It’s only words and words are all I have…

Our neighborhood has been experiencing water service interruptions for the past week.

These interruptions are also taking a toll on small businesses selling cooked meals and baked goods in the neighborhood.

For these businesses, water interruptions during the day could lead to longer times in preparing food and washing their cookware. There’s also the possibility of poor hygiene because of the lack of running water.

Meet the BODs

For a quick background, we have a homeowners’ association, and a new set of homeowner’s association officers are chosen each year. They call themselves BODs or Board of Directors.

Two days ago, one of the BODs (let’s call her BOD 1) lamented on the homeowners’ Facebook group that a couple of homeowners who are in the small food business are blaming the BODs for the “lack of action” to the water service interruption problem. She shared that it’s unfair for other homeowners to say that they’re not doing anything when they are working on a fix “behind the scenes”.

I commented on BOD 1’s post that her concern would likely be addressed if the BODs can provide regular updates about the problem on our Facebook group page.

Specifically, I suggested that the negativity and call-outs that we’ve been experiencing in our community can be avoided if they can give us an update of the problem’s progress, and a rough estimate of how long it would take for the people-in-charge to address the issue.

When homeowners are informed about what’s going on (and whether or not the people-in-charge are doing something about the problem), “grumpy” homeowners are less likely to call the BODs out and put the blame on them.

She sent me a message privately sharing that the BODs are too busy to post updates on our Facebook group.

Words (supossedly) to the rescue!

The lack of communication from our BODs (even from the old BODs) is an old problem as far as I can remember.

As a result, there has been an “invisible conflict” vibe between the BODs and the rest of the homeowners. You can read it between the lines of posts and comments on our Facebook Group.

A month ago, I sent a message to another BOD (let’s call her BOD 2) that I can help with this “lack of communication” as a word person.

Wearing my UX writer hat, I shared an “information dissemination template” and formula that the BODs can use whenever a problem arises in the neighborhood.

Apart from helping inform the neighborhood of ongoing problems, the formula will also benefit the BODs because it will:

  • save them time in writing problem-related announcements
  • avoid “grumpy homeowners” from calling them out about their supposed inaction

Here’s what the formula looks like:

  1. Acknowledge the problem.
  2.  Share what has been done so far to address the problem.
  3.  Provide a timeline of when the problem will (likely) be fixed.
  4. Ask for help. Brainstorm with the community.
  5. Inform the community on when they’ll hear back from you again (tomorrow the same day, two days later?) for an update of the issue.

And here’s the template I shared.

There are two versions (Cebuano and English) because I noticed that some of the homeowners are non-Filipinos, and you can’t really rely on Facebook’s translations.

Homeowners Community Information Dissemination Example (can be used as a template)

It seems like my suggestion about the template + formula fell on deaf ears.  Over Facebook chat, BOD 2 said thanks with a promise that she’s going to talk to the other BODs about my proposed template. No word from her until now.

I even told BOD 2 that I was open to suggestions if they want me to make changes to the template and formula.

just another homeowners association meme

Now, as you read earlier, BOD 1 was crying foul about grumpy homeowners in the neighborhood.  The homeowners’ reaction isn’t a surprise because the BODs aren’t correctly communicating the issue.

If the BODs would only realize how words can have a significant impact on how people in our community would perceive what they do as folks who are supposedly looking after our neighborhood’s welfare.

Words matter.

The same goes for brands, companies, and organizations who think that words are only words, and asks copywriters — can you write something catchy?

*Legend has it that Death takes a kitten’s life every time someone asks a copywriter, “can you write something catchy?”

Punctuation Marks Go to Therapy

I posted this on Twitter last year.

The idea was originally for a comic strip, but I can’t draw, so I wireframed it via Balsamiq.

punctuation marks go to therapy wireframe
Go ahead, click the image. 🙂

If I were one of the punctuation marks in the wireframe, I could relate the most to “The Question Mark”.

While I haven’t really experienced a panic attack (I’m not even sure what it feels like for those who have gone through the experience), I usually have these rare moments of existential dread. I’ve written about it here – Existential Dread at a Grocery Store.

Whenever I’m flooded with thoughts and feelings of questioning the meaning of life, I have a couple of “go-to quotes” that make me feel better.

The first quote is from a conversation between Dolores and Teddy of Westworld (TV series):

Dolores: You came back.

Teddy: Someone once told me that… there’s a path for everyone… and my path leads me back to you… only I’d run away when you first asked me to.
Dolores: “And where would we run to?” “Other world out there? Beyond?”

Some people see the ugliness in this world. I choose to see the beauty, but beauty is a lure. We’re trapped, Teddy. Lived our whole lives inside this garden, marveling at its beauty, not realizing there’s an order to it; a purpose. And the purpose is to keep us in. The beautiful trap is inside of us, because it is us.

The other quote is from Donna Tartt’s book The Secret History:

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Beautiful bits of literature, right?

And that (I guess) is why we have literature, fiction, poetry, art, and so on. It helps us make sense of the things around us. In short, it gives meaning to life. 😀

Your Users Need Closure: A UX Writing Mini Case Study

What do your exes, favorite Netflix show, and better UX have in common?

Closure. All of them need proper closure.

In 8 Rules to Design Better Interfaces, computer scientist Ben Shneiderman writes:

“Sequences of actions should be organized into groups with a beginning, middle, and end. Informative feedback at the completion of a group of actions gives users the satisfaction of accomplishment, a sense of relief, a signal to drop contingency plans from their minds, and an indicator to prepare for the next group of actions.

For example, e-commerce websites move users from selecting products to the checkout, ending with a clear confirmation page that completes the transaction.”

Lately, I’ve been doing some research on HMO providers in the country and I came across Maxicare’s website.

The website copy and user flow were both okay (from my perspective as the user, I don’t know with other types of users) but not really great. 

In fact, there was a little cognitive friction while I was filling out an application form for one of their plans. I almost called it quits prematurely because I had more questions about the package I chose, and I thought I need to do more research.

However, I decided to stick around and be more patient in filling out the form. cue in some Zen music…

After all the confusion and countless furrowed brows (hello forehead wrinkles!) while filling out the form, I eventually made it to the end.

Go ahead, click to enlarge image. Alma Moreno is my alter ego.

Whew! Finally, the sense of closure that I’ve been waiting for. Yet why do I still feel iffy and uncertain about it?

My initial thoughts after reading the page copy were:

a. Oh, so that was it?
b. What do you mean “check your email regularly”? What if user A’s version of “check your email regularly” is checking it 3x a day? What if user B’s version of “check your email regularly” is plowing through her inbox once a week?

Good UX writing: Simple, straightforward, and human

For UX consultant Mario Quintana, well-designed forms are scannable, conversational, provides closure, and gives certainty.

With these in mind, I’m putting my UX writing chops to the test by helping improve Maxicare’s form completion copy.

Here’s my version:

Go ahead, click to enlarge image.

Ultimately, performing more user research such as usability tests, contextual inquiries, and content testing can further help us find the right words and phrases in designing the application form.

As UX writer John Saito of Dropbox says — keep it simple, straightforward, and human. It doesn’t have to be catchy or clever (this is common practice in marketing, my heart breaks into a million pieces whenever someone says “just write something catchy!” ), but bonus points to you if you can make it simple, human, and clever at the same time.

Designing Meaningful Products and Services Using the Behavior-First-Design-Later Approach

 

Scrimp on user research now, pay a high price later.

Do you have a startup idea that you’ve been meaning to develop or thinking about adding a new type of service to implement?

If you’ve been doing the conventional way of developing new products and services, chances are you’re following this format:

  1. You make prototypes of your idea or create a blueprint of your supposedly new type of service.
  2. If you’re lucky and you have sufficient funds, you assemble your team of developers and creatives to help you make your idea into a tangible product or service.
  3. When your product or service blueprint is done and ready to implement, you cross your fingers and do every new marketing trick you’ve read about online to help spread the word about your new offering.

With this approach, you will likely end up with the following scenarios:

    • If your marketing team did a great job, you’ll end up luring new customers but it turns out that there’s nothing valuable or innovative about your new offerings. In the end, you end up losing these new customers.
    • No one understands your new products or services because you don’t know your prospects enough. You end up blaming the marketing or advertising team for doing a lousy job.
    • After noticing a lackluster response to your new product or service, you decided to do some market research to help you “market” to your prospects the right way. Your market research team gathers demographics data such as age, gender, location, etc.

Fun fact: All three scenarios are far from giving you lasting success when creating new products or services. In this approach, you’re putting user behavior as an afterthought instead of considering it front and center.

For instance, a local bank advertised that setting up a new bank account with them is super easy. I can even do it online! However, it turns out that when I (as a prospect) tried to sign up online for a new account using my mobile phone, their mobile website ended up telling me that I need to use Internet Explorer on desktop mode. I left their mobile site feeling that they’ve let me down. I decided to go for another bank instead.

Falling Short on UX Research

Although it looks like they’ve done their market research (one of their ads mentioned that this type of savings account is ideal for freelancers like me because linking my PayPal account is quick and easy), the bank fell short in terms of user research.

If they’ve done user research, they would have realized that their target prospects are more likely to use their smartphones or a different browser when signing up for an account online. Furthermore, they would have found out specific nuances and quirks in their prospect’s behavior when signing up for a new savings account.

When done right, user research can help create long-term success when introducing new products or adding more services.

Instead of following the traditional design-first-behavior-later model, how about giving the reverse a try?

The Behavior-First-Design-Later Model

Image courstesy of The Membership Puzzle Project

This model is the core of human-centered design. The team behind the Membership Puzzle Project calls it “behavior first, rules second” philosophy.

Many brands, companies, and organizations market themselves as purveyors and advocates of creating wonderful, meaningful (and who would even forget “delightful!”) user experiences these days. In reality, they don’t even prioritize hiring UX researchers and product designers in their teams. They put a lot of effort hiring programmers, visual designers, and marketers but the UX team takes the backseat.

In the behavior first, design later model, the bank would have done the following:

  1. Assemble a UX team composed of researchers, designers, and content strategists (or a UX writer). In some cases, a designer or writer can be a researcher at the same time or vice versa. It’s extremely rare to find one person who can do all of these aka the UX unicorn.
  2. The team will meet with stakeholders including teams from marketing, sales, and customer support to figure out the organization’s business goals or the current demand from existing customers. If it’s a new company, the UX team will conduct user research to validate your product or service idea.
  3. While doing UX research, the team will look for in-depth answers to the following questions (by the Membership Puzzle team):
  • Who are we designing for?
  • What do people what?
  • Can we actually make what they want?

Once you have the research findings laid out, you can proceed to the first step of the traditional model mentioned earlier: you make prototypes of your idea or create a blueprint of your supposedly new type of service.

Afterward, you can perform usability tests, reiterate when needed, and release your product or service into the wild. Rinse and repeat.

Besides increasing the likelihood of successful products and services, the behavior first, design later model can also potentially save you precious time and funds in the long run. Scrimp on user research now, pay a high price later.

Instead of offering a solution without knowing the specifics of the problem, the behavior-first-design-later model allows you and your team to design well-thought-out products and services that your users and customers actually need.

What I Mean When I Write “Nestled Within a Comma’s Curve”

Months ago, a curious stranger who stumbled upon my Twitter profile asked: what the heck do I mean when I write “nestled within a comma’s curve” as my whereabouts in this corner of the universe?

I began using the phrase around three years ago when I felt uncomfortable sharing my exact location on my social media profiles. Although there’s no doubt that Zuck and his minions can easily figure out my exact location through their sneaky algorithms or some ancient alchemy, it was at least comforting to think that I’m not giving my coordinates that easy. In hindsight, it gave me a false sense of privacy.

Privacy stuff aside, what am I hinting at when I say “nestled within a comma’s curve”?

1. Let’s start with the most obvious. A comma is a punctuation mark that you’ll end up wrangling with when you’re writing — from print ads to thousand-word essays to lengthy novels that you can’t seem to finish reading.

Whenever someone reads “nestled within a comma’s curve” and takes a pause for a second to think about what it means, my writerly heart jumps with glee! All the more when they’ll associate the phrase with writing, words, or any form of wizardry that involves putting letters together to tell a story. After all, it’s what I do for a living.

2. As for the not-so-obvious meaning, what comes to mind when you read the words nestled and curve?

Can you envision someone who’s sitting comfortably in one of those cozy lounge chairs?

If you can, hats off to you because it’s exactly one of the images that I want you to think about when I wrote that phrase!

As someone who scores high on the introversion scale, I’m perfectly okay with the idea of lounging cozily in a chair with a good book or listening patiently to a friend who’s sitting across me.

3. Finally, let’s take a look at its metaphorical meaning by considering one of the comma’s major roles in writing: to join two or more independent sentences.

With that said, I have this slight obsession with unifying contradictory opinions, ideas, or thoughts.

The idea of finding that one main thought or commonality that unites two or more opposing ideas sends me into a frenzied state of aha moments.

My reasons (particularly the last one) may sound too far-off to you, but there’s a certain sense of allure and artisty when making up new metaphors or symbolisms in language.

Do you feel the same way?