Liveblogging a presentation at An Event Apart San Francisco by Jeffrey Zeldman

ERIC MEYER: In the back channels, we call him King Z. Ladies and gentlemen, Jeffrey Zeldman.

ZELDMAN: “Writing the user interface” may seem paradoxical. I remember learning the elements of hypertext – the font tag, the i tag, how to excite user interest by using animated GIFs. But something seemed to be left out: Text (shows slide with “hypertext” in hairline font except for “text”). We don’t spend very much time writing.

What we know about the Web: Content drives traffic. Freshness counts more than looks; constant change is an important part of what we know. (Shows Technorati.) (Takes lots of swipes at Boing Boing.) There was a guy with a drill on top of that, and a lot of Suicide Girls ads. Still the number-one-rated Web site. Why? Because they had very good content, and they constantly refreshed it – faster than you could read it, and faster than Robert Scoble could write.

Language is the main interface on both sites. (Shows Flickr. Even the navigation is words. Also “click here to add a description.”) Yet in spite of its reliance on words, a very popular choice. Word choice seems to be very important.

(Slides: This is why all sites [especially big ones] have a content czar and really big writing/editing sites.) Please raise your hands if you have a large writing budget and a copy czar. Both of you – congratulations.

So what are we to do (for everybody else), and maybe if we’re not writers? How many people are writers? One: That’s awesome. None of you work on sites that don’t have so much content on them, right? Not really content-rich sites? Sites not really designed for users? Right. So if your site is supposed to attract humans to do something, and they’re supposed to interact with language in some way, what can you do? What can you do if you’re not a writer and the stuff they hand you sucks?

(Slide: Design helps people read less.) One of the things I find very striking in Ellen Lupton’s book is design helps people read less. While it is a myth that nobody reads on the Web – otherwise what are people doing, feeling it? “I haven’t felt Yahoo yet this morning” – one of the main functions of design is to less people read less. If you go to the New York Times and you’re interested in sports and not interested in the fact that a nuclear warhead was just detonated in a large American city, you can skip right to the sports section.

But when people read less, every word counts. Right?

Copy is the easiest and often cheapest thing to fix. Usually the CMS is a costly thing to fix. Switching from .Net to PHP to Ruby is difficult. But improving the copy is usually not that hard. Nobody ever said “I have a problem reading your copy in IE.” It’s just a fact. Cheap because most writers work cheap. I know writers that try not to get paid. A writer will fix something because it’s so badly broken it hurts them to look at it; they just want to make it better.

All copy is a brand opportunity. Bury writing in usability and research budgets, because that’s what they are.

Guide copy: I don’t know if that’s really what it’s called. I don’t know if anyone else calls it that, but then again, I never hear anybody else talking about copy on the Web. Even the writers don’t; they just go drinking when they’re done. It’s orientation copy. Clear, brief, audience- and brand-appropriate. (Shows Blogger signup.)

Think of what different blogging brands mean. WordPress is kind of for geeks who like to tinker with PHP. Standardistas, alpha geeks. Movable Type: Also for geeks, but more designery. Blogger: Not as capable as those two, but it’s for everyone.

(Shows Flont at Veer, Times Select. Latter has editorial and guide copy.) The soul of guide copy is brevity. (Says Times Select really needed a link to the signup page. And he gave that presentation to the design director of the Times twice, and nothing happened. Except they cancelled Times Select.)

Sometimes the copy has to be neutral and letting the design do the work. Sometimes appropriate can mean not inappropriate. (Showed a tween site with rather bland guide copy. Also repetitive.)

Is this audience-appropriate copy? (“Understanding your Medicare benefits: You must have Flash installed and JavaScript enabled.”) The fastest-growing group of bloggers is over 50, so don’t laugh. (Shows Basecamp. “Please log in first and then we’ll send you right along.”) It’s like they’re snapping a towel at you as you go into the shower. Maybe it’s not that friendly, but it’s informal. They’re conveying this is a very easy-to-use product to manage a very hard job.

(Shows Joyent. Asks for an explanation from the audience about what they do. Hosting, virtualization of servers, WordPress.) Most of the copy we see just says “Click here to find out more about our services,” but this one doesn’t. (“It really is that simple. Take a look and we’ll prove it.”) They chose instead to make a brand opportunity for themselves. It’s the same as the colour scheme and illustration they picked. It’s friendly and informal but businesslike.

(Shows Flickr page for selecting a buddy icon.) Not condescending, not dumbed down. Every Web app wants to be easy to use. There were plenty of photography applications on the Web already. Flickr is different in several ways. The other ones are inward-facing and developer-driven: You upload stuff and send a mail to your friends with the password. Here you upload stuff and you tag it so people can find it. You make friends with people you don’t know. You aren’t doing it for business reasons, so it’s not threatening. They’re not hitting you up for a job referral or anything; they’re meeting you because you both like to take pictures of waterbugs or whatever. The language has to be friendly. But some of the stuff is pretty complicated (moving a picture from one set to another). You’d probably have to pull out a book to do it on the desktop. They make it pretty seamless when it works, a combination of really good engineering and good copywriting.

Copy copy is brand-appropriate. We know people don’t look at our homepage, so we out our ads for T-shirts on the homepage so people wouldn’t think we were being (whores). We didn’t want to be too commercial about it. We have this tiny little ad that nobody sees on the one page we know nobody looks at.

(Too tired to continue scribing.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.10.04 19:53. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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