Illustration by Rouba Shabou
Words are a powerful force and copy plays a tremendous role in helping users interact with a product. Not surprisingly, product teams invest a lot of time polishing pixels and writing the best possible copy.
In more recent years, writing copy for digital products evolved into its own specialty—user experience (UX) writing. As products become more complex, companies need UX writers who can shape the product experience and guide users through certain tasks. In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at the role of the UX writer and explore basic UX writing guidelines.
What is UX writing?
Design is all about communication. No matter what the product is, we’re designing a conversation between the product and the people who will use it. UX writing supports the design, making the interaction more intuitive for users.
UX writers create what we call UX copy—both microcopy (small bites of text such as labels for buttons, menu options, etc.) and macrocopy (informative messages and invitations, text on confirmation pages, etc.).
Why is UX writing so important?
Text makes up a significant part of mobile design and up to 95% of web design. It can make or break the user experience, helping or hindering a user’s ability to navigate a product. Copy is a critical part of our design.
Unfortunately, one of the most common mistakes is side-lining the copy until much too late in the design process. An amateur team might think that the product design is the most important and that a copywriter can join the project at the very end and fill in the blanks with copy.
However, this can lead to big problems. Your design will inform the copy, but it can also go in the opposite direction. It’s much better to work on text early, as this can help you avoid making too many design changes as the product evolves.
Are UX writing and marketing writing the same thing?
If you’re not familiar with the product marketing process, you might think that all copywriting is the same. But it’s important to distinguish a user experience writer from a marketing writer. Marketing writers focus on selling products, from the beginning stages of attracting potential customers to the final stage of converting them into real customers.
UX writers, on the other hand, create copy for people who are already using the product (existing customers), with the goal of making sure that the user experience is as smooth as possible.
Also, UX writers and marketing writers typically join the project at different stages. Whereas a marketing writer would join when the team has a product that’s ready to sell and promote, UX writers are part of the design process from the very beginning, working with the product team to create a solid foundation for the design.
What do UX writers do?
User experience writers are responsible for crafting useful and meaningful text that helps users complete different tasks within a product. But writing isn’t the only activity that UX writers do.
It’s important to understand that UX writers don’t work in isolation; they are full-time members of the multi-disciplinary product team. Along with designers and developers, UX writers shape product experiences and typically take an active role in user research and usability testing.
Through this research and testing, they learn the language and specific words that the target audience uses and observe how people interact with prototypes. These insights can have a tremendous impact on many aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI). When a computer (i.e. your product) “speaks” in a familiar way, users will have an easier time navigating and engaging with it.
UX writers also invest in accessible design—they make the design more accessible to users with different abilities. For example, by creating transcriptions for videos you make content accessible for people with hearing impairments.
How much money do UX writers earn?
With all the responsibilities UX writers have, it’s no surprise that it’s both a very interesting and very lucrative career. According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a UX writer in 2020 comes in at around $120,000 in the United States.
How does one get into UX writing?
Similar to any other discipline, there are a lot of different paths into UX writing. Some people move to UX writing from other similar fields, like journalism or technical writing. Others get their start in internships and work their way up.
For most mid-level UX writing positions, you’ll need a portfolio of UX-focused writing samples and a few years of experience in the industry. For your portfolio, make sure you have a few solid projects to show, such as working on product suites or writing guidelines for design systems. Experience requirements may vary; the job description on Google asks for 8 years of relevant industry experience, for example, but a smaller startup might be OK with less experience.
6 foundational principles of UX writing
Now that we have a clear answer to the question “what is UX writing?”, it’s time to discuss a few foundational principles for UX writing.
Below you’ll find a summary, but for more detailed information, I encourage you to watch the following video from Maggie Stanphill, Alison Rung, and Juliana Appendrodt’s presentation at Google’s annual developer conference.
First and foremost, UX copywriters need to understand their target audience, including who they are and what they need when they interact with the product. This will help the writer prioritize and craft copy that will actually be useful.
And remember: more text doesn’t always mean more value. UX copy should never be overwhelming. It’s a writer’s job to organize it in a way that helps users interact with the product and get where they want to go faster.
Too much text isn’t just confusing, it’s also tough to fit into most digital designs. Many people these days use mobile devices to consume content, so there’s limited space on the screen. Most people scan copy instead of reading it, as well.
To satisfy the needs of modern users, it’s important to write concisely. Remove any copy that isn’t truly necessary, and use short, scannable sentences. Every word should count.
Here’s an example:
- Not-concise copy: Would you like to save your changes?
- Concise copy: Save changes?
When it comes to copy in the UI design, clarity is a top priority. Avoid any industry-specific terms and jargon and use simple words that everyone can understand.
- Unclear copy: Buffering…
- Clear copy: Preparing video…
It’s also best to avoid idioms, since their meanings might not be clear to everyone.
- Idiom: It’s raining cats and dogs
- Clear copy: Heavy rain
Most people’s eyes follow an F-shaped pattern as they read—users start at the top-left corner of the screen and read a couple of lines, then start scanning down the page and catching only a few words of each sentence.
To make this scanning process easier for users, consider frontloading your text: place important keywords near the beginning of headings and paragraphs so they’re easy to spot. You can also highlight important keywords within the text by using a different font styling, like using bold or italics. By doing that, you’ll help users notice certain words as they scan the page.
Finally, avoid long blocks of text. Instead, use shorter paragraphs and sections to create easily scannable segments of text. You can always offer preview text along with a “Read more” link so that users can access more information if they need it. This is known as “progressive disclosure.”
5. Consistent tone and voice
Good UX writing not only makes interfaces more usable, but it also builds trust. This has a direct impact on user retention: the more users trust the product, the more they are willing to use it.
So, how do you build this trust? First, your copy must embody the voice of the organization. You’ll need to think about what you want to say, but also how to say it. The tone should reflect the values of the organization but still resonate with their user and their needs.
Second, try reading your copy out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would say? Robotic-sounding copy or anything that doesn’t fit with your brand’s personality is usually a turn-off.
To keep things consistent, many UX copywriters create and use content style guides. These guides or documents outline the tone of voice, specific words to use, and so on. Here’s a great example from Shopify.
6. Easily translatable
As our world becomes more globalized, products need to be applicable to multiple markets. This is especially important in the context of copywriting. UX copy needs to be clear and understandable to anyone, regardless of their culture or native language.
While you may not be responsible for the actual translation of the text, there are some important tips to keep in mind to make the process easier for whoever will be translating it:
- Keep in mind that text lengths may vary between languages. For example, German phrases tend to be longer than those in English, Spanish, or French. You can use pseudolocalization tools to test how it might look within your design.
- Avoid slang that might not be easy to translate into other languages.
UX writing guidelines: 9 common rules to follow
We’ve discussed the general principles, now let’s talk about more specific do’s and don’ts for UX writing. While every brand is free to set its own standards and guidelines, here are a few examples from Google and Microsoft:
1. Use “today,” “yesterday,” or “tomorrow” instead of a specific date
In normal conversation, we don’t usually use the date when referring to the day before or after the current day; you would just say “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” The same rule applies when we design for UIs.
2. Avoid double negatives
Double negatives are just plain confusing! Don’t make your users spend extra time decoding the meaning of a message.
Don’t: I do not want to unsubscribe
Do: Keep my subscription
3. Don’t capitalize words and sentences
All-caps text is fine in contexts that don’t involve reading (such as logos), but it’s better to avoid it in all other scenarios. All-caps text can make it harder to scan a page, so keep the capitalization to just the first word of a heading or phrase.
Don’t: YOU HAVE A NEW MESSAGE
Do: You have a new message
4. Use specific verbs instead of “OK” or “Submit’’ in dialogs
Your call-to-action—the specific verb phrase you use on your buttons or links—can make a big impact on your user experience. Use specific verbs whenever possible (such as “Delete,” “Connect,” and “Save”) because they will be more meaningful to users than a generic “OK.”
5. Skip periods
To help users scan text, avoid using punctuation in places where it isn’t necessary. Do not use periods on labels, hover text, bulleted lists, or dialog body text.
Don’t: Create file.
Do: Create file
6. Be careful with humor
Humor can humanize a product. But similar to any other component of UI, humor needs to be strategic and thoughtful.
Here are a few things to remember:
- Consider the emotional state of a user in a given moment. In some cases, humor might not be appropriate. For example, if a user just lost their data due to a system error, don’t try to make light of the situation with an error message like this: “Oops. It seems that we just lost your document. Soooo sorry!”
- People have different senses of humor, especially across cultures. What one person finds funny, other people might find rude and insulting.
- People are likely to read the text in your interface many times, and what might seem funny at first can become irritating over time (especially if you use humor in error messages).
7. Consider the platform
Use language that’s consistent with the platform you’re designing for. The terms we use when describing the interaction with a desktop app do not necessarily work on mobile platforms. For example, if you design an iPhone app, you would say “tap” instead of “click” when referring to the interactive UI element.
8. Use consistent copy
Inconsistency creates confusion, so be consistent with your wording across your UI. For instance, if you decide to call the process of arranging something “Scheduling” in one part of your UI, don’t call it a “Booking” on another screen.
9. Show, don’t tell
Human beings are visual creatures; our ability to interpret visual information is hard-wired into our brains. In some contexts, it might be hard (or nearly impossible) to describe something using only words. That’s where imagery can support UX writers and help them convey meaning. Visuals can supplement the copy and provide additional information to help users understand, like in the example below.
Design isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s also about functionality—UX writing is one of the key ways to improve the functionally of your product. It takes a lot of time and effort to write solid UX copy, but you should never think of this time as wasted.
Instead, think of the time required to craft good UX writing as an investment in your design. Every word in your product is part of a conversation with your users, and when the communication is effective, your users will have a much better user experience.