Content Under the Hood: Where It Lives and Why It Matters

When it comes to creating content that's attached to interfaces, or as Cap Watkins calls them, the "dark corners of your UI", we're often dealing with opportunities to rectify negative emotions that come along with task completion. In fact, offering an excellent turnaround strategy during a sub-par experience not only has the potential to boost brand loyalty, but the efforts at redemption may just buy you a customer for life.

Unpleasant feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger and despair run rampant when we try to get things done. In these instances, content may be the only "human" link between the user and the website or app interface – the only chance to speak to your users in a way that talks them off the ledge. "Pretty" content might as well take up room in the basement.

When it comes to working under the hood, if it's not useful, usable, or helpful, your content is simply not doing its job.

For this reason, our team works in sync (that is, simultaneously) with user experience designers and developers as they're building out the product and never ex post facto. Content's objective in these situations is less about making you look pristine, and more about supporting the user in what they set out to do, helping you feel more empathetic, and making them feel better for having trusted you in the process. 

Some questions we like to ask as we consider these "under the hood" messages include: 

  • What task is the user attempting to accomplish?
  • How quickly are they trying to get the task done?
  • What environment might they be in right now? 
  • What could have brought them here? 
  • What is the user's current emotional state? 
  • What can we do to help resolve the situation? 

Welcome Messages 

Welcome messages are a cause for celebration. They typically appear upon a user's first time on a site, when they sign up for your newsletter, of if they've joined an exclusive community. This is an opportune time to keep it short, yet remind them of the benefits of connecting with you. Reference your positioning to tell your new fan about what your brand excels at, what they can expect from future communications, and what becoming a member of the community introduces them to (i.e. a network of likeminded pet parents, a community of beauty experts, access to insider info and secret sales). 

Error Messages

Error messages may range from "Sorry, something has gone wrong on our end", to "Oops! Our servers are down at the moment – try again soon?" They don't need to be unnecessarily apologetic because it's a system error, but their tone should be authentic and sincere. These messages often occur when payment processing is declined, hosting is having a hiccup, or a field wasn't correctly filled out. Never leave your customer hanging. Avoid placing blame on their use of the page or app, and instead, direct them to another action that can resolve the issue, like refreshing the page, providing a support contact, or asking them to come back. 

404 Pages

404 pages are like your self-deprecating best friend, the one who lightens the moment and bears responsibility for the awkward mixup. In fact, designing entertaining 404 pages has become a bit of an art form, the one place where brands can show off an "easter egg" or hidden piece of content. Instead of a dry message, make your 404 page chuckle-worthy, or even cute. (Pandas, anyone?) Creativity aside, you'll want to help direct your user to another next step, like a link back to the homepage or relevant content (i.e. blog posts, similar products). 

Submission Confirmations 

This is your chance to champion the customer. Copy here should confirm that the user's task was completed, such as payment, signup, or form submission. Be sure to provide some next steps or clarity about what to expect, like a tracking number or receipt number for their records. Also, provide a link for the next task, whether it's logging out or going back to the homepage.

Unsubscribe Confirmations 

It's a yin and yang thing: if you're sending newsletters, be sure to spend some time thinking about what it's like to unsubscribe to those newsletters. Not very happy (or sexy), but it has to be done. When users want to unsubscribe, they check a box and are sent to a page that asks them a second time if they're sure. This is your chance to jump in and provide a voice of reason, reminding them of what they'll be missing if they choose to check out, things like access, exclusive deals, insider news, freebies or special offers. Since users that unsubscribe are often frustrated by the frequency of your newsletters rather than their content, offer a field where users have control over the number of times per week they receive your messages. Even if they do want to unsubscribe, provide them with a few ways of staying in touch, like social media profiles. And never – seriously, never – tell a user that it will take 7-10 days for their name to be removed from the listing. It's an instant gratification world, and we all know that response is a lie.

Forms and Fields

Self-explanatory and with less room for creativity, forms and fields can often prompt the user to think about their responses. "Can you describe what went wrong?", and "Please provide as much detail as possible" encourage your users to give helpful feedback that you can use to enhance their experience next time.

Direct Messages 

This one is tricky. Direct messages have a tendency to sound impersonal and, well, canned. But if you do it correctly, you can make new Twitter followers feel welcomed, or you can offer an exclusive freebie that provides real value. Thank them for connecting with you, and link them up with a free eBook or discount code. You scratch their back, they'll scratch yours.

Auto-Responder Emails

Welcome new customers, convert customers based on recent activity, offer relevant products based on shopping history, reward your best-of clientele, or email about an upcoming event. Auto-responder emails are the best way to offer up your best content, in the order you'd like them to see it, no matter when they become aware of your presence. Don't abuse the auto-responder, though. Make sure you're putting your most helpful, useful, or insightful content here. The goal is to turn interest into curiosity, and curiosity into conversion.

Help Documents and Troubleshooting Pages

Help documents and troubleshooting pages should be so thorough, a caveman could do them. In all seriousness, if a customer has landed in your Help section, it's time to provide nothing else but clarity and a clean set of steps to help them get from Point A to Point B. Screenshots and illustrations of actions can help break up dense text. Use bold text to help identify which tabs and buttons the user should be looking for. When it comes to the Help section, get out of the way and and help the customer get on theirs. 

FAQ Pages

The best advice about writing content for an FAQ page? Don't write content for an FAQ page. Instead, collect enough (real) customer feedback to support the types of questions that should be there. If several people have asked the same thing, then it's time to consider it "frequent" enough to put on the page.

App Feature Walkthroughs

If you've ever downloaded a new app, you've likely been subjected to a feature walkthrough, or a step by step instruction guide that defines what certain buttons and functions do. These can be helpful, but be sure to do a few things first: map the user flow, and don't offer more than 3 pop-ups. By first mapping the user flow, you'll understand what the user's hierarchy of needs are. What needs to be explained first, second, and third? What order do they go in? Does my explanation interrupt their task? When it comes to feature walkthroughs, there's a fine line between being helpful and being annoying. Above all, the pop-ups you settle on should clarify why a feature is important, what it does, and how it behaves within the app. Providing context, rather than a textbook definition, will prove more valuable. And of course, don't forget the "got it!" screen. 

Product Descriptions 

Sell me this pen! This is your chance to go into intense depth about the product. How was it made? Where were the materials sourced? What does the color look like? What does it feel like? How will it make the customer feel when they carry it, wear it, or take it out of the packaging? Product descriptions enhance and support product photography, and serve to convert window shoppers into proud owners. Brownie points if you tell a real-deal story about the product, like the folks at ModCloth, who are particularly talented at injecting the description with emotional triggers, with words like "comfortable", "sophisticated", "flirty" and "endless happiness". Better yet, include some product pairings that help customers see the potential in accessories or relevant matches.

Legal Policies 

The dead zone. The chilly, barren wasteland. Where big words go to die. But it doesn't have to be that way. While users often skip over terms of agreement, contracts, policies, and other small print, you can change how the message is received. The legal pages of your site offer greater detail into what users are signing up for, whether its storing your data to help the site offer relevant products via email, or connecting their app to Facebook. You'll be working with a legal team, but you can soften the content by treating it like a meeting where you're explaining the processes of your site. Plain language can go a long way, even if it's (most often) skimmed. 

These are the dusty corners of your website that are often given the least amount of time and appreciation. But with careful planning, well-placed messages can extend a hand of empathy to frustrated customers, winning them back – perhaps – for a lifetime.

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