Copy and designers: The love/hate relationship

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Designers like me like to draw layouts. We love structure. We love plotting navigation and UX. However, when designing a website, we rarely pay attention to the copy that goes in the design until the very end of the process. This causes fonts to be awkward and verbiage to be… well awkward too. Awkward text is as detrimental to your design as an awkward image would be.

Plotting your text should be done as soon as you start plotting your layout. Sadly, most designers forget or avoid this.

You’re Ready to be Better than Most

You’re not satisfied to be like everyone else, instead you’re ready to be a professional right? Here’s how:

There are two types of text you need to be concerned with. One of them you’re likely to be giving the final product to your client, the other will usually be handled by a marketing writer.

The first is called microcopy, this is the text you see everywhere but hope you don’t notice. There are tags, micro instructions, button labels, the text in the drop down menus, confirmation dialog boxes, and special circumstance pages (like 404 pages). There is a lot of text included in microcopy, but you know you’ve done a good job if no one notices the text at all.

The second type of copy, the one which is less likely that you’ll be providing the final text for, is the marketing copy. You need to still write a sample text, so that you have an idea the space that is required. If you’re not comfortable writing it yourself from scratch, check with your client to be sure they will be bringing in a qualified writer. If they will, you’ll be able to copy paste some text from a competitor’s site. If they won’t, you’ll have to do your best.

Testing Your Copy Along with the Design

By now, you should know how to test your design. If you haven’t yet read our Usability Testing guide, you should. The major difference is, unlike usability testing, you’re testing everything, including the copy.

Remember with iterative testing to change one item or a group of items at a time. Try to stick to changing only copy or design elements and then retesting. Doing more than one item at a time would mean you may have solved the issue your testers had twice.

When working in design, especially when you’re writing the copy, you need to understand how to A/B test it. A/B testing is having 2 different designs or texts, and assigning 2 similar groups (but different individuals) use it and record the results. Then you take the best performing version of your design, using metrics you care about like people who ended up making a purchase.

Finally, editing the text requires a different mindset. Be sure to pay attention to the tone of your text. Find one that fits the product – you wouldn’t want a goofy silly text on a lawyer’s webpage – and stick to it. Read and reread your text, and pay attention to the type of words you pick. In addition to tone, you should be making sure your microcopy is written for your expected visitors. Avoid developer speak (do you remember those Windows 95 errors messages?) and make sure things are understandable.

Windows 95 microcopy example

Most users won’t understand what to do with this.

Copy isn’t Something to be Scared of

Marketing Copy and microcopy is something designers tend to not like to work on, but it’s as important as your choice of background colors. The users will be spending most of their time trying to understand the text and will be invisible when done right, whereas the design will be enjoyed when it’s perfectly designed. This makes copy the harder, less rewarding but equally as important aspect of designing a site.

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