Bots will be bots

Chatbots! After floating around the edges of the useful web for a few years now, the right underlying technology is finally making it plausible for companies and organisations to build and run their own online bots. That’s cool, and it’s brought to mind a lesson that I first learned in 2009, when we launched an experimental (now dead) chatbot at NAB.

For writers, that lesson is:

Let your bot be a bot. Make it sound like a bot, let it behave like a bot and, most of all, tell people it’s a bot.

For strategists:

Your bot is here to help people learn stuff and complete tasks. You’re not here to beat the Turing Test.

For designers:

Over-humanised bots are just another version of skeuomorphism gone bad.

We didn’t get this right in 2009. We used a photo of a woman in a headset, I wrote in as chatty a voice as I could, and although we used the terms like “online assistant” (too vague) and later “virtual assistant”, we weren’t clear enough about who or what this thing actually was.
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Don’t hide bad news behind weak headings

If you have good news, you make your message as clear as possible. Do the same thing with bad news, for the sake of your readers.

When you book a flight with Air New Zealand, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what’s up.

Your booking has been completed

Then, when Air New Zealand are about to fly you somewhere, and they have a few things they think you might like to know about the flight, and what to do while you’re away, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what it’s about. Continue reading

Eight simple favours you can do your readers

The subject of adult literacy came up at work today. As a writer you need to know and serve your audience, and your audience isn’t always great at extracting meaning from strings of words. So, based on a rant I fired out to a few hundred colleagues, here are eight favours you can do your readers.

1. Treat plain language as seriously as any other aspect of accessibility

Complex language excludes people. Don’t write to appeal to a narrow audience – write for as many people as you can and let your audience choose itself. It’s that simple.

2. Break bad habits: Don’t join in when people talk shit

You’re in a meeting and someone mentions that, going forward, we’re going to leverage third party relationships more effectively. Do you start brainstorming ways to effectively leverage relationships, or do you start writing down things that you can do better when you work with other companies? There’s a difference.

Similarly, do you do BAU, or do you have regular work? Drop acronyms and jargon from they way you talk and they’ll stop turning up in the things you write.

3. Test your work

Whether it’s an automated reading grade check or running your work past a test audience of regular readers, give yourself an idea of how well people will comprehend what you’ve written.

4. Pick someone you know and write as if they’re the audience

A trusted old trick. Warren Buffett famously writes his company’s annual reports as if his sisters are reading. All you need to do is think of a regular person. It’s cheating if you choose the smartest person you know.

5. Admit it: People don’t use glossaries

Glossaries say, “yeah, we knew we were confusing people, so we figure they can keep doing research and cross-referencing stuff until they can keep up with us”. People say, “screw that, I’ll just ask someone else”.

Things need to make sense straight away, not after you explain yourself a second time.

6. Help each other

Yes, sometimes you’ll get stuck. If you work with other writers or an editor, don’t by shy to ask for help with a phrase that you can’t get right. No colleagues to call on? You wouldn’t be the first person to tweet with the hashtag #plainlanguage and tap into brains all around the world.

7. Remember the adult literacy stats

In the USA, for example, 46-51% of adults have low literacy. Australia is similar, with 44% of adults at level 1 or 2 (of 5). Closer to my home, “distribution of literacy skills within New Zealand is similar to Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom”.

Look up the stats for your audience. Remember them.

8. Cater for busy, distracted readers

Reading comprehension drops with tiredness, stress and distraction. Chances are that your readers haven’t just woken up from a deeply relaxing sleep-in and started their day by looking attentively at a single full-screen window with nothing but your work in front of them.

Write for the people who have the TV on in the corner, fifteen other tabs open, a Facebook chat or two under way and a million other things to think about. If they could ever find the time to get around to it, they’d thank you.

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This post is 542 words long with an average reading grade of 8.0.