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UX writing and how it shapes the product

Often overlooked, UX writing is what makes a product feel alive. When done well, it injects personality, guides the user and more.

Photo via stocksy.

Profile picture of Coren Feldman


8 min read

UX writing is everywhere. We’re constantly interacting with it, whether we realize it or not. It’s in buttons, pop-ups, alerts, notifications, and default copy in text fields. It’s in the “What’s happening?” prompt in Twitter and the “What’s on your mind?” status update on Facebook. It’s what drives the user to perform actions. It’s what makes a product feel alive.

What is UX writing and why is it important?

UX writing lives in a place between marketing and product and can often fall to either department, depending on the company. Many companies don’t have dedicated UX writers. Whoever has a knack for it, the UX designer writing the feature spec, or the UI designer drawing up the mockups, might end up being the person who handles it.

It’s strange how overlooked it is, given how big an impact it has. In almost any platform, whether it’s an app, a website, or an operating system, UX copy will be seen more than marketing copy, certainly by existing users.

A brand’s tone is set and maintained meticulously by the marketing department, but, in many instances, writing a tooltip or a prompt gets picked up by anyone who’s on hand. If the UX writing is inconsistent with the image a brand sets in its ads and marketing materials, users might feel like the product is underdeveloped, unfriendly, or neglected.

Great interactions with a product happen when the user feels that they are being spoken to at eye level.

It’s important that UX writing is done right. It might seem like a small detail, but imagine how many variations of the call-to-action for a status update Facebook tested before settling on the current one. Just as changing a color or an image can have a significant impact on conversion rates, the exact words you use can determine how likely users are to follow through on an action you want them to take.

UX designer writing notes on wall

How the principles of UX design apply to UX writing

Good UX writing is like good UX design.

It needs to be executed first and foremost with the user in mind. You may have a metric you’re trying to improve, but if you aren’t considering what the experience is like for your users, you may create an experience that is off-putting.

When writing from your user’s perspective, think about what they care about and why they would want to perform that action. Always frame actions in the way the user will benefit from them most. Going back to Twitter again–you can imagine the difference in conversions between “Enter your tweet” (or something to that effect) and “What’s happening?” The former is uninviting and almost robotic, while the latter is personal, colloquial, and an interesting call-to-action.

Putting yourself in your user’s shoes is more than just what sounds friendly, though. Just like user personas help identify how to build experiences for the user, they can help you understand how to speak to them as well. A messenger app targeted at 15-25-year-olds isn’t going to use the same language as a healthcare website design.

Ideally, when drafting brand guidelines, the tone and language the company uses should be included. Simple adjectives like helpful, calm, and happy can help zero in on what your brand should sound like whenever it addresses your users, especially on your platform.

If your workflow dictates that copy is added after design, you should make sure you’re not using placeholder text while designing, because accidentally forgetting to replace it with the real thing can result in the placeholder copy getting implemented. Developers aren’t necessarily looking closely at what the copy is when they’re coding, so you should never let something that’s not supposed to be implemented get to them.

At the very least, there should be an acceptable, minimum level of quality that copy should be written with as the feature is being designed, even if you’re planning on coming back later with a writer.

Hand drawn UX wireframes

Why you should add UX copy as you design

That being said, it’s worth considering writing UX copy as you design features, whether you’re writing it yourself or working alongside a writer.

If, instead of waiting until the end to inject it, we make it a part of the process, UX copy doesn’t have to just inform the user. It can inform the design.

Designing a user experience is ultimately about communicating with users: highlighting important parts of the platform, defining a hierarchy that makes it easy to parse, and creating a flow that’s intuitive.

If we design with UX copy, we’re giving ourselves another chance to see things from our users’ perspectives during critical phases of the design process.

Where things can go wrong if you neglect UX writing

If you’re designing a new feature and adding copy as you go, you may find yourself having a hard time finding tooltip, button, or pop-up copy that’s clear. If you can’t communicate the feature to the user with text, your designs might not be communicating it visually, either.

It could also highlight the disparity between the feature and the brand tone. For example, if a messaging platform is built to be used between close friends, it may not make sense to encourage the user to share their friend code on Twitter.

It can be easy to overlook user needs or brand tone when company goals are at odds with them–and that’s not to say that they can’t be reconciled or balanced–but it’s important to keep humane design principles in mind as you design.

Team meeting with woman presenting UX flow on whiteboard

Working on the UX copy as you design can also help make writing the UX copy easier.

For example, spacing can be an issue when designing without a writer. Assuming you can say everything you want to communicate on one line during the design phase can make it hard to write the copy later. Sometimes text is longer than you might anticipate, and having to go back to the design phase late in the process will burn valuable time when it should be ready to hand off to developers. Knowing you need more space for the copy while you’re designing allows you to make changes before you’ve cemented the design in order for the copy to be optimally displayed.

If, instead of waiting until the end to inject it, we make it a part of the process, UX copy doesn’t have to just inform the user. It can inform the design.

A/B-testing copy is an important part of UX writing and a good way of boosting metrics, but it should always be executed by a UX writer in cooperation with a growth team, not just by the growth team alone. It’s easy to justify adding a variation to a copy test that you wouldn’t otherwise put in the platform. Using vague or misleading terms, or even veering into clickbait territory altogether, can be excused by saying the results will show whether it’s a successful variant or not.

This can often be a debate between growth teams and product or marketing departments. Just because something raises metrics doesn’t mean it’s always worth doing. Adding clickbait text to a platform will likely improve conversions for an action you want a user to take, but it’ll also make your product feel cheap and erode user trust over time. Keeping a UX writer involved in this process will ensure that your users are being considered at every step, and that company goals aren’t being achieved at the expense of the people who love your product.

What makes for good UX writing?

1. Good UX writing manages user expectations

Pain points for users are often created when the product they’re using isn’t communicating what’s happening. Everyone at one point or another has complained about the inconsistent “time left” on loading bars.

When the user doesn’t know what to expect from the product, they start to lose interest in it. Even for short wait times, for example a 10-second loading spinner on an app, it’s important to convey what’s going on to the user as accurately as possible. Showing the text “loading…” with no more information is like telling your user the process could take forever. After a few seconds, they won’t know what to expect and they will feel disconnected from your product.

Giving them more information about the length of time or why it’s taking so long can go a long way to keeping them engaged.

For instance, showing a spinner with the text “Loading your contacts. This can take up to 10 seconds” lets them know exactly what the process is and the amount of time it will take. Now your user feels more involved and connected to your product because you’ve shown you are transparent and that you care about their time.

Managing user expectations can also be important when they are the ones taking actions.

We’ve all experienced accidentally performing an action because there was no confirmation pop-up or the alert was unclear. Taking a negative action like deleting should always have two options: Cancel and Delete. Sometimes yes or no questions can be phrased in confusing ways. To avoid this and ensure a clear decision, include the action they are taking in the button copy (and, when applicable, mark it in red or other warning colors).

2. Good UX writing is succinct

A large percentage of users (especially younger demographics) don’t read most of the text that’s presented to them, and not just in the terms of service. Users have become accustomed to being able to figure out how a product functions without their hands being held, so anything that isn’t critical is skimmed at best.

Almost anything you want to tell the user should be conveyed in a sentence or two if you want to hold their attention. Even users who do read text displayed to them can only retain so much information at a time.

Mockup of mobile app - hand holding iPhone

Use your copy sparingly, especially for non-essential communication. The more times you bring up text via a pop-up, tooltip, etc, the more likely the user is to stop paying attention.

Using the shortest possible version of your copy will make sure more users actually pay attention to what you need to tell them.

While it can be frustrating to limit your interactions with users, it can also be an opportunity to define what’s most important to communicate and figure out how to convey it in the clearest and simplest way possible.

3. Good UX writing is actionable

Keeping your copy in an active voice focuses the user on the task at hand.

Introducing features or new concepts should be done when it’s relevant for the user and when they can interact with them. Instead of having an overlay with five arrows pointing to every button on the page, it’s best if you highlight what makes the most sense for the user to understand in context and let them follow up on it. Starting sentences with verbs also helps get the user moving toward that action.

Mockup for weather app - hand holding iPhone

A good example is dead ends. If the user is ever at a point where there’s nothing to do, barring action on their part–like an empty feed–that’s when it’s critical to let them know how they can change that.

For example, the first time a user uses a platform, there may be an empty state explaining that they can: “Follow friends to see their posts here.”

Pair that with a “Sync Contacts” button, and the user knows why they’re stuck and how they can change that.

Even if there’s another part of the platform that already has that same functionality, linking to it with this contextual UX copy will help let users know what to do and increase conversions on an action that’s beneficial both to you and them.

4. Good UX writing feels like a conversation with your product

Your product’s tone should match its users and speak to them. Great interactions with a product happen when the user feels that they are being spoken to at eye level.

An easy win when looking to adjust your brand language is to steer away from any technical terms that aren’t critical for the user to know.

For example, if a user clicks on an expired link, seeing a large system “ERROR 400” text gives the impression that you don’t care about users in this situation and that your product is rigid and inflexible. If instead the user sees the text “Hmm, that link seems to be broken. We’ll get that checked out as soon as possible,” they will feel like you care about them and their experience.

Finding your brand’s tone and injecting it into your product is the difference between having a conversation and running into a brick wall.

Top view of UX designer's workspace with wireframes, laptop and screen

So why focus on UX writing?

There are a lot of important team members that companies need to run, and, at first glance, UX writers might not seem like a high priority. But hiring a UX writer can help cut down design time, facilitate better communication between departments and with users, and create a friendlier, easier-to-use product.

Investing in your product and your users will ultimately pay off in adoption rate and retention.

Users are more likely to use a product that feels more intuitive and speaks to them in a language they understand and appreciate.

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