Without words you don’t have a product. Whether you’re building a website or an app, words constitute an essential part of a content ecosystem that includes UX microcopy (such as error messages, button labels, or navigation menus), marketing, support docs, pricing, onboarding flows, transactional emails, notifications, and more. All of them feature words that have meaning and affect the experience of users.
Lately, UX writing has finally been getting the attention it deserves and is emerging as a critical role within the product design process. However, companies still routinely under appreciate the difference words can make or simply invest in the wrong ones. For this article, we invited leading information architects, content strategists, and UX writers from the likes of Adobe, Dropbox, and The New Yorker to explain just how content is inextricably linked to the user experience and how UX copy can make, or break, a product. Here’s what they had to say:
Great content = great UX
According to Dan Brown, founder and principal of design firm EightShapes, by the definition of user experience, content can’t even be separated from the UX. They are one.
“A user experience is essentially a gestalt — the combination of elements we call content, style, layout, and structure,” he explains. “When a product or website has bad content, it has a bad experience. If the content is good but, say, the navigation makes it difficult to access the content, the product also has a bad experience. So if you don’t pay enough attention to the content, then you’re not really designing a product!”
Sophie Tahran, senior UX writer for The New Yorker at Condé Nast, agrees and points out when the words in an interface are thoughtfully written, the user shouldn’t even notice them.
“UX writing is meant to reduce friction, guiding the user in a way that sounds on-brand and makes it as easy as possible to accomplish the task at hand,” she says. “The smoother the voice, the smoother the user experience. The downside of this is that UX writing can be a thankless job. When the copy sounds simple and natural, it’s easy to assume that the writing process is, too — but it’s often more difficult to write concisely than it is to wax poetic.”
Tahran suggests that sometimes the best way to show how UX writing can make or break the user experience is by removing the words altogether: “Picture a sign-in screen or an error message without any words on it: where would you go from there?”
Speak the user’s language
Sarah Richards, founder of Content Design London and author of a book about “Content Design,” has learned first-hand that a single word can make or break a service.
“Years ago I worked on a multi-million dollar digital transaction for the UK government that was about to go live,” she remembers. “At the last minute, someone senior said they wanted to use the term ‘NIN’ instead of National Insurance Number. They said they wanted the public to learn that term as it was what ‘back office’ staff used.”
Richard’s team argued that no-one would know that term, and that on a digital service it’s best to stick to the users’ language. The results of the research they went into couldn’t be clearer.
“Unsurprisingly, it had a 100 percent failure rate. The question about the NI number was one of three questions on the first page. No-one could get through to the next page because they didn’t know what a NIN was! We changed the term back to National Insurance Number and the service ended up with an 86 percent completion rate. One word broke that service. So always use your users’ language. They don’t want to learn anything from you in the middle of a task. They want to get on.”
Don’t just guess user needs
Careful planning and user research are crucial for a successful digital product, agrees Scott Kubie, lead content strategist at consultancy Brain Traffic and author of “Writing for Designers”.
“You don’t design a great web experience by starting with stunning hero images, perfectly-animated flyout menus, or ‘modular templates that empower storytellers’,” he cautions.
“That stuff is all icing on the content cake that is your website. Great web experiences are made of great content: Content that knows who it’s for, what it’s about, how people will find it, and how people will use it.”
Kubie argues that the content-first approach — see Steph Hay’s seminal 2015 article on A List Apart — is only half of it.
“Having content planning before templates and visual designs is great, but that content must respond to an understanding of actual user needs,” he advises. “Guessing about what users want and need on your website is one of the most expensive mistakes otherwise smart businesses make over and over again.“
Ensure the words are usable, useful, and responsible
Andy Welfle, UX content strategy manager at Adobe and co-author of “Writing Is Designing,” stresses that the words are as important to a user experience as the visual and interactive design — sometimes more so.
He recommends that the language you use should follow three principles throughout the design experience: the words should be usable, useful, and responsible. Let’s quickly dig into each one and look at a few examples:
“The words we write for interfaces should be clear and helpful, and — just as UX designers are mandated with — accomplish what they set out to do,” Welfle suggests.
The below before (left) and after (right) shot of an Adobe Creative Cloud mobile search page shows some text at the end of a list of tutorials. Welfle’s team was able to cut the length by more than half, and made the “Search” action in the text tappable to the search interface.
“It’s always more usable to show, not tell,” Welfle advises.
Is your writing representative of something people want to do? Does it give users control over the interface, and does it add value to their experience?
“Pinterest’s terms of service has an extra blurb accompanying each of its sections of legalese, more clearly explaining what the thick language is saying,” Welfle explains. “While it would be even better to convert the legalese to plain language in the first place, this is a great step toward useful language.”
How can the words you’re designing be misused? Are they truthful? Are they inclusive? Are they being used in an experience designed to deceive, or to earn trust from your users?
Welfle points out that we see deceptive patterns so often that violate this, and other, principles of UX writing — for example, “confirmation shaming.”
The below example from a gardening website is specifically designed to a) be hard to find and b) make the user feel bad to stop them from opting-out of the intrusive pop-up presented to them. This is not responsible.
Demonstrate trust through the words you use
Andrea Drugay, group manager for copy at Slack, agrees that the language you use plays a vital role in earning the trust of the user.
“If the copy in your product uses inconsistent language, or if the tone varies wildly throughout the user journey, you’re training your readers to expect inconsistency,” she warns. “Inconsistency breeds distrust. People who use your product want to know that they can trust you to deliver a solid experience, and if you’re not demonstrating trust through your words, what else do they have to go on?”
In order to build trust, Drugay recommends making sure both that your terminology is consistent and that your tone is appropriate to the situation.
“If I can count on your copy to be kind and polite during moments that might be frustrating for me, I’ll be okay with bits of delight during more lighthearted moments,” she points out. “But inverting those can break the experience, and you might lose me as a customer if you lean on clever copy in difficult moments instead of being straightforward.”
Create better products with better content
Approach your product’s content with care, and consider every aspect of it from the customer’s perspective. Research and test your content early and often (as you would any other part of your product), and you will put it at the heart of user experience where it belongs. Crucially, you’ll also save a ton of time and money.
So, make sure your UX writing reduces friction, builds trust, and guides the user; use their language, and regularly check you followed the three principles of your words needing to be usable, useful, and responsible. Keep all of that in mind, and you’ll master effective content for better digital products.