What is UX writing and how is it different from UX design?

Lizzie Bruce
Jun 4, 2018 · 6 min read

In this article I’d like to talk about UX writing. We’ll learn about how it folds into UX design.

But before I get to that, let’s sort out the difference between UX and UI. UX, user experience, is the whole experience your customer or user has with your product. UI, user interface, is specifically the part where they’re actually using it, interfacing with it if you will.

Still unsure? Read on.

The user experience of a lawnmower

If we think about user experience first in terms of a physical product, for example a lawnmower, this includes the first time your customer hears about it. This could be an advert, word of mouth, seeing the lawnmower being used by a friend. It’s the purchase of it. It’s the delivery process, and any communications you customer receives post-sale.

You want the end of the user experience to be a repeat purchase from your product range or a recommendation — not a product return. And yes UX is also using it, which is where crossover, and confusion, arises.

UI — user interface — is the actual usage of your product by the customer. How easy the lawnmower is to get started, how heavy it is to push, does it steer well, does it cut the grass well, is it efficient, is it comfortable, is it intuitive to use. Does it anticipate their needs by collecting the grass at the same time?

Let’s get digital

This is the same for digital products. UX is the complete end-to-end user experience of your product. Let’s say that’s an app. Maybe they heard about it on your website or from one of your tweets. Maybe they Googled it and read the search result description. Any of that is the start of your user’s experience of your product and the start of your user’s journey.

The user experience starts when the user first comes into contact with or becomes conscious of your product. Your product might be a service. In fact, UX design is sometimes called service design.

UI, digitally speaking, is the user’s online interaction with the actual product or service. The human-computer back and forth bit. The of clicking buttons and reading of copy and making of decisions based on informative and instructional content within, let’s say, the app.

Affordance

UI design is helped by familiar components, sometimes called patterns, that the user has learnt to use already or can easily learn to use from your product. For example, almost everyone now knows that text in a different colour that shows as underlined when you hover the cursor on it means if you click on the text you’ll be taken to a different part of the page, a different page on the website, a different section of the app or different place on the internet altogether. In other words, it’s a link.

Affordance means giving the user a clue that something is going to happen when they interact with an element in a particular way. In the physical world, a door with a handle is the classic example — it tells the user they need to pull the door towards them to open it. A door with a handle when you actually need to push is an example of bad UI design.

Labelling

When it comes to written content, as is true with design elements, less is more. Sometimes you need to tell the user what they need to do, though. What to input into a text field for example. This is known as labelling. And it’s part of the digital content writing sub-genre of micro-copy. And it’s also — yes, here we are — it’s UI writing!

UI writing is all the small pieces of granular copy that guide you through the thing you’re doing. Good UI copy is like a good service in a restaurant — you don’t notice the waiter or waitress, they just make your experience pleasant.

Writing good UI copy

Structural UI copy

UI writing can be structural text, like labelling, which users absorb instinctively. Here are some pointers:

1. It needs to be concise. But not at the cost of clarity. Write simply, but meaningfully.

2. Think through from a user’s perspective. Users don’t need to know what’s going on behind the scenes, the backend processes. They only need to know the bit that affects them.

3. As with all digital copy, use natural language and familiar words, don’t invent new names for things.

4. Icons are not substitutes for words. It’s very hard to design an unambiguous icon that’s clearly understood by all users in the same way. Use words and icons to reinforce each other.

Help and guidance UI copy

UI writing can also be help text and guidance copy, like expandable help text. Try to anticipate what could confuse a user. Most of all, it’s important to show help in the right place at the right time. Of course, it’s always better to fix anything that can be fixed rather than writing help but sometimes there isn’t that option.

Feedback and change UI copy

UI copy can be used to give feedback and suggest users change their behaviour in some way. Feedback helps the user feel confident that they’re doing the right thing. Think of the Mailchimp UI copy, so encouraging.

It’s also used for steer the user back on course when they do make a mistake, through error messaging. Use it to tell them what’s gone wrong and how to back out and fix it. Make sure the user is given the guidance to make the fix. Give context to help them out of the hole on in the simplest way, for example giving a hint like ‘your password was updated last week’ might prompt them to remember what it was rather than resetting it again.

Design or content design?

Especially at UI level the line between content design — which isn’t just words — and design design gets really blurred. In terms of UI writing, that’s clearly about the words. Let’s call the other part element layout design. Together these hold your transactional page together. Just like physical nuts and bolts, you need both — and they are separate.

What about UX writing?

I said we were going to talk about UX writing, but then I drilled down and spoke animatedly about UI writing. This was actually purposeful. User interface is still so closely associated in general digital consciousness with the work of developers that if I’d called this article UI writing many readers would assume this was an article about writing programming language. But no, UI writing is still words, written in your user’s spoken language.

UX writing is all of the writing that appears along the way of your user or customer’s offline and online journey. A letter is UX writing. The script of a service feedback follow up phone call is UX writing. The instruction manual of your lawnmower is UX writing. Even a logo is UX writing, when it comes down to it.

And yes, UI writing can be called UX writing. It falls into the category of UX writing. A quick way to remember it is UI = UX writing, but UX writing ≠ UI writing.

Questions? Thoughts? Add your comments below!

Case Study Club

Lizzie Bruce

Written by

Hi. I'm a content designer, strategist and trainer. Happiest when designing tiny pieces of interactive content for services that help people.

Case Study Club

Learn how people design digital products.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade