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5 ways UX writing can fight fear-induced friction

4 min read
Merav Levkowitz  •  Jun 3, 2019
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The internet can be a scary place—and I’m not even talking about the dark web.

As we hand our data over to websites, apps, and other online platforms for the sake of convenience and services, we relinquish a lot of control over to these providers and anyone they’re working with. Every day, new stories come out about how these services are tied—your Amazon Alexa is recording you and working with other apps, for example—and how our privacy is more and more at risk.

We all fall somewhere different on the convenience–security spectrum. Some of us value the freedom these products and services afford us above all; others of us want to keep our data a bit more closely guarded. And when it comes to user experience, asking for possibly sensitive information can put bumps in the road, even for users for whom privacy isn’t always the top concern.

As my clients can attest, every time I sit down with a team developing any sort of digital interface—whether it’s a health management app, a cybersecurity platform, or a payment portal—before I write a single sentence, my “fear cap” comes on as I consider what might cause users to be afraid of moving forward.

Here are five ways I’ve found to fight fear-induced friction in your digital interfaces:

1. Read your users’ minds and preempt their questions.

Think of the information you need from your users, and consider what they (and people in general) might see as sensitive or might be hesitant to share.

To get you started, here is a (partial) list of things people may be afraid of sharing online and what might go through their head when you ask for it:

  • Address: Why do you need it? Who’s going to see it?
  • Social security or any other ID number: Why do you need it? What are you going to do with it?
  • Phone number: Are you going to call me?
  • Email address: How often are you going to email me? Are you going to spam me? Are you going to sell my email address?
  • Payment: Is it secure? How much am I going to be charged? When am I going to be charged? Is it a one-time or recurring payment? Can I cancel it?
  • Social media profile: If I give you access, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to post on my profile? Who is going to see it?
  • Medical/financial information: Who is going to see it? Are you going to share it? Is it safe with you?

Once you address the purpose of what you’re asking for, you can think of ways to address your users’ fears and be more transparent, whether by changing your flow and/or by adding microcopy that eliminates doubt and fear (more on those below).

When you first book, Airbnb assures you that you won’t be charged yet.

Sharing something in “Public” mode on LinkedIn? They remind you that anyone can see it, even without logging into the service.

Canva lets you know that your payment is encrypted and safe.

Zoom tells you right off the bat that signing up is free.

Amazon Prime makes it clear up front that you won’t be trapped forever because you can always cancel.

2. Go through your app or platform and identify what you really need. Eliminate everything else.

One of the challenges in designing digital interfaces is that what you need today might not be what you need tomorrow. While your now goals might be simple, as your operation grows and changes, you’ll probably be looking at more complicated goals and maneuvers.

“Once you address the purpose of what you’re asking for, you can think of ways to address your users’ fears and be more transparent.”

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My suggestion sounds tenuous (and feels it, too) but it’s worthwhile: Go through the different parts of your app or platform as a user would—or, even better, do a bit of user testing—and find the moments where there might be reasons for pauses or hesitation. Sure, some users won’t think twice, but for those who will—what can you do to streamline the flow?

Simplifying your signup form

The example below comes from one of my clients. When they first developed their site, the newsletter signup form had six mandatory fields: email address, first name, last name, zip/postal code, phone number, and ID. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

You probably won’t be shocked to find out that people weren’t rushing to sign up. We had long discussions about what was necessary and what could be nixed, recognizing that the shorter the form got, the more likely people were to sign up—though this meant we were more likely to get signups from people who weren’t our true target audience. We ultimately settled on three fields: email address (duh), name (leaving it up to the user to put in first and last name, just first name, or a nickname), and zip code (to let them know where their users were located).

While we weren’t able to test the two side by side in a true A/B test, after just a few weeks of directing our audience to the new form online, as well as having them sign up on iPads at events as we had done with the previous form, it became clear that more users were signing up and were completing the process faster.

Even though we forfeited the ability to be able to send newsletters starting with “Hi, [first name]” because we wouldn’t necessarily know someone’s first name, in the process, we created a signup process that was much smoother for users.


Streamlining your purchase process

Fun e-commerce fact: According to a study conducted by the Baymard Institute, shopping cart abandonment rates average around 70%. That means seven out of every ten “full” carts get emptied!

Digging deeper, Baymard found that 34% of those surveyed abandoned because “The site wanted me to create an account.” 30% responded that the checkout process was “Too long/complicated.”

The study found that the average U.S. checkout flow has almost 24 form elements, while usability testing showed that the ideal is between 12 and 14 form elements. Cut to the chase—and let your users cut to the front of the (digital) checkout line!

3. Don’t scare users off by asking for everything at once

When it comes to designing flows, there’s often a desire to make things shorter, even if it demands combining screens for one or a few that are more crowded. There’s a good reason for that: as Baymard found, more screens increase the chance that your users will get tired and abandon—without completing the flow.

These cuts, though, can result in long pages that overwhelm and confuse users, especially on mobile. Plus, if the page suddenly crashes, there’s a greater chance that everything will go down the drain, rather than just the single part at hand.

Instead, consider forms and user specialist Caroline Jarrett’s “one thing per page” strategy, which focuses on dividing a complex process into bite-sized chunks. On Amazon, for example, first you “Add to cart,” then you “Proceed to checkout,” and finally you “Place your order.”



Consider Airbnb: to sign up (assuming you don’t choose to link your Facebook or Google account), you’ll need to enter your email address, first name, last name, a password, and your birthday (which, they explain, is just to make sure you meet the age criteria for the service). Not too bad, right?

Later on, to complete your profile, however, you’ll need to provide a lot more information—your gender, phone number, government ID, and more, all of which makes sense when you’re going to be staying in the homes of strangers or letting strangers stay in yours. But how many of us would willingly provide all of that up front to a service we’re encountering for the first time, even if we’ve heard great things about it? For a lot of users, all those details are likely to raise eyebrows and questions.

4. Explain why you’re asking and you’re going to do with the information you’re collecting.

Speaking of raising eyebrows, one easy way to stop the questions in their tracks is as straightforward as can be: Just explain why you need what you’re asking for, like Airbnb does above, or Facebook does when it asks for a birthday for signup (below).


Of course, this, too, can be a delicate balancing act: how do you explain things like data collection without making it too technical or oversharing and putting thoughts into users’ heads?

In the profile example above, for instance, Airbnb offers a short explanation under each required field that clears up whether the information is going to be shared—again, a sensitive subject when you’re staying in strangers’ homes—and why, then, the company asks for it.

British Airways handles this slightly differently on their check-in page. If you’re traveling to the US, they require your passport information, and while as a user, you’re probably aware that you need a passport for international travel, you may not understand why British Airways needs your information at this point. Instead of simply forcing you to enter it, they provide a link labeled “Passport information required – why?” that, when clicked, opens a popup that explains just that.

Some users may choose to gloss over these explanations, simply ignoring the text under the field or opting not to click on the explanatory link, but for those who need a bit more reassurance, they smooth over worries without being too in-your-face.

5. It’s about more than just error messages—throw in some validation and positive reinforcement when you can.

So this isn’t necessarily the shaking-in-my-boots type of scary, but how many times have you done something online—sent a message or payment, placed an order—only feel like you released a message in a bottle, with no sense of whether it reached its destination, or any destination at all?

[invTweetsa]”Positive validation messages can be a godsend.”[/invTweetSA]

Did my payment go through? Will someone see my complaint and get back to me? Did the store receive my order?

All of these cause bumps in the user experience that often boomerang back to you. That’s because users who didn’t find all the answers they need on your site or app are likely to bog down your customer service with more emails, chats, and phone calls.

Positive validation messages can be a godsend in these situations. Something as small as a toast that says, “Sent” lets users know that their message went through. Plus, toasts like this train users, subconsciously even, to know that something’s wrong when we don’t see them, not to mention that a verbal “ding” makes it feel like a two-way street and keeps us engaged.



Messages of acknowledgement, like the system email from Nordstrom Rack that I received after submitting feedback online, or even just a short popup that appears after hitting “Send,” make users feel acknowledged and listened to, especially when they offer a concrete response time, like “We’ll make sure that we get back to you within 24 hours,” or another solution (for example, an online chat with a representative) if something’s urgent.

“Messages of acknowledgement…make users feel acknowledged and listened to.”

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Similarly, this screen from DocuSign lets users rest easy after signing an important contract or agreement that they’ll receive a copy for their records once it’s been signed by all.

As I see it, politics, plastic-filled oceans, and potential zombie attacks are scary enough. Digital interfaces don’t have to be.

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