Whether your writing assignment is super technical, or just slightly above the average person’s knowledge, check out this practical guide to learn how to simplify complex information.
Be thoughtful in your explanation of foreign concepts
Maybe your product or service is so revolutionary that nobody has seen anything like it — and therefore doesn’t have a mental model for how to proceed. Though, it’s more likely that this kind of storytelling is needed for the setup, normal use, or troubleshooting of a product or system.
In either case, here are some steps to help simplify complex technical information.
Step 1: Outline the process as simply as possible
This is probably the hardest part, but it’s totally doable. Try to erase all of your insider knowledge. Really step back and attempt to see your product, the process — whatever you’re tasked with explaining — as someone who is wholly unfamiliar.
Once you’ve gone through the process with a focus like a new user, outline the critical steps first. No formal outlining required here — you can just make a list. Frame each step as simply as possible. If you consider adding information that’s not necessary for the user to do — or know at this point — leave it out. In short, cut all unnecessary words.
Step 2: Omit jargon
While the topic may be technical in nature, that doesn’t mean you have to use scary sounding words and terminology only a tech insider would understand.
Simple language is the most usable.
When you’re choosing names, labels, and descriptions, use basic words. The same words you’d choose if you were speaking to a non-native speaker of your language or to a 3 year old. Really think about what educational level your word choice fits. Simple language is the most usable.
Listen to how average people describe the process, product, or feature and follow their lead. This can be in the UX Research process, or even informal interviews with people you know. Maybe even observations in public or out at stores. Think about how you’d explain something to your grandmother, parents, or aunts and uncles.
Step 3: Format copy for quick and easy reading
Users may already be feeling a little intimidated by the subject matter from the start, so don’t also overwhelm them with a sea of text. In addition to making your instructions as concise as possible, there are ways to setup and format the text that can help comprehension.
Craft an intro
A simple introduction will do. Five to seven words. Ten max. Set the stage for what needs to happen… simply. Let users know what’s coming in a general sense.
Write clear headers
If you have each step or topic on separate screens in your flow, then this would be the main header on the page. But, if you have more than one topic on a page (be careful here, it can make sense but will get overwhelming if you go too far or get too complex), then these can be equal headers or a header/subhead situation.
Keep paragraphs to 2–3 short sentences. And, keep sentences to around 10 words.
Either way, write these headers to be clear, concise, and to cover what needs to happen now. People read titles quickly to get an overall sense of the page or topic area. Give them what they want and expand in body copy below. (Don’t waste words or space repeating though!)
Chunk paragraph text
Break up your paragraphs (in a logical way) to keep from having a sea of text. Lots of words will overwhelm readers and they’re likely to either gloss over it all (leading to little comprehension) or they may bail out completely. Keep paragraphs to 2–3 short sentences. And, keep sentences to around 10 words.
Use strong verbs to inspire action
Icons, headers, chunked text, and a clear button label make Apple’s What’s New screen scannable.
It may be more helpful to say lead with strong verbs. Start your sentences with the strongest verb option available — one that’s also easily understood by users in the given context.
Use bulleted or numbered lists
Whether you need to break down steps or cleanly separate items in a long series, bulleted lists are your friend. Keep the items in the list to only about 3 or 4 so as not to overwhelm users. If you truly have more content than that, figure out if any bullets could be combined or eliminated. If not, see if your content actually makes sense in two separate bulleted lists.
Don’t forget button/link text
Past the header and bulleted lists, people also scan button text. Make yours a clear confirmation of what has been done or submitted on this part of the flow. In the event the button or text link is just to move people along, tell them so and let them know where they’re going next (i.e. — “Continue to setup”).
Step 4: Use visual aids
Sometimes words alone just won’t get the job done. Visuals can aid in storytelling and may be necessary to help explain a complex topic (in a show-and-tell sorta way).
Visuals can be all sorts of things, like:
People are unique in how they best consume information. Some are visual learners, some audio, and some can remember anything so long as they’ve read or written it. When subject matter is complex, provide a variety of ways for users to digest the information. As smart as technology is these days, we don’t have the luxury of knowing and catering content to each person’s preferred learning method.
Step 5: Test out your draft
This can be part of a well-defined UX research program or just informal “one-offs” with people similar to your targets. Do they get it? Were they able to complete the process? Where did they get tripped up? Did they have questions your content didn’t answer? Test your drafts with actual people to measure where, when, and if the words fall short.