Written on November 27, 2016
Today, I had a random thought about writing, and I’d love to explore it with you all.
The thought: writing an article — or even a book — is like creating a product.
To write something that people would want to read many times, we can think of the process as creating a product.
Let me elaborate.
Start with a problem
The top reason why startups fail is because there isn’t a market need for their product.
These entrepreneurs usually start with an idea. The idea feels so promising that they want to execute it and create the product. They think it’s a good idea but they usually don’t know if anyone needs the product. After they have created the product, they have to search for people who would use the product.
After reading up more about startups, I learned that the better way is to start with a problem. Find a problem a group of users has and then build a solution for that problem. If the product solves their problem, I’d have already found my users. (Of course, it’s harder than I seem to imply it is.)
This is the same for writing. When I’m eager to share an idea, I write a piece without thinking if anyone would need or want to read it. I admit this is the case for this article. The concept hit me this afternoon, and I felt compelled to share it.
That is alright if I only want to share an idea with others. But if I want to write something people would read, I have to start with their problems.
The better option is to know who I want to write for and write according to their needs. At Buffer, we created four personas based on our researchers’ interviews. This gives us a better idea of who we writing for and what problems they have.
Introduction as onboarding
A good onboarding process guides users to find the core value of the product as soon as possible. Once users experience what the product can do for them, they are more likely to keep using the product. For instance, for Facebook, it was getting new users to 7 friends within 10 days.
If the onboarding process is too confusing, users might stop using the product then. It doesn’t matter if the product provides people a real value. If the onboarding process doesn’t convince them about that, they might not keep using the product.
The introduction of an article feels like an onboarding process to me. It tells the readers what they can expect from the article. If the introduction convinces the readers that the article would be valuable to them, they will read on.
Even if the article has valuable information, people might not read it if the introduction doesn’t hook them.
Design for usability/readability
Good design isn’t only aesthetically pleasing. Good design allows users to achieve what they want intuitively and easily.
An article can be well-designed too. There are two parts to the design of an article — the formatting and the visuals.
Research has found that people tend to only scan through articles.
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
But, if the formatting can convey the key points of the article well, readers might be more likely to pick up the key points. Here’s an example of the difference formatting can make (image by Ash Read):
A technique we use at Buffer is to highlight the key point of a section using a H3 subheading immediately after the H2 heading.
People who scan through the article will notice the subheading — or key point — easily and immediately get an idea what the section is about. If it interests them enough, they would read the section.
This post by Ash Read goes into more details about formatting, but here are the 3 key points:
- Use eye-catching subheadings
- Make it scannable
- Write short paragraphs
Another part of design is the visuals. I’m guilty of using images and graphics just to break up a huge chunk of text. A huge chunk of text can be hard to read as seen in the image above by Ash Read.
Using images is a common practice to give readers breaks while reading the article. But it’s best when the visual is actually explaining something. This post by Jason Fried does it really well.
The article is about how Andrew Mason described Meetup.com. The image explained the idea really well. I could even understand Jason’s point just by reading the title and seeing the image.
To me, that’s a great use of visuals. A picture says a thousand words. While it might not always replace a thousand words, a visual should help explain an idea I want to communicate so that I can use fewer words to describe it.
Solve the problem
At the end of the day, a great product solves the problem of the users.
That is the foundation for the product. An onboarding process can’t be effective if the product doesn’t provide a value in the first place. Great design wouldn’t save a product that isn’t valuable to the target users, too.
Like a great product that users would use repeatedly, an article has to be valuable enough for readers to want to come back and read it again. It has to solve a problem the readers have. There are articles which I read over and over again.
The content of the article forms the foundation of the article. The introduction and design build upon the content. If the content isn’t valuable to the readers, it doesn’t matter if it has a great introduction or if it’s well designed. People might read the article once but never again.
What do you think?
Great products solve a problem that users have, have an onboarding process that lets users experience the core benefits, and are easy and intuitive to use. People use such products over and over again.
Great articles solve a problem that the readers have, have an introduction that attracts readers to keep reading, and are easy to read and understand. People read such articles over and over again.
To me, writing an article is like creating a product.
What do you think of this idea?