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Everybody reads

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re helping prove my point. People read all day, everyday. People read texts and notifications. People read traffic signs and menus. People even read books! Yet “nobody reads” has become accepted as fact in the tech industry. It’s not true. Yet the false narrative has taken on a life of its own.

Yes, reading habits have changed. Attention spans are down. Skimming is pervasive. Everybody reads, but a fewer keep reading. Given the abysmal quality and experience of the average online article, I don’t blame them. People don’t enjoy unenjoyable things. Is that the sole reason? Doubtful, but we’re sure not helping ourselves.

Yet, regardless of shorter attention spans exposed to poor reading experiences, people continue to read. Because text is at the heart of interfaces. People need to read a button label to know the action it will perform. Headers are how people orient within apps. I can’t think of a single interface that works without reading.

And if that wasn’t enough, the growth of remote work means communication is more text-based than ever. Which makes reading more important than ever. Which also makes writing more important than ever. Quality writing in Slack/email is undervalued. Think of how many cumulative hours people spend reading Slack messages. Now multiply that by the size of the company. Imagine a scenario where someone sends an important message to a 200 person channel. Poor writing can simultaneously tank the productivity of those 200 hundred people. The result could be as small as forcing people to re-read the message in order to understand. It could be as big as harmful actions taken due to misunderstanding. Either way, poor writing led to a poor outcome.

But “nobody reads” has taken hold. That narrative feeds the following negative feedback loop:

  1. “Nobody reads”
  2. Investment in writing decreases
  3. Writing quality diminishes
  4. Less people engage with lower quality writing
  5. Return to step 1

As mentioned, the vast majority of people are reading all the time. Just not as much at once. That means writing needs to be better than ever. Writing has to get the point across clearly, interestingly and quickly. More meaning with less words—which is hard. It takes people with exceptional writing skills to achieve. Yet UX Writers and Content Designers seem to be the last hired and the first let go.

I can’t control how companies invests in writing, but I can control my personal investment. I’m not a great writer. But I am astoundingly better than I was ten years ago. There’s no magic trick behind the improvement, it boils down to respecting the reader.

If you respect the reader, then you’re going to work at getting better at writing. Because you know that someone has to read what you’re writing. And if you respect the reader, you want that to be as enjoyable as possible. At the very least, you want to avoid it being unenjoyable.

If I’m wriitng a draft for review, I’m proof-reading it first.1 Yes, a proof-reader is also a reader. They’re volunteering their time to read my draft. The least I can do is find and fix basic errors not worth their time. I’ve been horrible at this in the past. In retrospect, I could have saved my proof reader hours of editing by spending 10-15 minutes of my own time.

If it’s an internal company message, I am trying to be as clear and succinct as possible. I understand how many messages people need to sift through, so short and sweet is the goal. If I’m writing a message for hundreds of co-workers, that’s a tremendous amount of attention I’m about to pull. At that scale, even a minor improvement in comprehension can have a big impact. It’s a major net gain in time if I spend an hour refining a message to save 200 people even one minute of reading.

The importance of in-product writing goes without saying. One poor writing decision can lead to subpar comprehension. The label on a button matters profoundly more than its color or shape. I often spend as much time on the writing in an interface as I do the interface itself.

The better I write, the better the readers’ experience. That could be a friend, a team member or a complete stranger. It could be an idea I’m bouncing off of someone or a feature’s call to action. Words remain the straightest line towards communicating ideas. Ignore them at your own peril. Because as much as we’re told otherwise, everybody reads.

  1. Yes, there’s a typo in the sentence covering the importance of proof-reading. No, I’m not clever enough to have done that on purpose for the sake of irony. Yes, I’m keeping it because it’ll no doubt be my zenith in literary achievement.