Issue 28 \\ Read past issues

Issue 28 // Lessons Learned

We solve problems through practice and perseverance, through careful planning and critical analysis. Sometimes it takes empathy and iteration to break through to a workable solution, and sometimes it takes the passage of time to parse significant meaning from what seemed like chaos.

In this issue, MailChimp's content manager Kate Kiefer Lee tackles the words we use to communicate, and how to strike the right tone. We also mark the one year anniversary of MailChimp's redesign with a few videos on the lessons learned in design, engineering, and front-end development. We conclude with links of interest from the world of UX.
Forward to Friend
Editors: Gregg BernsteinAarron Walter
Photo: Jason Travis

On Twitter: @MailChimpUX

Being the Bearer of Bad News

by Kate Kiefer Lee
Here at MailChimp, we have to deliver our share of bad news: 100 people unsubscribed from your newsletter. We had to shut down your account due to a high complaint rate. Our site is down for maintenance. Your email was flagged as spam. Your credit card was declined. 

For those of us who work on interface and website copy every day, these messages seem like no big deal. We might write them quickly, without thinking about the person reading them. But for that person, those messages sometimes are a big deal. A credit card decline could be due to a mistype or expired card, but think of the worst-case scenario: What about the person who's out of credit when they need to make a purchase? An account suspension could be an easy fix—or it could mean someone's going to get in big trouble at work because of their mistake. Unsubscribe notifications and warnings can make people feel embarrassed, scared, or insecure.

This isn't something only writers have to deal with. Maybe you're the UI designer who sees every error message, the person in charge of migrating the knowledge base to a new CMS, or the only one who will ever lay eyes on your company's unsubscribe notifications. Here are some of the touchy subjects you might come across in your work:
  • Error messages
  • Downtime notifications
  • Warnings and compliance alerts
  • Rejection notices
  • Customer service emails
  • Unsubscribe notifications
We publish all of these content types at MailChimp. It can be tricky to strike the balance between friendly and firm, but here are some things we keep in mind when the pressure's on.


Striking the right tone

MailChimp's voice doesn't change too much, but our tone is constantly changing, depending on the situation and how it affects our readers. When I'm delivering bad news, I try to think about how the reader may be feeling in that moment, keeping the worst-case scenario in mind. Then, I write in a way that's appropriate for the situation. 

Let's return to the credit card decline, a classic bad-news message. You've probably seen something like this before:

We regret to inform you that we are unable to process this request, as the credit card you provided has expired.

This message is so formal and polite that it doesn't quite seem human. And it takes too long to get to the point. Let's tone down the formality:

Oops! Your credit card has expired.

But that doesn't work either. "Oops" comes off as flippant, and this kind of message is not the place for an exclamation mark. Let's split the difference:

Your credit card has expired. Please try another card.

Much better. This revision strikes the right tone: It gets to the point, and it's polite without being formal.


Tips for delivering bad news

Here are some principles I follow when I'm writing for sensitive situations.

Get right to the point. When you've got bad news, it's important to come right out and say what you have to say. Too much throat clearing can make readers feel anxious or nervous before they even know what's wrong.

Save the jokes for later. Humor doesn't belong in negative, urgent, or sensitive messages. Even though we try to infuse personality into the rest of our content at MailChimp, we play it straight when we're telling people something's wrong.

Stay calm. Avoid exclamation marks, all caps, and alarming language like "alert," "immediately," and "urgent." We don't want to make readers feel like we're yelling at or admonishing them.

Read it out loud. I read everything I publish out loud to make sure it sounds human. In sensitive situations, it's tempting to use formal language and canned copy, but too much formality makes messages sound stodgy and insincere. Straightforward communication and reassuring language makes readers feel understood.

It sucks to be the bearer of bad news. But with a little extra time and attention, we can soften difficult moments for our readers.

If you're interested in this stuff, you can read a whole chapter about touchy subjects in Nicely Said: Writing for the Web With Style and Purpose, the book I wrote with Nicole Fenton.
Learn More

One Year Out

One year ago, we redesigned MailChimp. To mark the occasion, we put together video interviews with three team members instrumental to the project.

Eric Muntz: Lead MailChimp Engineer

Lead MailChimp Engineer Eric Muntz talks about how design patterns and an open workspace changed the way he works and collaborates with colleagues.

Ron Lewis: Creative Director

Creative Director Ron Lewis recalls the challenges of simultaneously redesigning our app and our marketing site, Experimentation sometimes resulted in sound design ideas, and other times concepts had to be canned to find a better solution.

Federico Holgado: Lead UX Developer

Lead UX Developer Federico Holgado relives the pain of the MailChimp redesign, and considers how he'd attack a project of this scale differently next time around.

UX Around The Web

Ask Us Anything

We want this newsletter to be a dialogue. If you have questions for the MailChimp UX team about our favorite dinner spots in Atlanta (the Optimist), what podcasts we're currently enjoying (a16z), or how often Aarron, Gregg, and Fernando wear the same exact outfit to work (too often), send them in! Seriously: hit reply and ask us anything. We'll try to answer every email and maybe even share our conversation in future newsletters.

© 2001-2014 All Rights Reserved.
MailChimp® is a registered trademark of The Rocket Science Group

view in browser   unsubscribe   update subscription preferences   

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp