Tips for designers to become better copywriters, from the experts: Part 1

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

Read the second post in this series here.

Note: posts do need to be read in sequential order.

As designers, we often find ourselves in the position of the copywriter. It makes sense; we are closest to the interface and content in many cases drives design decisions, so it must come first.

Maybe your company doesn’t have a copywriter or UX Writer. Even when UX Writers exist, they can sometimes unintentionally be left out of the loop. Either way, the copy must be written, and the responsibility is ours, whether we asked for it, are comfortable with it or not! In digital product design, there are various places which copy appears in the interface: alerts, notifications, contextual help, buttons and so on.

This post seeks to address: as designers, what can we do to become better at writing copy for user interfaces? How can we ensure that copy is consistent and of the same tone, brand, and personality when writing copy?

I posed these questions to expert writers in the industry, and I’m really excited to share their insights! In this post:

  • Nicole Fenton shares tips on using clear language
  • Emily Handlin shares tips on using brevity as a tool for great copywriting
  • Kerry Crawford shares tips on using language familiar to your users

This is part one of two (or maybe more) posts. If you’re interested in this content, follow me here on Medium and or Twitter where I’ll be sharing updates.

Nicole Fenton is an editor, researcher, strategist, and the co-author of Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose

Spend more time thinking about words. It’s not just semantics or “a copy issue.” Clear language makes your products more trustworthy, accessible, and engaging.

Listen to your users. What are they trying to do? What do they call things? How do they ask for help? Do research to understand their word choices and points of confusion. Ask them to read something and then read it again slowly. How do they interpret it? What do they notice? Use their questions, reactions, and actual words as inputs in the design process.

Be willing to do the tedious work of auditing your content.

  • Do your error messages and tooltips make sense?
  • Are you using nouns and verbs consistently?
  • Does your support team have to do linguistic gymnastics to explain what you shipped last week?

Look to your customer service, analytics, and operations teams for more insight.

Good product writing is conversational. So use words people would actually say to each other in a conversation. Imagine you’re talking to a neighbor or friend you admire. How would you describe this feature to them? Think out loud to them as you write, and read your work aloud to review it. Keep editing and refining the language until everything is clear, friendly, and useful.

Emily Handlin is the Content Design Lead at Intuit in Sydney, Australia

If I’m to pick just one tip for writing for product, it’s to keep it short.

People aren’t there to read. They’re there to get something done and — let’s be honest — your words stand in their way.

So pack as much as you can in as few words as possible. Ensure each word earns its keep. If you use lots of weak words, over explain things, and use loads of commas, you’ll notice your sentences read long and boring, like this. Use loaded words and watch your sentences shrink.

Other ways to shorten your content:

  • Avoid repetition between the headline, copy and CTA. Let each play their own strong role.
  • Combine words. For example, instead of ‘make sure’, go ‘ensure’.
  • Use an active voice. For example, rather than ‘the letter was sent by Emily’, go ‘Emily sent the letter’.
  • If you need to explain a term or concept, hide the explanation behind a dotted underline, tooltip or whatever you prefer.
  • Cut at least 50% of your first draft, and keep cutting until you can’t.

Lastly, school taught us the last part should always be a summary of what we’ve said. That doesn’t apply for product writing!

Kerry Crawford is the Director of Research and Strategy at Simple Focus in Memphis, Tennessee

The biggest piece of advice I have is pretty simple: call things what they are.

In UI copy, this applies mostly to the copy on things like navigation, labels and buttons. It’s easy to forget about this copy, but it’s critical to your users’ experience with your site or product.

Here are a few things to remember when writing copy for navigation, labels and buttons:

  • When naming nav items, use the language your users use. For example, if a rental property company calls their apartments “Residential Units”, but most users call them “apartments”, go with apartments.
  • The copy on a button should tell the user what will happen when they click. A good rule of thumb is that buttons should always start with a verb — think “sign up”, “get quote”, or “learn more”.
  • Don’t lose your voice. You can call things what they are and stick to brand voice and tone standards. For example, “sign up” could be “get it now”, “deliver this to my inbox” or “put my name on the list”.
  • Run tests. If you aren’t sure if the labels you’ve picked for your navigation are right, or if you’re worried your button copy isn’t compelling enough to convert, try running an A/B test. Just remember to only change one variable (in this case, the wording) to keep the test accurate.

For help with your writing and grammar check out Grammarly and Hemingway. Grammarly has helped me become a better writer.

If you liked this post, please give some claps for these ladies! Next week’s post will include tips from the UX Writing Manager at Dropbox, a UX Writer at GoPro and Deloitte Digital.

Want to get UX Writing tips by email? Subscribe 👇