get hip with the kids &
We have a Please-Be-Nice problem
Is there a good way
to tell consumers how to act?
Writing community guidelines is not a sexy project. It's a workhorse project, but it's also high-stakes. I was writing for Brainly, a social-learning network where 90% of users are minors, so the platform's community guidelines needed to cover huge legal territory while staying loyal to a brand-voice that wants nothing to do with rules and regulations. To pull it off, I had to start by intuiting the client's needs respectfully but decisively, since I was working from a client-supplied draft that I thought required a total, ground-up rewrite:
The draft made clear that the client certain key goals in mind, like encouraging users to provide higher-quality information, and discouraging bullying and plagiarism. My task was to get these points across without disrupting the brand's wily, no-grownups appeal to student learners, knowing that a list of rules and regulations threatened to come off, at best, like an enthusiastic chaperone bopping around at the school dance. Still, it's a solvable problem.
Ok so Here's what I wrote
I delivered two versions: an abbreviated and highly accessible 25-word version to be used throughout Brainly's desktop and mobile applications, and an elaborated, 160-word version to be hosted on a community-guidelines page as a point of reference. They looked like this:
These are the guidelines
I made for my guidelines
Eviscerate negative language.
Words like no, not, never, only, don't, and avoid are almost imperceptibly subtle, but they're still off-brand for a community that bills itself as a safe space for young learners to take charge of their education. I wanted to guide user behavior exclusively with positive, affirmative language. I wanted to guide user behavior exclusively with positive, affirmative language to suggest that these guidelines were not rules imposed from above, but were reiterations of a preexisting ethical system devised by the student-community itself.
Give the community the space it needs to be its own thing.
Guidelines should guide. As soon as they start to micromanage or police behavior, they become rules and antagonists. Users need enough space to feel that they're making their own decisions. The client suggested a few points that I worried would be too didactic and overbearing to stay on-brand, like "state a concise result or outcome of your reasoning," or "use LATEX for equations and highlight the most important parts of your answer." I wanted to back these phrases away from classroom-style instructional language and into a friendlier, collegial tone by staying focused on what they were trying to accomplish. In this case, the client wanted users to think about their own needs when determining how to provide higher-quality answers to other users' questions.
Just a little bit of space, though. Never a lot.
Brainly's users are mostly middle- and high-school age students, and while they can figure a lot out for themselves they're likely to ignore language that feels too vague. I worried the client's preliminary guidelines relied too heavily on phrases like "be helpful," "be clear," and "reduce vagueness," all of which are perfectly sensible but are far too abstract to have a meaningful effect on young users. These instructions needed to be specified in terms of what mattered most about them. I proposed a concrete, easy-to-understand action: "Map out your thinking". It's broad enough to avoid imposing on the student but direct enough to give them something simple and clear to keep in mind as they compose their answers.
Assume that everyone has exceptional intuition for insincerity.
Never be a poseur—especially in the under-18 crowd. I wanted these guidelines to feel like they preexisted any effort to write them down—as though they were an obvious expression of certain standards the community had already put in place on its. But posing never works with younger users and consumers; they know it when they see it, and they hate it because it presumes their ignorance. I wanted to avoid any appearance of inauthenticity by channeling a baseline of respect for each user's needs and expectations. By starting with the forceful but deferential injunction to "give Brainly your best," I wanted to establish how Brainly presupposes that every student-user already has a "best" aspect worth sharing—a message that is lost in phrases like "be the teacher" or "avoid copying," which suggest that something about the user needs to change.
Shorten all the things.
Nobody wants to read user guidelines, especially when they're long. The client's proposed guidelines were only 250 words long, but that was still 225 words too long. I wanted to meet all client requirements in the shortest and simplest way possible, and the best way to do that was with two separate iterations of the guidelines designed to be used in two different ways.
* The lovely header illustration for this post is from Jack Hudson.