11 November 2011

Who writes the words? A rant with graphs.

If you read my rant, you’ll know that I’m getting a bit of a bee in my bonnet about user interface text. But rather than just yelling about the way the world should be (short version: no UI text would suck), it seemed prudent to actually gather some data. Rachel Potts has made an excellent first foray, by conducting a series of interviews across organizations about how they write user interface text.

You can read Rachel’s write up here.

She presents the facts as she found them, and doesn’t editorialise. The result is insightful, but impartial isn’t really my style. So here’s a rant with graphs.

My method, and how it sucked

I sent out a short survey. Survey design is one of my hobby-horses, and since some smartarse in the comments will mention it if I don’t, I’ll step up and confess: I did not design this one well. It was potentially ambiguous, implicitly excluded people, and since I only really advertised it on Twitter and a couple of mailing lists the sample will be chock full of biases.

Regardless, these were the questions:

  1. What do you do? Select the option that best describes your role
  2. What kind of software does your organization make? (optional)
  3. In your organization, who writes the text on your software user interfaces? (for example: button names, static text, tooltips, and so on) Tick all that apply.
  4. In your organization who is responsible for user interface text? Who “owns” it?

The most glaring issue (apart from question 3 being a bit broken) was that I didn’t make it clear that I was asking about applications. Desktop, mobile, or web, I wouldn’t have minded. In fact, it might have been interesting to categorize and compare. But a few respondents commented on the seeming lack of relevance, since they didn’t really make software. There were some other issues too. It wasn’t the best survey. So, you know, pinch of salt time with what follows.

Despite this, there were 100 or so respondents. This post covers the overview, and you can look at the raw data in this spreadsheet

What did people do?

Boring graph number one:

survey-role.png

I wasn’t expecting that. Given I pimped the survey on twitter and a couple of Tech Comms discussion lists, I was more banking on and even Content Strategy/Tech Comms split.

What the “Others” specified:

  • Three people chipped in with Technical Writer. Author, apparently, doesn’t cut it. There’s a “nobody reads the instructions” joke in there somewhere, I’m sure.
  • There were a couple of hybrid roles, including Tech Comms and Testing, which sounds gruelling and thankless.
  • There was also, an Intranet Manager, a Creative Director, a Consultant, a CTO, an Information Architect, and a Translator.

That’s a pretty healthy slice through the industry.

Who wrote UI text?

Boring graph number two:

survey-writes.png

Annoyingly, I made this a “tick all that apply” question, so I can’t make crude and inflammatory generalizations about percentages. This is more about who gets involved in user interface wording. So don’t panic about the number of developers writing UI text. First off, it just means they’re involved. Second, they might be good at it.

What? It could happen. Ours are involved – they write a placeholder and flag it to me for changes. Sometimes I don’t make any.

It’s also not surprising that there’s so much UX in the mix. Some of that will be people taking care, and crafting an understandable interface. Some of it will be whatever text goes on the wireframe making it into production. I’m going to assume that’s what happened at eBay, when their iPhone app purportedly shipped with the placeholder text “Some crappy content goes here”. Ahem.

Listing all 17 “other” responses would make this post lengthy indeed, but you can read them in the raw data spreadsheet. The award for the approach that sounds the most like a good idea yet carries the highest risk of ending badly goes to whoever offered up “External agencies using focus groups”.

If you’re reading this, and that actually works, leave a comment. I’m fascinated.

Who owned UI text

Stop. Bar chart time:

survey-owns.png

Wow. Let’s cut to the chase, and by “chase”, I mean those inflammatory generalizations I was talking about:

In around 60% of cases the person responsible for user interface text probably lacks the relevant expertise.

Even in the categories I count as being likely to have relevant skills (Marketing Copywriters, Content Strategists, Technical Authors, and User Experience Designers) there’s a case for each role being unsuited, as you’ll see in Rachel’s blog post So it’s not as simple as my headline.

Does that mean that you personally, Mr Developer reading this, write bad button names? Of course not. I know nothing about you. It rather implies that as a category, the majority of people looking after UI text have neither communication nor user experience as their primary skill set, and as such will probably only be good at this by happy accident. I don’t have a way of measuring those frequency of those accidents.

What the Others specified:

  • I don’t know who owns it. I assume the project manager is responsible.
  • “copywriters” when they wish to annoy me.
  • the client’s web maintenance person, often PR or MarComm

That last one chills me to the bone. Still, at least nobody said “the work experience kid”. You can see the rest in the spreadsheet.

My overwhelming impression here is of user interface text as an unloved afterthought. There were fewer “nobody” responses than I expected, and a much broader split. But the relative predominance of developers owning and writing UI text suggests to me that organizations don’t see it as something worth dedicating attention to. If true, that’s bothersome. Because the words on the screen, particularly the names of things, are fundamental to the ability to understand an use software.

It’s also fascinating that Technical Authors and Content Strategists are neck and neck. For such a nascent discipline, Content Strategy appears to have made a mark on software development. Or my sample is skewed. But it feels like a bit of validation for my rant: Content Strategy is eating Tech Comms’ lunch. That’s not a bad thing. Well, not if the UI text is getting done well.

And that’s the caveat to this whole post. I couldn’t care less who writes UI text, provided they consider the user and don’t suck at it. I care that it may be falling by default to people poorly disposed to doing it right. And I care about that because so much user interface text sucks.

The most interesting question

Was one I forgot to ask. It’s this: Does your organization have technical authors/writers?

Like a lot of survey data, that doesn’t tell you much on its own. But once we get a bit dimensional, it become more interesting. So taken with the other questions, this would have let me find out what I really want to know:

  • What proportion of organizations have Tech Comms professionals but don’t use them for UI text?
  • Who writes UI text in their place?
  • Why this happens?

It’s possible (feasible is another matter) that hundreds of companies have tech authors who don’t work on user interfaces because they’ve empirically discovered that someone else, say the Marketing Copywriter, is better at it. And once we’ve all finished laughing, I’ll point out that I’ve met plenty of tech authors who just aren’t used to thinking about users at the point of need in the way UI text and embedded user assistance require.

If you’ve got what I regard, perhaps unfairly, as the bad kind of tech author – the old-school kind with the thousand-page pdf and the grammar obsession – if you’ve got one of those then you probably are better off getting the UX folk or the copywriters to do your UI text. At the very least, they’ll derive terminology from user research.

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Roger is a Technical Author at Red Gate, currently working on SQL Compare 8. He also enjoys literary modernism, RPGs and beer festivals.

View all articles by Roger Hart