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Your Task Starts Now

My junk food show--the series I put on in the background, or when I want to turn my mind off--is Taskmaster.

In case you're not familiar, it's a late-night UK series where five comedians complete nonsensical tasks in the most creative way possible, all while staying within the confines of the defined rules.

Taskmaster calls itself "light entertainment" for a reason. The tasks range from the simple (Travel the furthest distance without touching the ground) to the absurd (Learn as much Swedish as possible in the next four minutes).

It's dumb, and that's the point: Watch five people play around nonsensically for 45 minutes, sometimes being clever, more often spectacularly failing. The show reminds you about the joy of being creative, solving problems, and laughing at yourself (and letting others laugh at you, too).

As you've probably learned by now, everything--even light entertainment shows--spark lessons when you work in UX Writing.

Lesson 1: Being easy to understand is the first job of copy.

Every task starts with an envelope sealed with red wax. Contestants have learned to read the instructions very carefully: some tasks have multiple, complicated requirements; others have loopholes that allow for laziness or creativity to win.

It's like watching kids read the directions at the top of an assignment; some read, others don't, and both suffer the consequences.

If your user needs to read your copy more than once to understand the steps they need to take, think about simplifying.

Lesson 2: What isn't said is just as important as what is said.

Just take a look at one of my favorite tasks, from Series 10:

"Silently, make the tastiest and prettiest cocktail with the coolest name. If you make any noise over 60 decibels, you must pour everything you've prepared into the bucket and start again. You have 20 minutes. Your time starts now."

Sixty decibels is a lot lower than you'd think; even opening a can of olives or cherries will go over. Predictably, most people don't do well. One contestant ends up serving a plain glass of milk; another shakes with fury at the frustration of having to start over again and again, as her previous creations are poured into a bucket on the floor.

But the final contestant realizes he can take all of his failed attempts out of the bucket, pour them back into the glass, and serve the result. It's awful, of course. But it is a cocktail.

Users need to know not only what will happen, but what won't; what they can do, and what they can't; what can be undone, and what is permanent. This doesn't mean we need to cover every single eventuality, but we do need to provide relevant information in the right place.

Lesson 3: People interpret things in different ways.

Contestants often interpret things differently. In one task, they are asked to bring in the best subscription. Two bring in cheese-of-the-month boxes. One brings in "Cloud of the Day," exactly what it sounds like. A picture of a cloud. Every day.

You can imagine the ridicule. But to him, that is the best. Everyone has a different definition.

Just because you find an idea or a piece of copy clear doesn't mean someone else will. Test it. Consider where the user is coming from, and their mental model. Think about other ways that what you're communicating could be interpreted.

Lesson 4: Likable doesn't mean recommendable.

I feel weird recommending Taskmaster, because it's such a weird show. It's got that quirky British humor, and it isn't afraid to go to ridiculous lengths for a laugh. I feel a bit embarrassed for liking it, to be honest. It's not exactly "dignified."But I really do love it.

Still, I wouldn't specifically say to a friend, "Hey, check out this show." (Though I would, it turns out, write a blog post about it.) The simple fact of enjoying it isn't enough, usually, for me to want to share it.

Same, in many cases, with the products and services we write for every day. What works for one user won't necessarily work for another. Or: maybe it'll work for both, but they don't necessarily discuss that fact. At the end of the day, most products out there aren't sexy. They're not super sharable or worth fawning over. And that's okay, as long as they're created and written for the audience that needs them.


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