10 usability heuristics – and what they mean for copywriters

It's still very common to see areas of websites written in marketing bombast or technical robot-speak, even in 2013

 10 usability heuristics – and what they mean for copywriters

How Nielsen’s 10 core usability principles for interface design can guide copywriters – even after 2 decades…

We’re regular readers of Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox emails, which deliver the latest pearls of usability wisdom in a pull-no-punches tone of voice. (Memorable quote: “Web design disasters and HTML horrors are legion, though many usability atrocities are less common than they used to be”

Browsing back through the Alertbox archive, I came across the 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design. I thought it was especially pertinent for our work, and I bookmarked it. Then I noticed the post was dated 1995 – and that these rubrics had been created way back in 1990… when the World Wide Web itself was just one year old. 

Anything that’s stood the test of time this well deserves further attention – so here’s a run-down of Nielsen’s 10 rules, with notes from us on how you can apply them to your copy.

1. Visibility of system status

“The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.”

For copywriters: This is about feeding back to users when they’ve completed a process or attempted an interaction with your site – like an online purchase, registration for email marketing, or submitting responses to an online survey.

As well as confirming success or failure of the operation, good online copy should work to anticipate any concerns or questions users are likely to have about the interaction. Will we keep their data secure? How will we use their email address? Will there be a confirmation email sent to their inbox? Can they change their mind or ask a question?

2. Match between system and the real world

“The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.”

For copywriters: This one’s all about plain language. Using the vocabulary and language conventions of your intended audience should be an obvious one, but it’s still very common to see areas of websites written in marketing bombast (homepage) or technical robot-speak (error and system messages), even in 2013. Avoid proprietary and business-focused terms – and if you must use them, explain each one as clearly as if you were speaking to a 10 year old.

3. User control and freedom

“Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.”

For copywriters: Micro-content is a specialist skill, and good button copy, especially for trust-loaded scenarios like purchase or online banking, can make the difference between a happy user and a bewildered one who clicks off elsewhere in a hurry. If you’re writing copy for a process, make sure you have sight of error text, “back” and “close” buttons, and other parts of the interface that might not normally make it onto a copydeck.

This is also about link placement. If you’re writing online copy, you need to include links that will take users on to the next logical step of their journey – and to the previous step too, especially if you’re writing a page at the lowest level of a sitemap.

4. Consistency and standards

“Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.”

For copywriters: There’s a fine balance between brand tone of voice and, well, actually making sense. This relates to using plain language, especially for copy that supports practical user tasks like product research, online purchase and other types of conversion. Your business may have devised a wonderful online interface they’re proud to call the Interactive Options Chooser Ribbon, but to your uninitiated and un-invested user, it’s still just a menu of links, or at best, a nav bar.

5. Error prevention

“Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.”

For copywriters: Micro-content again. What’s the best way to prevent a user coming a cropper on your website? More often than not, it’s a simple, plain-language message that clarifies a potential confusion or supports users through a process.

The best way to write strong micro-content for online processes and tasks is to get involved in user testing. If you have this opportunity, you’ll see for yourself just how easily people get thrown off by ambiguous wording or non-intuitive design – often in ways you as a seasoned online professional could never predict. If you don’t have this luxury though, you can enlist a friend or colleague to attempt the process you’re writing copy around and tell you where they feel most bamboozled. Then write a message that points them in the right direction.

6. Recognition rather than recall

“Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.”

For copywriters: This is a reminder to keep messages in line with the processes users are trying to complete on your site. People read websites inattentively, quickly and with mistrust (often bordering on contempt). Focus on one step at a time, and never expect users to remember information between one step and another. Patiently and clearly spoon-feed them the information they need, baby step by baby step.

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

“Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.”

For copywriters: As a writer, you may not have much control over the interface and general design of a page or website, but the links within body copy are definitely your domain. Make sure you include links that anticipate the most likely user tasks and next steps. And if you can, take it a step further and include some less obvious ones too. If you’re writing a product page about garden sheds, for example, is it worth including a link to a weather forecast page too, so your user can find out whether this weekend’s a good time to put one up?

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

“Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.”

For copywriters: Put simply: don’t waffle. Noise kills conversions. Cut your copy. Then review it, and cut it again.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

“Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.”

For copywriters: If you can get your hands on the error messages for the site you’re working on, do. Then re-write them using plain language, stripping out or explaining any jargon terms, and including next steps or suggested fixes – never leave a user at a dead end. If you have to quiz the developers or site owners in order to get this “next step” information, do so, and ask them about system character limits for error messages while you’re about it. There’s no use writing an amazingly helpful error message only to have it cut off halfway through when it’s actually live.

10. Help and documentation

“Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.”

For copywriters: This advice applies to anyone who’s writing support and FAQ content. These areas of the site need to be extremely clear and free from jargon. Give each FAQ or support article a heading that anticipates a user’s way of describing their problem (think “screen won’t turn on” rather than “display settings and troubleshooting”).

Keep all marketing and corporate messaging at bay and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to any copy that isn’t immediately relevant to the user’s query. Step by step instructions work well, and numbered bullets can help users through complex processes. Diagrams are often of more value than copy here – but you can still make sure the labels are clear and written in user language (think “the big red button” rather than “the power-on switch”)