How to build better digital experiences with UX writing principles

When I joined Sainsbury’s last year, UX writing wasn’t really given that much attention. The words used in digital experiences were written by different people, from designers to engineers, at different times, in different ways, without any centralised guidance.

So sometimes the language was a little confusing. Sometimes it wasn’t consistent from one screen to the next. Sometimes it was robotic when it should have been conversational, excited when it should have been calm.

And this isn’t exactly a rare thing. In fact, lots of design teams never work with UX writers when building their products.

But a good understanding of UX writing can be vital to creating better digital experiences. If the words in your product are complex, uninspiring, and unfriendly — well, guess what? Users are going to think your product is complex, uninspiring, and unfriendly.

So as a team of newly-hired, enthusiastic UX writers in the Luna Guidelines team, we wanted to make sure designers, engineers and product owners could easily write clear and useful copy for their experiences. And to help them with that, we created our UX writing principles.

Covering some key principles, we’ve been referring our colleagues (and ourselves) to the guidance now for the past year to help with the understanding of good UX writing. Since then, we’ve been able to apply each of the principles to improve real journeys across Sainsbury’s, Argos andNectar.

In this article, I’m going to take you through each one of our UX writing principles and show how they’ve been applied to improve the digital experiences of our products.

Keep it conversational

It’s our first principle and possibly the most important. The words in our products are there to create a conversation between the user and the product. And if our words aren’t conversational, if they’re cold and robotic, the conversation stumbles between our users and our product.

So remember to write how you would speak to another human being. Have you ever asked a stranger to “Provide the following personal details to proceed”? Probably not. But you might have asked a stranger to “Tell us about yourself”.

While the original header text of Argos’ help page might have succeeded in telling users where on the website they were, it doesn’t feel necessarily helpful, or friendly, or even human.

But by updating the header to ‘How can we help?’, we’ve created a friendlier tone from the outset. And because it’s a question, we’ve started a conversation with the user, which the original header failed to do.

Use plain English

Writing in plain language makes your content easier to read, easier to understand, and more accessible.

Complicated and technical words tend to creep into our products when we explain something in the language that product teams use every day, but not in the language our users will use for themselves every day.

For instance, to explain why we need our users’ mobile number, we replaced the technical phrases ‘account recovery’ and ‘verification purposes’ in favour of plain language our users will find easier to read. And if users find it easy to read, they’ll probably find it easy to understand, and that will help increase their trust in the product they’re using.

Keep language consistent throughout interactions

Inconsistent visual patterns often confuses users, and it’s the same with inconsistent language in our interactions.

Framing an experience with consistent terms helps our users comprehension, especially in a single experience.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the before example, but using trolley in the header and basket in the button could make users pause and think, even for a second, so it’s always best to pick a language convention and stick to it.

Be concise

It sounds obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Whenever we’re writing for digital experiences, we want to be as concise as possible. That means using as few words as possible without losing any meaning from our message.

After writing a piece of copy, ask yourself if every word you’ve written is serving a purpose. If not, remove any language that isn’t giving the user new or important information.

Make every header descriptive

When it comes to headers, the main message you want to get across to the user should be in the header itself and then expanded upon in the copy.

Generic headers like Information or Announcement tell the user very little. The user is forced to read the supporting text whether it’s relevant to them or not, preventing them from quickly moving forwards in an experience.

In the example, by updating the header to Delivering to self-isolating customers, we draw the attention of self-isolating customers who we specifically want to read this message. It also means that customers who aren’t self isolating can skip the message as they know it doesn’t apply to them.

A good tip is to imagine you removed all the supporting text so the header was the only thing left on the screen. Would the user still have an idea what your message was about? If not, change your header to something more descriptive.

Address your users clearly

When you’re talking directly to your users, it’s important to use ‘you’ or ‘your’ instead of ‘my’ or ‘I’. That’s because using ‘you’ builds trust and an understanding with users, while using ‘my’ can easily confuse our users.

Using ‘my’ in your product is especially confusing when you mix it with ‘you’ and ‘your’ in the same experience. It’s important to be consistent as possible with how we address users to reduce the cognitive load of the people using our product.

Write in present tense and with an active voice

Using the present tense and an active voice makes our sentences shorter and easier to read. Past and future tenses, along with the passive voice, force our users to read additional words for the exact same point.

Using the active voice also has the benefit of taking responsibility for our actions. A good way to tell if you’re slipping into the passive voice is if you omit the person or thing responsible for actions from your sentence.

In the before example, the user is left in the dark as to who has locked their account. Was it Nectar? Was it a hacker? Was it their grandmother?

It’s really common to slip into the passive voice when we’re having difficult conversations with our users, because it lets us avoid taking ownership for our actions.

But it’s important to use the active voice, and by doing so, take responsibility. It leads to a clearer and more concise message, while also building trust with our users going forwards.

Lead with the most important words

As much as we’d love them to, people don’t read every word on a page or screen. Instead they scan for the information that’s relevant to them. That’s why it’s important to frontload the most important words into the beginning of your messages.

When users were looking at the Argos contact page for a number to call, they originally had to scan through 5 lines of text before they found a contact number. And even when they did, the contact number was at the very end of the line.

Ask yourself what information will your users be looking for? If they reach the Call us section of your contact page, they’re probably looking for a contact number and the times your contact centre is available. So give them the information upfront at the beginning.

By making the message much easier to scan, users can quickly find the information they need and we help reduce friction between the user and our product.

Reveal detail in stages

While it’s important to give our users enough information to make progress, too much information can overwhelm the user. So only reveal detail when it’s needed in an experience.

This could mean splitting your content over multiple screens, something we see all the time during onboarding experiences. Or, like in the above example, it could mean including a find out more link to the full content.

The before example would have easily overwhelmed the user with the length of the content. And importantly, it would have also distracted the user from the action they wanted to take, which is logging into their account.

By placing the bulk of the content behind a find out more link, we allow the user to focus on the task at hand.

Following these writing principles will put you in the right direction to building better conversations with your users, but as always, there are exceptions to every rule. So it’s why it’s important to test your copy whenever you can.

Use these principles to get your copy in a good place, then use the testing data to confirm it.

You can also take a look at our style guide, covering grammar and style conventions, so you can make sure your language is consistent across multiple experiences.

Or read our work on voice and tone, a comprehensive guide teaching you how to adapt the tone of your words depending on the situation of the experience.

And if you want guidance on more than just copy, you can check out the Luna Design System for all your user experience needs.

A UX writer at Sainsbury’s, creating meaningful conversations between our users and our products.