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This is a minor detail to most people but will hopefully not be lost on a UX audience.. My partner and I have different approaches to writing copy for our new startup: He prefers to be very succinct and I prefer to be a bit more verbose and clear.

Here are a few examples:

  • "Popular" vs "Most Popular"
  • "Now" vs "Happening Now"
  • "All users notified when event ends" vs "All users will be notified when this event ends"

Our audience will be similar to Etsy's audience.

I cannot explain why exactly the succinct version does not sit well with me - to me, it just doesnt sound "right." Maybe because it sounds more like a machine talking than a human talking to another human. Plus, I think they are not proper sentences.

Are there any guidelines related to this? Any studies (scientific or otherwise)? Thoughts?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

As @Peter mentioned, there is a lot of material relating to "Writing for the Web" on the Nielsen Norman Group site. The overall message is to keep it succinct and to the point, even more so when designing for mobile devices.

Along the same vein of being succinct, you may be interested in an analysis of the BBC News headlines mentioned in a 2009 edition of Jacob Nielsen's Alertbox. The headline writers also have to deal with grammar usage (among many different constraints). I post a short extract, but highly recommend that you read the original article as it contains links to further reading material.

It's hard enough to write for the Web and meet the guidelines for concise, scannable, and objective content. It's even harder to write Web headlines, which must be:

  • short (because people don't read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they'll like the full article before they click (because people don't return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

The take-away for me, as it relates to your question, is that you should determine if the user needs additional words to understand or predict what you are trying to communicate. I think arguments about using "one word" vs "two words" for a particular button could be resolved by gathering data from A/B tests. When it comes to single sentences, refer to the aforementioned articles for guidance, and try to be succinct.

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I think the way you've phrased this suggests your own bias: Succinct doesn't necessarily mean unclear. The key thing I'd bear in mind is that : users scan web copy rather than reading. Your copy - and by extension your product - is competing for attention with lots of other sites, plus the users child trying to get their parents attention, plus user's worries about paying the bills ... and so on. You definitely need to find a happy medium, but I'd urge you to be succinct using language appropriate for your audience

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I agree that succinct does not imply a lesser clarity. I think that it just does not sound grammatically correct. And its a fair point that we're competing for peoples attention. Thanks! –  Bryan Migliorisi Feb 10 '13 at 21:39

When in doubt err on the side of completeness. Don't be afraid to spell things out. Someone already mentioned web pages tend to be scanned rather then read, but to me this is an argument to be complete because the extra verbiage doesn't really incur a penalty as it's going to be scanned (usually) rather than read thoroughly.

In the examples you give 2 of the terse versions are understandable to me but it would take me a while to determine "Now" meant "Happening Now". If I'm presented with the long version of your example, is there much of a penalty, am I going to be slowed down by the 3 additional words? Not really. Not nearly as much as I would trying to discern the meaning of "Now".

When in doubt spell it out.

Of course if user testing is done then it wouldn't be in doubt (and you could base the decision on evidence instead of rhyming slogans) but without user testing spelling things out is less risky than trying to be terse.

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