Writing about people

User experience design should always start with the user needs. However when we think of people as users we often forget they are, in fact, people. People with challenges, distractions and feelings. How you choose to address the “user” is crucial to the conversational and human-approach of your content. It also defines how they then interact and engage with your product.

Usually your service requires the user to actually do things - so most of the time you can refer to them as “you”. This is quite consistent across a number of companies and product teams:

This works well because you're directly communicating to the person using the service. This engages them and they know exactly who 'you' is, so there's no confusion. It's like a person is instructing or helping them. This develops trust, which is exactly what you want.

Of course, 'you' won't always make sense. If you want to emphasise the user's ownership you'll use 'I', for example, “I accept the terms and conditions”. It's also worth remembering 'you' can be too forward and even considered offensive, such as “You entered the wrong password”. We should avoid blaming the user at all times. If the language you use directs blame at them then you'll lose their confidence and trust.

However, you're not always going to be able to use second and first person. You might be writing about people, rather than directly to them. Everyone is different and there's numerous reasons you could be talking about people or their circumstances, but most importantly, your writing should be inclusive.

Inclusive writing

Part of making your content accessible means making the language you use inclusive. When you're trying to build trust through a digital service the last thing you want is to cause offense and lose their trust. One area that can be difficult is writing about disability. However, if you can define your voice, and get user research with disabled people and those with accessibility needs, then you can approach this thoughtfully. For example, GDS recommend “the word 'disabled' is a description not a group of people” so use 'disabled people' not 'the disabled'. They also recommend that you use positive language, not negative. This means avoiding phrases like:

These say little about individuals and can reinforce stereotypes, so don't use them. For example, with wheelchair users don't say “confined to a wheelchair”. It's better to say they use, or are aided by a wheelchair rather than trapped by it.

It's also important to make sure your tone of voice is normal and you don't talk down or patronise the audience. The easiest way to do this is to address disabled people the same way you would everyone else.

Of course, with disabilities and even gender, sexuality and age there's no need to reference it unless it's absolutely relevant. For instance if there's a need to reference gender, with so many options, it can be quite daunting. But if you don't need to be specific there's easy ways to avoid offence. One way is to use the word 'they' - it's acceptable as a singular pronoun. However, if you're in doubt when writing about a particular person use the pronoun they prefer (if you know it).

Another example is when writing about age. Again, you shouldn't need to unless absolutely necessary. If it's necessary don't use age-related descriptors, such as:

For some journalists it's often encouraged they use decades as well, such as BuzzFeed who suggest “Spell out decades ("in your thirties") and variations ("The twentysomethings…")”.

Writing inclusively is hugely important. As we learn more we can develop better writing techniques to improve and stop any misunderstandings and stop any implications of inferiority. This study on inclusive writing from the University of Leicester has some good examples of academics and educators taking this seriously within their own writing. It also includes some helpful principles and tips we can all use.

In summary

When writing for anyone the most important thing to consider is whether the information you're including, or asking for is absolutely necessary. This helps keep your content short and concise, but also clear. Getting rid of unnecessary information means less for the user to read, and less to distract from the main point you're trying to make. This is a fundamental aspect of readability.

You also want to avoid offending or alienating your readers. Your content is the first thing they see when using digital products and is the first step to gaining their trust. Without their trust you won't see continued usage and it can even bring your business' reputation into question.

Crucially you want those using your product to feel like the human beings they are and not treated as faceless users or arbitrary numbers. In return they'll engage with your product more, knowing there's humans behind it.


This article was originally published on Prototypr on 20 June 2017.