The Neglect of Copy in Product Design

The copy in any digital product is a big part of the product, and yet copy barely gets a mention when you read about product design.

Perhaps some product designers come from an artistic background, so they’ve rarely engaged with writing as a skill.

Yet many of the big fails I see in product design aren’t to do with the animations, the icons or the design language.

It’s in copy that confuses you and makes you anxious about the outcome, rather than giving clarity. It’s in the text that make you feel uneasy rather than confident.

Lemme give you a few examples of talking about.

The Mistake of Abstracting Design Challenges via Copy

You’re working on a new feature, and your team agrees that you’ll need to introduce the new feature, so your users will be able to understand it and start using it.

It’s tempting to throw in an onboarding carousel to explain the feature, tell the team that there will be “some copy explaining it here” and move on. Any objections can be handled with the classic “it’s just wording and we can fine-tune it later”.

Unfortunately, you haven’t really designed a solution to anything here.

Usually, some poor copywriter has to stare at a blank Google doc or excel sheet to come up with some copy to fill the hole in 100 characters or less.

The questions remain of how you onboard people, how many slides will you go for, what are the key points to explain, what does the user want and need to know at this point?

As the designer, I’ve conducted the UX research, I’ve looked for the user pain-points and I’ve got the best understanding of what’s the right amount of information for the user to move forward successfully.

When I write out “good enough” copy, the team and the users can start seeing whether the design actually works or not, right now, instead of kicking the can down the road.

Copy is core to the UX and there’s no way around that

So, I was conducting a user test of a new feature idea.

In this case, we had the copy translated from English into another language for our users for the purposes of user testing.

We started the test, and I immediately noticed that the prototype confused people. I started to wonder whether our whole approach was wrong. Perhaps we’d made a mistake in the product idea.

Then, I double checked the prototype, and I noticed that there was a mistake in the copy, messing up the test.

In product design, you don’t separate UI and UX from each other. Sometimes, you need to fix both. In the same vein, you have to adjust both the UI and the copy to find a design that helps the user do what they want to do.

Copy is About Finding Solutions

Once I’d accepted that writing copy was a part of my job as a product designer, I still had to find ways to work with all the different inputs from other departments.

Because copy is so core to the experience, and because everyone ultimately can write, you’re going to get a ton of input on copy from the entire company.

Designers have to synthesis these inputs while keeping the user and business requirements in mind.

I’ve noticed some patterns on the type of input you’ll get from different groups.

Product managers and product designers want to go above and beyond in creating a product with a high “wow” factor. They’re highly familiar with the product, so they’ll push for a fancy solution, even when it’s not the right place for it.

The legal department wants to cover everyone’s ass. They’ll push for just stating the facts to the user, based on thinking that you can dismiss any complaints with the line “it was stated in our terms and conditions”. As a designer, however, you know you can’t blame the user if they put themselves into a position they didn’t actually want due to your design.

The business side wants an outcome. They want a certain behavior from the users, and you’ll have to think about how you design a solution to bring about that outcome. You’ll find that they’ll tend to go for an approach of “just tell the user to do this” or “just educate the user”.

Unfortunately, as every cigarette smoker demonstrates, information alone is rarely effective at changing behavior.

Marketing, as the voice of the company, has very specific guidelines about which word and language can be use. They tend to think that “punchy”, “smart” or “funny” is better. Your role is to make sure that the clarity of the message doesn’t get lost in the process of branded messages.

Copy is Part of the Product Designer’s Job

As a product designer, copywriting is part of your job. Just the same as animation, prototyping, coding, research, visual and interaction design is part of your job.

The good news is that you just need to be good at copywriting in the context of product design. You don’t have to come up with marketing brand slogans. You don’t need to know legal jargon. In fact, the best copy is the copy you steal from how your users actually talk and write about your product.

And you’re in the best position to do that.

Product Designer at Facebook. Alum Senior Design Lead, Creator Experience at SoundCloud. Alum Clue and Product Design Lead at N26

Product Designer at Facebook. Alum Senior Design Lead, Creator Experience at SoundCloud. Alum Clue and Product Design Lead at N26