Copywriting for UX

Notes (and pleas) from a former copywriter-turned-UX designer.

I love uncovering and creating narratives. Over the last five years, I’ve worn a bunch of different hats that have allowed me to do that in a variety of ways: reporter, copywriter, product marketer, ux designer, user researcher.

Writers and designers often see their trades as distinct from one another, but having been on both sides, I’ve noticed more similarities than differences.

Even though my titles have changed and my toolkit has varied, in my mind I’m essentially doing the same thing: working with stakeholders across teams to tell a complete, consistent, compelling story to a user.

Just like good ux, good copy…

Considers the user:

  • Who’s reading this?
  • What background knowledge do they have?
  • What are their goals?
  • What are their pain points?

Considers the context:

  • Where are they physically?
  • What device are they using?
  • Are they in a rush?
  • Have they been to this page/screen before? How often?

Considers the flow:

  • What did they do before this?
  • What can they do next?

Considers the business goals:

  • Ideally, what would we like them to do?

Considers the brand:

  • How do we want the overall experience to feel?

Wait, who is supposed to write all this stuff??

If you are lucky:

A few people whose explicit job is to write it (content strategists, copywriters, email marketers, etc.)

… who have created and/or are following guidelines for how to write it

… and are in constant communication with designers, engineers, support, marketing, sales, etc.

… to ensure there is a consistent, cohesive narrative to the experience

But at a lot of places, it’s:

  • Designers, kind of
  • Someone from marketing, sometimes
  • Whoever is the best speller on the team
  • Whoever happened to bump the fidelity from lorem ipsum → real words
  • Whoever realized copy was needed somewhere and put it there as they were making it (probably a developer)

Good copy reduces ambiguity

  • It’s specific
  • It’s readable at all viewport widths
  • It’s concise
  • It’s contextual
  • It’s consistent
  • It labels objects clearly
  • It speaks in plain language (no jargon)
  • It employs examples when helpful

Good copy puts the audience first

  • Considers the context and flow (use personas, user journeys, and user flows)
  • Considers goal and motivations
  • Offers actionable information
  • Explains why, not just what
  • Is translation-friendly
Copy used at Foursquare (circa 2012) when a web search had zero results. We linked to suggested searches (pizza, delicious, fun) that we knew were likely to return good results, anywhere in the country.

Good copy is well-researched

  • Research conventions
  • Ask your subject matter experts
  • Ask your community members
  • Put it in your (early) prototypes
  • Put it in your usability tests
  • Test it in emails
  • Card sort it
  • A/B test it
So make your words count.

Especially when the stakes are high:

  • CTAs
  • Navigation
  • Instructions
  • Errors
  • Important forms and documents
  • Customer support
  • Privacy concerns
  • Things that cost money
  • Any situation where users are willing to read to find the answer

But also when the stakes are low:

  • Loading screens
  • App store update copy
  • Non-critical notifications
  • Any place you can push the brand voice without risking clarity
Copy can compliment design, but not even the best written coach marks or step-by-step tutorials are going make a confusing product suddenly make sense. Don’t rely on copy to explain how your product works.
As soon as you know you need words, start thinking about how and when they’ll be created and finalized.

Processes you could (and should) start implementing today:

Some notes on copy process:

  • As a designer, it’s your job to care about copy
  • Don’t wait for a finished mock up. Let copy start anywhere, with anyone. (The sooner, the better)
  • Get organized. Make simple checklists, schedules/deadlines, and spreadsheets as needed.
  • Involve product managers to help keep things organized, but stay close to the process.
To your user, design and copy are part of the same seamless experience– so take ownership of it as such.
  • Requests to person writing copy should always include context (screenshots, flows, states, word count, goals, constraints, translation deadlines, etc)
  • Allow time for revisions, especially if the initial copy lives outside of the design in a doc
  • Consider the brand. Work with your marketing team.
  • Consider the implications. Work with your customer support team.
  • Consider the flow and functionality. Work with your engineers/designers/product owners.
  • No waterfalling! Pair copywriters with designers throughout the process.

Resources: Brand Positioning

  • The result of business and brand research, stakeholder interviews, workshops, etc.
  • Could be used internally or externally
  • Could be created by an in-house marketing team or by an agency.
  • Could be robust and polished, or brief and in a google doc.
  • May include: brand pillars, mission and vision statements, about us, boiler plates, key messaging, naming and lexicon, etc.
Brand pillars at brand.quantcast.com

Resources: Content & Style Guides

  • The result of collaboration between marketing, product, and other stakeholders
  • Can serve as a guide across teams (sales, customer support, etc)
  • Should be actionable and include specific examples, do’s and don’ts
  • May include: voice and tone, grammar rules, capitalization rules, naming and glossaries, do’s and don’ts, etc.
Mail Chimp’s incredible and extensive voiceandtone.com guide
If you don’t have in-house materials or resources, 18F’s Content Guide for fedeveral government websites is a great place to start.

Product + Marketing = Product Marketing

Product marketing sits right at the intersection of those two teams, and IMHO is a crucial part of successful product and feature launches. Product marketing may be a person’s role, an entire team’s role, or even just a process shared by stakeholders (including customer support, sales, social, and any other team that interfaces with users).

Product marketing is about telling a cohesive story that starts within the product, but then extends beyond those walls and carries over to any external messaging that your users or potential users may encounter.

That may include blog and social posts, press releases, support FAQs, email announcements, notifications, and app store copy.

Product marketing can also work from the outside in, helping ensure that the brand story is reflected back into the product– in the form of interface copy, logged-out copy, sign-up flows, coach marks, onboarding screens, empty states and notifications.

As a designer, you should care about how the products, services, features, and websites you’ve work so hard on are positioned and marketed. If you’re not invested in the story of what you’re making, how can you expect your users to be?

Making product marketing work your organization may include: launch checklists, messaging docs, and regular cross-team syncs and stand-ups.

Above all it requires constant, open communication across teams, with the shared goal of telling a complete, consistent, compelling story to your users.

This post is based on a lecture I recently gave to UX students at General Assembly. Get a modified version of the deck on SlideShare.


Talisa Chang is a product and UX consultant with chops in user research, ideation, and narrative building.


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