks of web text. No one visiting his site would have to unnecessarily wade through long gray paragraphs, reading and rereading ungainly, empty phrases in an attempt to weed out some crumbs of actual information.

Unfortunately my client was sad.

He liked the other company’s site. He protested that its text was fine: it was a very successful company, so obviously the text was fine. And obviously their repetitive SEO technique in particular was fine, because, presto, those sites popped to the top of his Google searches! (I wondered if the fact that he had repeatedly looked at those sites before contributed to their prominence now, and whether someone searching for the same terms cold would get the same results. SEO experts, feel free to chime in.)

My client was not a native English speaker himself, so while acquiescing to the idea of good spelling and grammar, he had no compunction about downplaying the niceties information design, let alone good literary style.

It was a classic case of “the customer is always right.” So I gave him what he wanted, reinserted the redundant phrases, put the duplicate boldfaced headings back in. I still reworded wherever I could so at least any reader who happens to have common sense and an ear for our language won’t be totally turned off by what might otherwise seem to be a hack job.

I’m reminded of my query some while ago – to what extent the quality of a site (in terms of language) does or does not reflect the quality of their work to a viewer. Not everyone knows English or cares. Depends on the business I suppose. I’m also reminded of a joke my father used to tell about contextual grammar. If you’re being chased by a bear and come upon your friend’s cabin, you beat on the door – when your friend calls “Who’s there?” you’ll probably yell “It’s me, it’s me!” rather than “It is I, it is I!” And that’s OK, as long as he opens the door.

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