Eavesdrop your way to better interface copy

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Written By Scott Kubie

Founder and Director of Content Career Accelerator. Indie rock fan. East Coast midwesterner.

On writing better dialogue for your dialogs.

I took some classes on playwriting and screenwriting in college. Never did much of either, after, but I learned a lot that has helped me in my UX content career.

The first assignment in my playwriting class was to go out on campus, post up somewhere public like a coffeeshop or study hall, and eavesdrop on a conversation. We then had to faithfully transcribe the dialogue — what people were really saying to each other — to the best of our ability. Not summarize it, not interpret it, not alter it; just capture it. Listen, and capture. 

If you’re sitting in a coffeeshop, open office, on public transit, or somewhere else semi-public right now, you can try it, too: Pick a conversation in progress. Listen in. Label each speaker with shorthand (A and B works fine), and do your best to keep up for a minute or two.

You’ll quickly discover just how unlike conversations in real life are to conversations in so many scripts and stories. Undisciplined writers, a group I generally count myself among, have a tendency to rapidly switch between the writer’s mode (generative) and editor’s mode (critical, synthesizetic). This leads to overly-clean sentences and dialogue, with tidy hand-offs between speakers.

That’s not how conversation works. People interrupt each other, talk over each other, mishear each other, respond to questions without answering them, start sentences and abandon them, stammer and stutter, respond to thoughts from 10 minutes ago, get interrupted by their environment, and more. 

Real speakers are also vulnerable to malapropisms, or even to coining words on the spot, like synthesizetic (to be in a synthesizing mode). Real conversational speech, especially in casual interpersonal contexts, can be untidy, looping, and, quite frankly, difficult to capture.

This presents a challenge for designers striving to make digital experiences more conversational. (For the newbies: conversational doesn’t necessarily mean conversation, like chatbots … it’s the back-and-forth, prompt-and-response way that most interfaces with words in them operate.) When you don’t have an ear for dialogue, your dialog boxes — never noticed that one, did you? — your dialog boxes and other messages might give off an artificial, even phony-sounding vibe. No good! 

Beyond sounding phony, the greater risk might be in imagining, and thereby designing for, an overly tidy conversation between your user and your software. When you remember that nearly all interfaces are conversational, and that conversation itself can be complex, winding, and untidy, you will remember that interactions between your user and software can complex, winding, and untidy, too. Some examples:

  • A user might “interrupt” your speech by trying to click on something before they’ve read the dialog box. 
  • A user might have a “Wait, what were we just talking about?” moment if you’re asking them to remember information from one screen to the next.
  • A user might “misspeak” by entering information that’s not quite right, and want to correct the record before moving forward.
  • A user might feel boxed in by your questions (prompts and path) and go looking for a way to “reframe” the conversation — “No, that’s not it at all, what I’m trying to say is…”
  • A user might be interrupted by their environment and “lose track of what they were saying”; they might repeat an input or action without realizing it.

And so on. Being aware of these possibilities will help you design to support or prevent them, and to be a good conversational partner.

Three tips to improve your conversational writing chops

Soak up media with natural dialogue.

Films and plays in general are great, as it’s all dialogue. But remember that “good” isn’t necessarily “natural” — I love an Aaron Sorkin monologue, but no one talks like that in real life except maybe Aaron Sorkin.

Some authors I can personally recommend include: David Mamet, P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Carver, and The Cohen Brothers. The Big Lebowski is a must-watch — much of the plot and humor is driven by the complexities of conversation.

Notice speech.

Listen! You can still keep your headphones on so people won’t talk to you), but put them on transparency mode and listen to the world around you once in a while. If you hear a great word or turn of phrase, if something makes you smile … notice it! Remember it.

Read your interface copy out loud.

If you can’t get through a string without taking a breath, it probably needs some work. Many (most?) people read by subvocalizing speech — talking inside their heads as they read — and if your words are difficult to say, they’re going to be difficult to read.

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