Imagine you’ve been asked to create an e-commerce site for a small company. The company wants to keep things simple – product descriptions, company history, contact info, purchasing options. The company owner asks you this:
What was your answer? One page? Maybe two at the most? The company wants to keep it simple, so … yeah, keep it to a page, right?
Turns out you probably want at least five. Why that’s the case is an important lesson for anyone involved in communication, not just UX/IA folks.
Small wins – big insights
The issue here is a concept called “small wins.” Credit for this insight goes to a great podcast of Social Triggers owner Derek Halpern interviewing Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. “Small wins” is a relatively new psychological concept and an important one in understanding how to change habits. Rather than attempting wholesale behavioral shifts, you break down actions to small, manageable chunks – building on your “small wins” to reverse a bad habit. Conversely, “small losses” can lead to a larger sense of discouragement.
Halpern and Duhigg were riffing on how all this works when Halpern mentioned that maybe Amazon’s check-out process is built upon “small wins” – they make it fairly painless to complete the order. Duhigg agreed, and they moved on to another topic.
Consider the experience of a badly constructed order page. You fill in the answers, push enter and the page flashes in red type: “Incomplete – provide phone number.” You put in your phone number, hit enter again and get another red-type message: “Incomplete – passwords do not match.” You keep thinking you’re done and yet you’re stuck on the same page. You’re building up a series of small losses and you’re getting frustrated.
Amazon (and those who’ve followed its lead) breaks the order process into several pages. You provide only a few pieces of information on each page. Each time you successfully complete a page, you get a small win to keep you on track. Go ahead and try it now – you can stop before you complete a purchase.
Writing to create small wins
The concept of developing five or more pages to order something sounds complicated, but it results in a simpler, more encouraging experience for customers. The concept of a single order page sounds simple, but it results in a customer experience that can feel unnecessarily complex – even if there are no differences in total actions taken by the customer. It’s all about framing the issue.
What matters is how simple it feels to your customer in using it, not how simple it is for you to create. That’s the rub about keeping things simple – it can take a lot more work than you’d think.
For writers, here are a few ideas about creating small wins for readers in your writing:
Don’t be self-indulgent – It might feel good to champion yourself or your company, but more often than not you either bore or annoy your readers. Focus instead on how you can solve your customers’ problems. Beyond that, avoid the self-indulgence of lazy writing, like wordiness and irrelevant details. Work hard so your reader doesn’t have to.
Create contrast – A lot of companies play it so safe that they file off anything that remotely suggests a person wrote the copy. It’s competent, but flat and dull with the predictability of a widely used stock photo. Reading it feels like a series of small losses. Create wins by doing something different than what the reader is expecting. Chris Brogan and Julien Smith in their excellent The Impact Equation provide a great explanation of how to stand apart from others without going so far that you lose them.
Use analogies and metaphors – You help a reader grasp your subject more quickly by referring to something they already understand – like, say, the Amazon order process. (Okay, maybe that veered a bit into self-congratulatory territory. Sorry.)
Use humor (caution: only for funny people)– A laugh feels like a small win for paying attention to what is said or written. Comics like Steven Wright (“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time”) and George Carlin (“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?”) built entire careers on twisting ordinary phrases in ways that delighted their audiences. In 2013, a lot of potential customers appreciate a company or individual not afraid to gently mock conventionality. But humor looks simpler than it is. Test it out with a wide group first to make sure your copy is heading in the direction of Wright or Carlin, not Carrot Top or Dane Cook.
Just the facts, please – Hard as it is for some creative types to accept, much of the copy in marketing communications should do no more and no less than help people execute transactions. Anything more is just slowing them down and annoying them. Read Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words to master this skill.
Give it to a non-writer – When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a writer, everything looks like an opportunity for copy. It’s not. Graphics, illustrations, photos, tables, video, audio, games – all of these communications platforms provide small wins for users when their advantages trump those of copy. Accept it. Better yet, advocate for it and show your commitment to making your customers happy.