UX copywriting series. Dropbox feature descriptions

No matter what you’re writing—whether it’s a small tooltip or a long web article—you need to thoroughly check your writing before you publish it.

Good writing is not just about spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, though we definitely need to keep them in mind at all times, among like… a million other things.

During UI text review, InfoDevs point out things that non-professional writers would never think to think about. Today, I’d like to talk about the most typical things that we stumble upon during the UI text review.

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Brace yourselves – it’s going to be a long article but a 100% practical one and so worth a read! We’re going to discuss 6 reasons why Dropbox feature descriptions did not pass our UI text review.
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Parallelism: action vs. non-action

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Today, I am a scrupulous peer reviewer of the Dropbox website content. I am also a frequent user of Dropbox – that’s why I am all out of the free 2 GBs of space. Let’s see what Dropbox says to that.

When scanning this text, all I see is a call to action.

dropbox_out_of_space

In the previous article, UX copywriting series. Action vs. non-action in app onboarding, we discussed how leaning to either all action or no action is a bad practice because it may sound either too persistent or too descriptive.

The left-side example comes from the Dropbox main page and illustrates a better combination of action and non-action.

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In the right-side example, I tweaked the text to illustrate a perfect scenario when elements of the same level are parallel (action titles and non-action descriptions).

It could also be vice versa – non-action titles and action descriptions. Just stick to parallel constructions for all similar elements, be it field names, feature descriptions, or any other text. For more details and examples, check out the full article.

Confusing word piles

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Let’s take a look at several more feature descriptions. In the first sentence below, we stumble across a word pile – a long cluster of 4 or more words.

dropbox_noun_pileThese word piles usually occur when we try to avoid multiple ‘of’ phrases. Shorter doesn’t mean clearer though: the logical connections between the words take longer to process. Besides, “local” could technically apply to both disk and constraints, so there’s that dilemma.

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Let’s try using ‘of’:
“Worry less about constraints of local hard disk with Smart Sync.”

Doesn’t sound simpler for sure and also creates a new inconvenience: the phrase “with Smart Sync” is now too far away from the verb phrase “worry less”.

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The only way out here is to shorten the sentence. The second sentence of the feature description mentions “space on your hard disk”, so we can safely remove “hard” from the first sentence.
“Worry less about local disk constraints”.

To sum up, avoid word piles and keep your sentences simple.


See also

Hero in you, or how to make your text easier to read

Infographics Self-Review Checklist

Microsoft Manual of Style vs. Microsoft Writing Style Guide


Sad is bad: don’t bring me down

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We have been talking a lot about this sentence, and the “worry less” part worries me a lot actually.

dropbox_worry_less

If I wasn’t worrying before, now I definitely am – this article is starting to put ideas in my head. 🙂 “Worry less” is a negation of the negative (don’t be worried), and this is not considered a good approach. A far better technique is to make the phrase more uplifting. Let’s see, how could we turn the phrase around?

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“Never mind the local disk constraints with Smart Sync.”
(Negative still)

“Stay relaxed about the local disk constraints with Smart Sync.”
(Sounds clumsy)

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“Go beyond the local disk constraints with Smart Sync.”
(Positive phrasing, though could be improved even more;
all the three sentences in description are action and may sound too persistent)

As you can see from my multiple rephrasing attempts above, finding just the right words isn’t easy at all. In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing’. 🙂

Okay, let’s sum it up. Consider staying away from negations, such as the “worry less”. If you can’t find an alternative that is more uplifting, don’t worry too much – an occasional negation doesn’t hurt. It’s when negations pile up, they create a gloomy vibe.

What’s the logic in it

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We recommend to carefully check all the logical connections between your sentences, and even parts of these sentences. Do you have sequential actions or alternative actions? Does one action happen as a result of another?

Let’s get back to our Dropbox example – give me three flawed sentences and I can pick on them forever. 🙂 It’s just that… well, read it yourself and tell me this: does the “and” connector make sense to you?

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In the example above, “and” connects an imperative phrase (“see all your files”) and full sentence (“they take up”) – different types of constructions.

If we use parallel constructions, here’s what we may get.

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“You can see all your files and team folders right from your desktop, and they take up virtually no space on your hard disk until you need them.”
(Too long, looks like two separate sentences glued together)

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“All your files and team folders are right there on your desktop but take up almost no hard disk space.”
(In addition to simplifying the sentence, I replaced “and” with “but” to build a better logical connection. Also, instead of “virtually”, I used “almost” to avoid a potential misunderstanding about virtual storage)

The third sentence has good logical flow thanks to “still”.

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Remove “still” – and the sentence becomes harder to process. Text with a clear logic reads much easier.

Proximity bias: it, its, they, them, their

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When checking the logical connections, you should also keep track of the ‘it’ and ‘they’ pronouns in all their varieties.

Let’s go back to the second sentence.

dropbox_see_all_your_files

If you’re superficially scanning the text like I usually do, by the time you get to “them”, you may have already lost the train of thought. In this case, to refresh who is “them”, you’d jump to the beginning of the sentence (“files and team folders”), and then continue reading.

This extra effort for verifying the objects behind “them” is why we should avoid more than one pronoun. “and they take up” was OK, but instead of “them”, the objects could be repeated for clarity.

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Our previously rephrased sentence takes care of this issue altogether.
“All your files and team folders are right there on your desktop but take up almost no hard disk space.”

A more critical case is when you have so many pronouns that you get confused with what refers to what. Let’s take a look at this example.

dropbox_laptop_and_it

When scanning the text, this phrase caught my eye, and of course, I linked “it” to “laptop”. That’s a proximity bias – when you assume that “it” or “they” refers to the closest preceding object.

If you carefully read the whole sentence, you can see that “it” in fact refers to “something”.

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To make our text 100% clear, we need to make sure that the proximity bias matches the text flow.

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Let’s take a look at this rephrased version.
“When you save things on your laptop, they automatically sync to your desktop computer.”

To sum up, avoid word piles and keep your sentences simple.


See also

Book review: Logic made easy. How to know when language deceives you?

MailChimp’s voice & tone: writing with readers in mind

Guide to lightweight docs: layout & structuring tips


Lonely hanging words

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After you’ve tweaked your text as much as possible, you need to look out for one more thing – where your sentences start and where they end.

It’s not a good practice to have just one word in a line (“Widen”) or to end a line with a lone word (“Get”).

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Both these words appear isolated from their context. If there is a way to keep some of the words together in all cases of responsive UI (e.g., by adding an unbreakable space), this should be done.

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“…Draft, Frame.io, Marvel, Getty Images,
Shift, Widen”

“Bring your work together in one safe place.
Get to your files…”


So, that’s it! We have performed UI text review of the Dropbox feature descriptions and focused on the following 6 cases.

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Got some more tips? Be sure to share!

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