Novelists exhibit stamina, poets profit from a sense of rhythm, journalists exploit facts, and bloggers benefit from prolificacy. And yesterday, as I mud wrestled with a single line of descriptive text within an app for fifteen frustrating minutes, I realized that writing for mobile interaction involves an entirely disparate set of skills.

When I say “writing for mobile interaction,” I mean the text in an app that relates to the user interface: labels, title text, descriptions, alerts and notifications, categories, tabs, actions, and etc. Here are some things I’ve learned:

1. Keep it short.

Assume your users operate in a state of distraction and that they want to achieve their objectives with the least expenditure of thought possible. In general, make the text as brief as you can because while using your app people may either: start playing semi-pro Texas Hold’em; ride a bike drunk; roast a turkey; or engage in a shouting match with an airline customer service representative.

2. Give your app a voice.

You can lean on UI text to reinforce your app’s brand. Depending on how you write, an experience might feel even more fun and playful, serious and authoritative, or, at worst, machine-like, rigid, and robotic, all depending on the words you use. The challenge is to breathe life into an app while avoiding excessive verbiage.

3. Be careful with your words.

Language is slippery, capable of introducing unanticipated color, texture, connotation and significance – attributes that may obfuscate your message if you fail to manage it carefully. Not only that, it can be difficult to articulate the difference between words that seem to mean the same thing: for instance, why use a button labeled “buy” over one labeled “purchase”? In most cases, context or precedent will dictate the correct choice.

4. People don’t read.

It can be tempting to explain away complicated or unusual components of your design with tutorials or written explanations. I’ll admit that in the past I have been lured right off my trireme by the siren call of a well-intentioned coach mark, but I realize now that in nearly every case I should have lashed myself to the mast and kept on sailing. Coach marks turn out to be a complete waste of time. People don’t read tutorials, and if they do, they don’t remember them. Try using animated hints instead.

In closing, I’ll say that UI text represents a spectacular opportunity to imbue your app a voice of its own and to extend brand attributes deep into the heart of an experience. It’s also a spectacular opportunity to confuse people so thoroughly that they grow angry and start to writhe around in discomfort like a basketful of starving cobras. Consequently, just like a basketful of starving cobras, UI text should be handled with care, delicacy, and, when necessary, snake tongs.

(originally published onĀ BAD YEWEX)