UX design is the practice of creating interfaces tailored towards users’ expectations and flaws. Understanding how a user uses an interface allows designers to construct a more pleasurable and efficient experience. However, design is not the only way to improve a product’s UX.
Each piece of text on a product can be studied and fine-tuned to enhance the design and positively impact the user-experience. This is known as UX writing.
Why write for the user?
Apart from making the user enjoy using your product, well chosen text can have a positive effect on engagement and sales. Take, for example, when Google changed their hotel search text from ‘Book a Room’ to ‘Check availability’. They found engagement increase by 17% due to the less-committal nature of the wording — ‘Book a Room’ felt too final for many users who were browsing rather than booking.
Confusing a user does sometimes have benefits for a company, such as booking.com or Viagogo’s (over)use of design elements such as notifications to instil urgency, price ‘offers’, and hiding away of less favourable but relevant information. All of these artificial and anti-user tactics are employed to make the booking process hurried and stressful, pressuring the user into completing the sale.
These aggressive methods have few benefits for the users themselves, and are not suitable for all products. Instead, it’s advisable (and moral) to focus on making the time a user spends on your website optimised towards outcomes that benefit both the company and themselves.
Using certain wording or phrasing to encourage a user to complete an action can be seen as manipulative. However, ensuring a user’s experience is efficient and straightforward gets them to their goal faster. Instead of manipulation towards a positive outcome, improving UX should be seen as the prevention and avoidance of negative outcomes.
How do you write for the user?
Writing for the user is about accessibility, usefulness, and understanding that most users won’t understand the intentions of the designer. Everything that can be explained, should be.
Here are some tips that will greatly improve products:
- Ensure text elements are explanatory. For example, does a button for a call to action say ‘Go’ or does it say ‘Download the e-book’? Tell the user what their action will do.
- Don’t overcomplicate text. Stick to common, concise wording and don’t expect your user to read the works of Shakespeare just to find out what the company does. Avoid using jargon, such as within error messages; explain your point as you would to a child.
- If you absolutely must say a lot, divide it into manageable chunks. Use headings, subheadings, paragraphs and imagery to break up large blocks of text. If you can, disclose the information progressively— eg. space the information across multiple app screens, or give a basic description with a link to further information.
- Guide the user around your product. Give the user as few options as necessary and explain succinctly what each option does. In a website navigation for example, use ‘Products’ or ‘Store’ rather than ‘Our Range’ or ‘Buy’.
- Employ typographic techniques to give clarity to designs. Using hierarchy and sizing can break up text and guide the user naturally through a page. Other aspects of typography such as line height, tracking and ligatures are important to get right as well.
- Offer help where users may struggle. Providing help text or in-depth explanations alleviates issues a user might have. If they’re required to enter their phone number when buying something, explain why. If they need to provide a code that can be hard to find, show them where it is.
- Write concisely and minimally. Less is more when writing for the user. If your 150 word paragraph can be said in 80 words, be brutal, and cut the fluff.
- Remove words and phrases that add nothing. There are many words which can be cut without consequence from your writing, such as ‘that’, ‘just’ and ‘very’. For example: ‘it is very important to understand that users just want to get somewhere’ becomes ‘it is important to understand users want to get somewhere’. This also applies to phrases such as ‘in order to’ and ‘as well as’ — here are several more to avoid.
- Avoid double negatives. These are most common with email subscription preferences and are often used to confuse and trick the user (N.B. if a user wants to unsubscribe, they’re not a good sales lead. Let them!). Phrases such as ‘I do not want to unsubscribe’ read better as ‘Keep me subscribed’.
- Use graphics to explain or replace text. Graphics can summarise text and improve the overall design. For example, instead of saying ‘scroll here’, include a scroll icon, or use a phone icon instead of writing ‘Phone number’.
- Your brand’s tone of voice shouldn’t get in the way. Whether you want to come across authoritative or friendly, it’s important your tone of voice doesn’t negatively impact the user-experience. Don’t get carried away replacing ‘Agree’ with ‘Righty Ho!’ — not all of your users understand British swashbuckling slang.
- Use platform and device relevant language. Asking a user to ‘click’ on a mobile app doesn’t work — they ‘tap’ instead. Provide instructions for different browsers, operating systems, email clients etc. as most will be a different process.
- Most importantly, be useful. If a user encounters a negative outcome, give them a way to make it positive, such as a link to where they can solve the issue or find out more.
Users will continue to engage with design in unexpected ways, but making it easy for them translates into better outcomes for all. The key is accessibility and clarity.
When looking at case studies such as Airbnb, Uber and Google, you’ll notice nothing is ever complex. Every word has been crafted to make the process straightforward for the user; even one who has never used the platform before.
Next time you’re designing, developing or writing a product, don’t forget how important finding the right wording can be.