Let Me Be Clear: Take Time with Your Words

Erin Anderson

Writing error messages and instructional text isn’t exactly a sexy undertaking. Which is part of the reason it often gets left to the last minute.

Here’s an example of why that’s a really bad idea. I recently encountered this screen while reviewing my domain name renewal information:

I spent about two minutes here (which was about a minute and 45 seconds too long) trying to decipher the phrase “Bad username and/or password.” Because although I definitely had an account with the company, I couldn’t recall whether I’d previously activated my online customer service profile.

So I wasn’t clear on whether A) this was the place to create a username/password for that account and my entry wasn’t strong enough, or B) the username/password I entered simply didn’t match what I’d used to create the account.

Furthermore, I couldn’t tell whether the culprit was my username or my password, thanks to the clear-as-mud “and/or.”

Your users don’t notice your content unless it’s not working.

When you don’t take the time to carefully craft these seemingly dull and insignificant pieces of content, you end up with vague instructions and dead-end words like “bad.” And before long, you’ve got customers like me who are ready to jump ship.

On the other hand, when this kind of supporting copy is carefully planned for and constructed, it disappears completely into the experience. Your users don’t even notice it’s there. And that’s a good thing.

Remember: Your users expect perfection online. Or close to it, anyway. Why? Because nobody’s there in person or on the phone to guide them as questions arise. Which means your content has to anticipate those questions and provide answers at every turn. Make sure you’re always one step ahead with clear, actionable copy.

So, make your content work harder.

If this all sounds like a big job, well, it is. Writers agonize over stuff like error messages, links, and headlines every day. Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for writing killer instructional copy. Finding the right words depends on factors such as your audience, your business goals, your user needs, and your brand voice.

If you don’t have access to the kinds of metrics or processes that provide concrete insights, you can still cover many of your bases by asking yourself:

  • What questions does our current copy raise as users are trying to complete a particular task?
  • What are the implications of changing this word or deleting this phrase?
  • In how many different ways could this message be interpreted?
  • How can we minimize ambiguity?
  • How can we simplify or streamline?
  • Would a graphic be more helpful here than a word or sentence?

Even without tangible data to back up your changes, you’ll catch many of those careless copy oversights that frustrate your users and undermine business goals.