Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

When adulation backfires

One rule that marketers find hard to grasp is that online, people prefer objective writing to hype. We don't just dislike 'boastful subjective claims': we read it more slowly and understand less. In Nielsen and Morkes' classic study, just removing hype improved usability by 24 per cent.

Last week hype on paper hit me with the same effect. I was surprised at how tetchy I got, and how a bit of hype ruined a novel for me.

The novel was Arlington Park by Rachel Cusic. The hype was on the front cover:

'It's the best-written book I've read since Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.' Helen Dunmore.

This quote immediately got up my nose and caused me to waste quite a lot of time:

  • Best-written? In what sense?
  • Best-written? Should that have a hyphen?
  • Who says? Who are you, anyway? Google Helen Dunmore.
  • You mean over-written? Let me check.
  • You mean hypersensitive neurotic prose? Don't like the sound of this.
  • How dare you compare this writer with Ishiguro?

Well, I began reading regardless, as you do. But I kept being distracted by that recommendation, picking at it like a scab. (I haven't read Never Let me Go but am fond of Remains of the Day.) And my final exasperation with the book was directly linked to poor Helen Dunmore. I eventually cared about Ishiguro's butler very much, but I wanted to give all the characters in Arlington Park a good shake.

I suspect I would have enjoyed this book had Helen Dunmore not commanded me to admire it. Her subjective accolade had the opposite effect. It sure made an OK novel less 'usable'!

How Users Read on the Web


Grrrumpy-making forms

Yesterday I sent an email to my mobile phone company, and they asked me to provide my street address. My street address? Why? I had already provided my email address and cellphone number. I was startled, annoyed, and suspicious.

I felt like a foreign tourist in rural China, where it's common (I'm told) for local police to request a copy of your passport. They like to keep tabs on foreigners and track their movements. Westerners tend to find this offensive, even scary.

OK, the cellphone company had me over a barrel because I wanted a reply to my email. But take a look at the form. Isn't that weird? Seriously stupid? Figure how you would complete it.

Yet it's not exactly hard to request an address in a form: just find one good example and copy it. Presumably the content writer tried to improve on the tried and true system of asking for the street number and name first, then suburb, then town or city, then postal code, then country if relevant.

And why on earth have a drop-down menu for the street type? A person who is capable of writing "Main" is surely also capable of writing "Street".

This bad, bad form from a major company reminds us:

  • never ask for unnecessary personal information in a form
  • don't try to be too clever for your clogs
  • test every form for usability.

Use relevant, authentic photos or none

Eyetracking maps show there is a certain type of image that people literally do not see on a web page. It is amazing to realise that images can be totally ignored by a sample of 30 people in the entire time they spend looking at a page. A selective blindness strikes virtually all viewers.

Continue Reading >