Put your user up a tree. Then give them a ladder.
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” — Vladimir Nabokov
As a fiction writer, I’ve spent a lot of time throwing rocks at characters. There’s nothing more fun than putting them in a messy situation and then figuring out how they should get out of it.
I never thought I’d be doing nearly the same thing in UX Writing.
UX Writing is all about figuring out what the user might do wrong and then how they might react. What does the user do once they’re up a tree? If they can’t get down, what do they do once the rocks start catapulting over the branches?
That’s the job of the UX Writer: find the fastest and most efficient way for them to figure out how to get down that tree and avoid the rocks coming for them.
And let me tell you: it is unbelievably fun.
Start with the Tree
How do users end up in the tree in the first place? Maybe they misunderstood a button and clicked something that took them somewhere completely different than they were expecting. Maybe they forgot their password and don’t see an option to easily recover it. Maybe they just got lost in the app.
I like to start by thinking about what users might do accidentally that takes them in the wrong direction. Then I analyze: how can I get them back down from the tree ASAP? And how can I keep the rock-throwing at bay?
As a UX Writer, you must identify the tree. You must identify all the rocks and the speed at which they fly. Find out what it is, then fix it. Or show your user how they can.
Give them a Ladder
I like to find the fastest, easiest way to give them a ladder with the least number of rungs. How can they get back to the ground without taking so many steps that they get frustrated with the process of doing so?
The user likely won’t make it down without mis-stepping a few times. They will miss a rung and shout a four-letter-word when they find themselves falling onto another branch. Once on that new branch, a new rock may come flying. As a UX Writer, the next step is to move the ladder so they can see it from their new vantage point. Only two rungs to get down! You can do this!
Check Their Battle Scars
Did your user just go through a long sign-up process full of pages with high cognitive loads only to see that they must do something else now, too? Your user can’t take more bruises yet, so keep the rocks at bay. Get them out of the tree and firmly onto the ground before they tackle anything else that could leave a bump.
And, if they did go through hell and high water to get to the end of that process, throw them a party. Toss some confetti in the air. Pop the champagne. Send them $5 of bitcoin.
That Wasn’t So Bad, Right?
I’ve discovered that I often think the user can handle more than they’re willing to. This is a new product they’re trying out, so they should have tons of skepticism and uncertainty when starting out. I know I do whenever I crack into a new product.
I learned this first-hand when I was acquiring users for a new, market-disrupting app. I watched as users consistently dropped off halfway through the signup process. Frustrated, I initially thought there was something wrong with my marketing strategy or customer service tactics. What I learned after doing more research was that the UX had been designed by the app development team with very minimal input from anyone else. I fought tooth and nail to get certain changes made, but as a new intern, it was difficult to get my voice heard. This experience sparked my interest in UX writing.
Now, when I’m approaching a new project, I like to cut the number of buttons, pop-ups, and instructions in half of what I would have initially thought would be a good amount for the user. Because the thing is, I don’t like dealing with anything complex and long when I’m starting out on a new app. So I don’t want to put my user through that, either.
Don’t Freak Your User Out When They’re Up a Tree — They Might Be Scared of Heights
Another thing I’ve learned is that, once your user realizes exactly how high they are up that tree (or, how bad the issue is that they’ve tangled themselves up in) it’s your job to not freak them out. Red, scary error messages are necessary in some instances but are no fun — so make sure your user can see how to find their way back down without wobbling along the way.
Nearly nothing in an app is irreversible. So don’t make your user think they’ve made a grave mistake when they haven’t.
How Big Is Your Forest?
Once your user is down and safely back on the ground, maneuvering through the product with ease, how likely are they to end up at the top of another tree? What’s lurking around the next corner? Is there an open meadow for them to meander through, or are they just going to get stuck up another tree and feel sad about it?
I love running through forests in real life, but in product life, I prefer my trees short and sparsely planted. I don’t want the user getting stuck in anything that could cause them to abandon the product. I look for every tree and rock around and find ways to eliminate them.
Because who wants to be stuck up a tree?