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Clear, Concise, Consistent: Reducing User Confusion

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In this session, Rhonda identifies common writing problems and offer practical strategies for fixing them. She emphasizes how achieving the ‘three Cs’—clarity, conciseness, and consistency—can reduce user confusion and result in user success, and, as a bonus, reduce word count and thus reading time, translation costs, and the cost of consumables, if printed.

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Clear, Concise, Consistent: Reducing User Confusion

  1. 1. CLEAR, CONCISE, CONSISTENT: Reducing User Confusion Rhonda BraceyWritersUA Conference March 2014
  2. 2. Why bother? Company reputation March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 2 From Twitter, approx. 5 Feb 2014
  3. 3. Why bother? Company reputation March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 3  User assistance is now very much part of the purchasing process (traditionally it was part of the support process after purchase) From Twitter, approx. 8 Nov 2013
  4. 4. Why bother? Company reputation March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 4 From http://realbusiness.co.uk/article/24623-poor-grammar-on-websites-scares-59-away (12 Nov 2013)
  5. 5. Common UI/UA issues March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 5 Inconsistent/incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation Unclear/verbose/potentially misunderstood user prompts/error messages Illogical/inconsistent task flows Inconsistently labeled buttons, icons, fields, screens/dialog boxes Inconsistently placed buttons, icons, fields, screens/dialog boxes Unnecessary tasks, fields, screens/dialog boxes Inconsistencies between screens/dialog boxes (Adapted from: http://writeorrevisedaily.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/add-value-to-gui-design/)
  6. 6. Three Cs of communication March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 6 Clear Concise Consistent Reduce CONFUSION
  7. 7. Takeaways:  Be specific  Avoid vague, wishy-washy words  Use commas to remove ambiguity  Use plain language Be clear March 2014 7 © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd
  8. 8. Be clear… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 8 Terminology (avoid vague words like ‘it’, ‘this’, ’they’, etc.) Punctuation(use the serial [Oxford] comma to remove ambiguity) Structure(write lists as dot points, numbered steps; word order) Object/subject (who is doing what to whom?) Plain language (how would you explain to a spouse/parent/child) Dates/times (avoid relative words; be specific)
  9. 9. Be specific March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 9  What’s wrong with these words?:  it, they, their  this, these  These words are meaningless unless it’s absolutely clear what ‘it’ etc. refers to  The bomb is connected to a red and to a blue wire. Cut it to defuse it.  Other vague words to avoid:  Quite, mostly, slightly, sort of, somewhat, pretty (e.g. ‘pretty hard to tighten’ vs ‘hard to tighten’)
  10. 10. Ban relativity! March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 10  What’s wrong with these words?:  Currently, recently, now, yesterday, today, tomorrow  Last/this/next week/month/year  New, modern  Five years ago, two decades ago, last century  These words are meaningless unless you know what date is used as the anchor point  Watch for season names if your readers aren’t local See also: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/dating/
  11. 11. Use commas to remove ambiguity March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 11  Add commas if there’s ANY chance the items could be read as one and thus misinterpreted  e.g. ‘red, white, black and blue’ versus ‘red, white, black, and blue’
  12. 12. Use commas… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 12  …to separate items that shouldn’t be treated together
  13. 13. How commas can change meaning March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 13  No commas:  This initial workshop identified the work scopes and phasing generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].  Single comma added (after ‘work scopes’):  This initial workshop identified the work scopes, and phasing generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].  Multiple commas added:  This initial workshop identified the work scopes and phasing, generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes, and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].
  14. 14. About grammar ‘rules’ March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 14 ‘...language is fluid. …there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied.’ From Rich Adin: http://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/ faux-controversies-and-the-singular-plural/
  15. 15. Takeaways:  Get rid of words that don’t add meaning (‘empty calories’)  Use plain language  Switch words around Be concise March 2014 15 © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd
  16. 16. Be concise… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 16 Remove all unnecessary words Remove all repetitive/redundant words Switch the words around Use plain, simple language But: Clarity (‘be specific’) trumps brevity (‘be concise’)
  17. 17. Tighten up! Before After Comments …in close proximity to… …close to… …near… (even better, be specific about the distance) • Proximity is a synonym for nearness, so ‘close proximity’ is redundant. Use the simpler ‘close to’ or ‘near’, which are also easier for readers to understand. • These terms are very fuzzy. Does close proximity/ close to/near mean 10”, 10 yards, or 10 miles? If you can, be specific as to the distance. The major systems … are summarised below: The major systems … are: • Often, ‘summarised below’ (and ‘the following’) can be deleted from an intro to a bullet list without affecting meaning. March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 17 (From: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/tighten-up-your-writing-by-removing-redundantunnecessary-words/)
  18. 18. Tighten up… and use plain language Before After on an annual basis annually (or yearly) can be in excess of ten years can exceed ten years in the event of … occurring if … occurs in order to to that is able to can March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 18  BONUS! Reduced word/character count  reduced printing, editing, and/or translation costs  Before = 23 words / 98 characters  After = 8 words / 43 characters
  19. 19. Switch words around March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 19  Avoid ‘however’, ‘therefore’, ‘thus’ etc. in the middle of a verb phrase:  ABC are however found…  However, ABC are found…  XYZ is therefore cancelled.  Therefore, XYZ is cancelled.  Keep phrases close to what they belong to; shift phrases that may be misinterpreted:  The University increased English language proficiency entry requirements across all competency categories commencing in 2013.  Commencing in 2013, the University increased English language proficiency entry requirements across all competency categories.
  20. 20. Before and after March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 20 BeforeAfter
  21. 21. Before and after March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 21 Before After
  22. 22. Takeaways:  A consistent document/interface (words, structure, formatting) is easier to read  Use style guides to help maintain consistency— you can’t remember everything all the time  Keep lists parallel Be consistent March 2014 22 © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd
  23. 23. Be consistent in your use of… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 23 Terminology (use dictionaries, internal/external style guides etc.; use the same word for the same thing—EVERY time) Tense (past, present, future) Voice (active/passive; 1st/2nd/3rd person) Structure (e.g. parallel structure for lists) Punctuation (e.g. for lists) Formats (e.g. dates/times, measurement/currency units) Capitalization
  24. 24. Inconsistency = User ‘frustration and irritation’ March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 24 “When *behaviour+ is inconsistent and erratic, it is difficult to know what to expect, and occasional positive surprises are not enough to overcome the frustration and irritation caused by never knowing quite what to expect.” Donald A Norman Emotional Design: Why we love (and hate) everyday things (2007)
  25. 25. External style guides March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 25  Document standard conventions used in your country, industry etc.  spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation  adherence to legal requirements (e.g. copyright, trademarks)  design consistency (e.g. typography, layout)  Include dictionaries and other reference authorities  Don’t reinvent the wheel!
  26. 26. External style guides: Examples March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 26  General:  Chicago Manual of Style  Specific:  Microsoft Manual of Style  Society of Petroleum Engineers: Style Guide
  27. 27. Internal style guides March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 27  Document decisions that:  differ from your main external style guide  are unique to your product/company  Document product- /company-specific terminology:  e.g. NetForms, Netforms, Net Forms, Net forms…  Help maintain consistency of spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, etc.  Detail treatment of specific types of elements:  e.g. user-entered data, field names, tap versus click
  28. 28. Internal style guide: Example March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 28  Share your style guide with all your team, not just the writers
  29. 29. Internal style guide: Example March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 29
  30. 30. Keep lists parallel March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 30  Non-parallel lists are harder to read  Verbs as first words in the list are either all ‘-ing’ words or not, but rarely (or never) a mixture  Watch for plural agreement  Check that the first words of each list item match: Before:  Photo organization  Adjusting photos  How do you print a picture?  How to apply an effect to a photo After:  Organizing photos  Adjusting photos  Printing  Applying effects
  31. 31. Examples March 2014 31 © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd
  32. 32. March 2014 Clear AND concise © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 32  High-level steps to show user progress  Words AND simple diagrams  Related info in Note  Next action is clear  Lots of white space
  33. 33. Be clear March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 33 Issues:  Sentence structure (readability)
  34. 34. Be clear AND concise March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 34 Issues:  Sentence structure  Unintelligible (what action must user take next?)  Excess words
  35. 35. Be consistent March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 35 Issues:  Confusing instructions (‘or’ v ‘and’)  Impossible action (‘hit’) (from Jack Molisani, Nov 2013)
  36. 36. Be consistent AND clear AND concise March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 36 Issues:  Inconsistent use of capitalization  Excess words (readability)
  37. 37. Don’t forget screenshots/diagrams March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 37
  38. 38. Use clear diagrams March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 38
  39. 39. Use clear labeling March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 39
  40. 40. Four hours later…. March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 40
  41. 41. And then there’s this… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 41
  42. 42. Helpful resources March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 42  Writing/editing tips, techniques, and checklists: http://www.jeanweber.com/newsite/?page_id=5  http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsugges tions/index.cfm  http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/free-guides.html  Achtelig, Marc. Writing plain instructions. ISBN 978-3943860085  Kohl, John R. The Global English Style Guide. ISBN 978-1599946573
  43. 43. The final word… March 2014© CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd 43 From Twitter, approx. 5 Feb 2014 So make sure your content is clear, concise, and consistent.
  44. 44. Any questions? Contact me:  rhonda.bracey@cybertext.com.au  http://www.cybertext.com.au  Blog: http://cybertext.wordpress.com  Twitter: @cybertext Thank you… March 2014 44 © CyberText Consulting Pty Ltd

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