Designing with words

Mantras for product design teams

“Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know,” by Bruce Nauman (1983). Photo: LACMA © 2018 Bruce Nauman

Words matter.

Not just in books or newspapers or on the sign that directed you off the exit you took to work this morning, but in all the digital spaces we live our lives.

They’re everywhere, and they’re powerful: tucked between Instagram posts and business data, on our lock screens and in our settings.

Words guide us through physical and virtual journeys. And though shapes and symbols serve as context clues, words fill out the big picture. Like good design, good product copy often feels invisible.

In interfaces, words explain, instruct, and direct us through an experience. They can inspire us to make purchases or empower us to do our jobs more efficiently.

As a UX writer, it’s my job to support an experience through strategic language. But not every product design or engineering team has writers, and even those that do — mine included — often find themselves writing quick copy on the fly.

The voice and tone of each company’s word choice is unique, but at the foundation of good product language, there are broader concepts than a preference for sentence casing or the Oxford comma.

With that in mind, here are a few universal mantras to help both writers and non-writers alike get into the right mindset for designing with words.

Is it human?

Write for people, not users.

Empathy is at the heart of UX, and that should extend through the language we use to communicate with our customers.

This requires slashing tech jargon with a red pen, and rewriting it to sound like something you’d actually say aloud to another human being.

But if your product is complex, making it seem human can be a frustrating task.

I ask teams to help me understand the value of an update or feature in plain terms before we start collaborating. This builds empathy, strips value statements of indulgent marketing lingo, and often helps teams increase their own understanding of a project.

Remembering that we’re humans designing for other humans — who may or may not share our vocabulary — is a crucial part of writing effectively.

“New Corner,“ by Jenny Holzer (2011). Photo: Collin LaFleche © 2011 Jenny Holzer

“Short beats good”

We’re constantly inundated with notifications, barely have 140 character attention spans, and use devices that fit comfortably in one hand.

These are challenges and constraints that make writing interface copy radically different from writing for other mediums.

I first heard the “Short beats good” mantra shared by UX writing legend John Saito at Dropbox, who attributes it to Sue Factor, the first UX writer at Google. In a great interview with Adam Risman of the Inside Intercom podcast, Saito says:

“Users or readers on the web don’t technically read word for word. They just glance around and scan copy here and there. To accommodate for that, a key principle in UX writing is to be as brief as possible. That often means being really ruthless.”

Write for comprehension speed and embrace constraints. Clarity is queen. Words should enhance the experience, not complicate it.

Inspire action

Your customers are using your product for a purpose. Whether it’s for business or pleasure, you want to take them on a journey. This requires action to set it into motion. Choose words that will increase your customers’ productivity or enhance their ability to make that journey.

In practice, this often means that buttons should be verbs and modal headers should reference impending actions. Use tooltips and guides where necessary, but with brevity. Allow for discovery.

It’s not all about you

Products should be easily localized for any language and understood on a human level.

And because words are powerful, our empathy needs to extend not just to customers that look and sound like us, but those from other corners of our cities and around the world, with different backgrounds, identities, and politics than ourselves.

If your words are translated as part of a global company, it’s also important to avoid slang and metaphors. Clever phrases rarely localize to other languages and cultures.

Be empowering

Empower your customers with authentic, positive language.

This doesn’t mean beating around the bush or sprinkling your app with exclamation points or phony cheerleader-style messages where they’re not warranted. Rather, avoid using terms like “can’t” and “don’t.”

No one likes to feel defeated, so instead, offer guidance by focusing on what customers can do, even when they’re in a bind.

Errors almost always have a way out, and empty states don’t have to feel pathetic and lonely. Approach them with a nudge of encouragement and optimism.

“Human/Need/Desire,” by Bruce Nauman (1983). Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash

For more on designing words for humans, here are a few of my favorite resources:

And if you have additional writing mantras, please share them with me in the comments. ✨