‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures and conversation?’
Show don’t tell is a core design principle here at Endis Solutions. But what does it actually mean?
Given the choice between telling someone something and showing it to them, you should almost always show it. Here’s how, and why:
1) Show me the money
If you sell, say, wigs on your web site, there is no need to write ‘we sell wigs’ on your front page (nor, for that matter, ‘welcome to our wig-selling web site!’). A picture of a wig with a ‘buy’ button will better communicate what you do and be more immediately useful to someone wanting to purchase a wig.
Why better? Because if you have to explain everything, it is tiring to read. And clamorous. And patronising. And obstructive. It puts an extra step between your customers and what they are trying to achieve.
If you have to explain what and where things are, then your site has failed. Most sites need very few words. Let the graphics and the products and the important items speak for themselves.
You have to give people what they are looking for. Show them the gallery, the archive, the offer, the details. Make it easy to see, recognise, and browse. Give them what they want without talking to them about it. Imagine entering a physical shop and being talked at by the manager before you are allowed to see any of the products!
Just browsing, thanks.
People are after something. If you’ve got it, give it, instead of asking them to solve your web site clue by stupid clue.
2) Shut up already
After visiting Cambridge for the first time, my father’s overriding impression was of being nagged. Everywhere he walked there were signs saying ‘don’t walk on the grass’ (in 7 languages), ‘no entry to the public’, ‘beware rising bollards’ and ‘bicycles attached to these railings will be removed and sold to students in Oxford’.
The words you write shout at people. It is one of the main things I hate about Windows – all those dialog boxes and pop-ups about updates and statuses when all I want is for my computer to be on.
You simply don’t need to talk at your visitors so much. Don’t write ‘click here to download the document’– simply write the name of the document and make it a link. Don’t write ‘to get in touch with us click on contact’ – simply put the word contact somewhere prominent and expected, say the menu bar.
If you can remove an instruction or description, remove it. Just like George says. If you can encourage comprehension through a graphical element such as a button or arrow instead of text, then do.
Grasp this paradox: the more you say, the less people will understand.
And if you’re blogging, don’t make the rookie mistake of writing about your writing. Instead of saying ‘Today I am going to tell you about pigeons…’, just tell us about the damn pigeons. That’s why it often pays to behead your blog posts (and 39 other useful writing tips).
Give your visitors a break and step away from the vuvuzela.
3) Do what you claim to be
The third application of show don’t tell is that if you’re not showing, then don’t tell.
In other words, don’t make claims that are undermined by your own web site, or as the Argentines might have it: ‘don’t crap higher than your ass can reach’.
Don’t say you pride yourselves on friendliness when your order process is broken and the error messages are accusatory and confusing. In fact, don’t say it at all – be friendly; in your tone, in your messages, in your support and service. Then people will believe you. And you won’t be a hyprocrite.
Instead of saying ‘our customers love us’ display a huge list of recent, affectionate testimonials. Instead of saying ‘the largest in our industry’ demonstrate your size in some way. Instead of saying ‘award-winning’ put the badge (and year) on your site.
Show, don’t tell.
As a content strategist and writer am I doing myself out of a job here? Not at all. Content strategy is coming up with a way for all that content, not just the copy, to work together (and get produced, and continue to be high quality in the future). Secondly, the few words that are necessary on your web site will be all the more valuable for their scarcity. I can help you get them right.