January 18, 2013 - Comments Off on The Ogilvy memo and how copy is user experience

The Ogilvy memo and how copy is user experience


David Ogilvy
 – erstwhile Englishman in New York, proto-Mad Man and founder of Ogilvy and Mather – wrote a memo to his Madison Avenue advertising employees in 1982 on the subject of writing.

Ogilvy – the man who wrote famous lines of copy about what could be heard in a Rolls Royce driven at various speeds – gave his employees ten hints to avoid writing woolly memos, woolly letters and other general woolliness. Ogilvy surmised that the better people write, the higher they will go.

Even when reading his memo some thirty years after its writing, there is still truth in every statement. Point eight is especially noteworthy: “if it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.”

(On that note we bid a fond adieu to our copywriter Fay Nyberg today – our loss is the North East’s massive gain.  A new copywriter joins soon, he has big shoes to fill!)

Of Ogilvy’s ten points, this one is perhaps the most under-used in the field of User Experience. Look at the time devoted to copywriting as part of a project, look at the time devoted to design, and note the difference.

Notice how many people want to amend a design but how few want to work with the words, and worry about that difference.

The writing of copy is often an afterthought, yet for the vast majority of users on the vast majority of websites, the copy is the user experience.

Tweets, status updates, news stories, even badly spelt sentences about a cat who desires a patty of meat with a slice of dairy on it, are all born from copy. The better the tweet, the more it is re-tweeted, the better the experience the user has.

The same is true of all content, not just content that is generated by the user. One sometimes wonders how much rigour is put into crafting copy.  Crafting copy and content is not only important in the field of search engine optimisation and in improving readability, it’s also one of the cornerstones of usability.

Most web experiences are copy experiences too. From Twitter’s obvious discussion between users to BBC Sport’s top down communication, even the success of  platforms like Grooveshark and Instagram are tied into copy.

Instagram’s photos are contextualised by the text under them.  The user is prompted to write that text by the carefully crafted request to “type your caption here”.  Words like “write”, “optional”, and “comment” are noticeably absent.  The instructional copy creates an assumption that every image should have a caption and that that caption is intrinsic to the image’s meaning and value.

Switch the text to “enter a comment (optional)” and do people still provide lyrical descriptions of their snaps?

Ogilvy’s second point: “Write the way you talk. Naturally”, is co-opted into user experience with the idea that we should adopt the user’s language rather than the internal linguistics of the client.

More important is Ogilvy’s ninth commandment –  when communicating “make sure it is crystal clear what you want” the user to do. There is not a website in the world that would not benefit from following that maxim.

User experience is about finding out what the user wants to do and making the path to that as clear as it can be. UX professionals use wireframes, Photoshop, and HTML in abundance, but do they include copywriting often enough in their toolset?  How often is copy generated as “lorem ipsum” text waiting for the client to add meaning later through a CMS?  How often does the first version of the copy remain unaltered compared to the first look of the visuals?

Do we give the copy as much respect as the visual and should we not be making sure that outstanding copy, like outstanding visuals, are the job of everyone involved in any project?