Bring out your inner UX writer

We don’t all have a UX writer on our team to come up with the words in the interface. Here are some writing tips to help non-writers create clear, concise and helpful interfaces.

Let’s start with the basics. What is UX writing? It’s the art of writing the words in the interface, or the words you encounter during your experience with a product. It covers everything from the microcopy that helps you navigate a screen or complete a transaction, to the longer-form copywriting that persuades and offers guidance.

But why is UX writing important? This sums it up for me:

“Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration” — Jeffrey Zeldman

To build a great experience, we need to give just as much consideration to what the product says as we do to how it looks and works.

And words are only going to become more important in the future. Think about conversational interfaces and chatbots — in these cases, words are the design.

My first recommendation would be to hire a pro — someone who’s studied the craft of writing and worked as a professional writer. A dedicated UX writer will:

  • Be your resident language expert — no more struggling with grammar, semantics, style, and whether to use an Oxford comma (See what I did there? No? Maybe you should hire a pro!)
  • Use their narrative chops to tell your product’s story
  • Define the voice of your product and make sure it’s consistent across all client touchpoints (including sales, marketing and support)
  • Set standards for language and formalise these in a writing style guide the whole company can use

And because a good writer is always trying to figure out what the user needs to know and when, they make natural user advocates.

If a dedicated UX writer’s not an option, use the resources you’ve got. Is one of these writerly types already right under your nose?

  • Technical writers excel at clear, concise and helpful content
  • Support writers have a direct line to users and speak their language
  • Marketing copywriters know how to write to persuade

But let’s assume there’s no-one else to do the job of UX writing and it’s down to you.

1. Make every word earn its place

These days, web users have less time and attention to give you than ever. It sounds dramatic, but for every unnecessary word you make them read, you’re shaving seconds off their life. Bloated text isn’t good for anyone, especially when devices and interfaces are getting smaller, and screen real estate is more precious than Bitcoin.

So think carefully about each word you add to the interface.

Start by editing ruthlessly.

Likewise, don’t make users read long words when short ones will do.

We should also aim for high information density — that means packing as much as you can into the smallest number of words.

Also ask yourself: is this information relevant right now? Only provide what the user needs to know right away to complete the task. This technique of progressive disclosure helps focus the user’s attention by reducing their cognitive workload. It’s also a useful tool when you want to draw attention to new features or education materials without overloading the interface.

2. Make it scannable

We’ve all heard about how people read differently on the web. They scan instead of reading every word. So it’s important to make sure your content is easily scannable.

There are a few ways to do this. Firstly, bring all the important stuff to the front. We call this front-loading your content.

You may be familiar with the F-shaped reading pattern, which shows us how people read — or skim — online. What it tells us is your key info should be in the first couple of lines of the page, or in the first couple of words of a sentence or paragraph. So don’t leave the crucial bits at the end where they might not be seen.

Simple text formatting can also improve scannability. Things like headings, lists and bold text catch the eye and show users where to focus.

You should always try to refer to things in a consistent way. Don’t use ‘sign in’ in one user flow and ‘log on’ in another — pick one term. Because if you’ve primed users to look for a particular term, using a different one leads to confusion. It’s much easier to scan for words you’re already familiar with.

It’s also important to be specific. You can avoid ambiguity by finding the most accurate words for what you’re trying to say. And for interactive elements like buttons, choosing meaningful verbs helps users understand the exact actions they need to take.

Being specific also means explaining the why, not just the what. Users are more likely to complete a task if they understand why they’re doing it.

Where possible, you should also tell users what’s coming so they’re not surprised by what happens next. This helps manage expectations, and reassure users they’re doing the right thing.

3. Give it the time it deserves

You’ll never spend more time writing fewer words — Cheryl Lowry

To truly come up with great UX content you need to give it the time it deserves.

One thing that’ll help is considering content early. That means thinking about the words during the design phase or earlier. Ease yourself in by using real content in prototypes. No more lorem ipsum, baby!

It’s also important to allow time to revise. The first cut of the content is rarely the best — just like with design, you need to iterate to get to the gold.

And, of course, test the content like you would the design. You can take a number of approaches to this, depending on the type of content you’re testing (think readability tests, A/B tests, card sorts and tree tests). More on the different ways to test content.

4. Be human

Lastly, it’s crucial to remember that you’re writing for humans, so you should write like one too.

This means using plain language — communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.

“No permission to operate” sounds like some sort of robot doctor, right? Don’t let jargony technical terms get in the way of clear communication.

Speaking like your users do means finding out how they refer to things, and mirroring that language.

Using active voice over passive voice involves constructing your sentence so the subject ‘acts’. It makes you sound more direct and honest, and also helps users understand who needs to do the action: you or them.

Something else that makes you sound more direct and honest? Verbing your nouns. If you’ve ever read a piece of business writing, you’ll have noticed the tendency to change verbs into abstract nouns by adding ‘ion’ to the end. It doesn’t make you sound smarter; all it does is make sentences longer and harder to understand. So stick with the verb form of the word.

It’s also important to consider the emotional state and context of the user. If you were an anxious flyer checking your upcoming flight details, imagine what you’d think if you read this:

Hearing about “previous crashes” is not going to put your mind at ease. When Android decided to use the word “crash” they probably didn’t think through all the possible use cases for the message.

And lastly, humans have personality, so your UX writing should too (depending on your brand and the context, of course). This is where a style guide for voice and tone can set the groundwork for what’s OK and what’s not.

Fundamentally, we’re just humans talking to other humans, and the words we use in our products should reflect that.

To sum up: make every word earn its place, make it scannable, give it the time it deserves, and be human. Now go forth and write that interface.

This post is adapted from a 10-minute talk I gave at UX Australia 2017. Check out the original slide deck. Thanks to my trusty reviewers Kylie Nicholson, Remya Ramesh and Shannon King.

Product content strategist @OpenCitiesInc & @OpenForms. Co-organiser @ContentMelb. The arts, feminism, language, tech, food, pop culture. Melbourne, Australia.

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