UX writers, don’t try to be cool

Kinneret Yifrah, UX writer, author and a lecturer

Kinneret Yifrah is a leading UX writer in her native country of Israel and founder of microcopy studio Nemala. She has also written Microcopy — The Complete Guide of which several thousand copies have sold in over 40 countries worldwide. In the interview Kinneret reveals the story of her beginnings as a UX writer, shares tips for setting the tone of voice for companies, and tells us about the tricky business of gender-neutral copywriting. Kinneret will also give a talk on microcopy at this year’s WebExpo.

When did you decide to specialize in microcopy?

One day, when working with the largest bank in Israel on their customer relations emails and letters, they asked me to help them rewrite the copy for their household budgeting app. “I don’t know anything about writing for apps,” I said. They answered: “Sure you do, it’s exactly the same as what you’ve been already doing for us”. They were right, and I fell in love with this content-tech-users triangle. It was the most intriguing content job I ever took. From then on I have primarily focused on microcopy.

How has the market changed since you began to specialise in microcopy?

When I started in 2015, there were four people in Israel who had actually heard the term microcopy. Today I manage a community of 8,000 members. It’s a very supportive community, which naturally, did not exist three years ago. Nowadays, there’s no UX or product person, digital marketer or technical writer in Israel who doesn’t know what microcopy is.

When I started in 2015, there were four people in Israel who had actually heard the term ‘microcopy’.

How does the Israeli UX writing community keep in touch? Do you hold meetups? What online communication platforms do you use?

We share screenshots and practical knowledge on a daily basis through our Facebook group, and hold meetups 3–4 times a year. In them we get to meet face to face and further our cooperation. We also have a website with a resource library (recommended books, videos, presentations, links and more), a community blog, a list of writers and lecturers and tools to help writers make their first steps as UX writers.

How to sell microcopy

How do you sell the added value of microcopy to a client?

For me these days are long gone. Initially I had to do a lot of explaining, mostly for the executives who were green-lighting the project. Now clients see their users abandoning forms, or not clicking through, or not engaging — and they know that the answer lies in better copy of the UI. Companies know when their communication needs a serious upgrade, whether it’s a placeholder that will help users fill the field, or more appealing copy that will delight them. Companies which don’t yet know that, soon will learn and follow suit. Microcopy is worth investing into, as is shown in my article The ROI of UX writing.

Do you also do English microcopy?

I don’t. I tried once, but it was so frustrating, I ended up hiring a native speaker to help out. In Hebrew I can play with language, hone the phrases, easily shorten a ten-word sentence into four words and choose the words which will deliver the desired experience. No matter how good my English is, I can’t do these things in it, and with microcopy — accuracy is not a luxury, it’s the basis for everything.

Gender — copywriters’ greatest challenge

How does your sociology training help you in your work as a UX writer?

Sociology opened my eyes to the global balance of power and also to that between genders. Words have a lot to do with that. Hebrew is a gendered language. We use a different ‘you’ for female, male and plural, so when you talk to a user you’re on hot grounds. Since I lead the microcopy writers’ community, the practice of genderless writing is now becoming the standard. In many cases we invest a huge amount of writing time in rephrasing a sentence to make it genderless and yet direct and motivating. This is the most challenging issue in Hebrew microcopy.

The practice of genderless writing is now becoming the standard.

My native Czech language is also gendered so we are faced with the same challenge. How important Is the gender-neutral agenda in microcopy to Israeli clients? Especially since most decision-makers are probably men.

At first we had many reactions like: “The use of the male form is inclusive” or “Women don’t really care” or “These are unimportant details”. Now you can see daily posts in our Facebook group — from men and women alike — asking for help to phrase copy in a gender-neutral way. Although government websites and banking apps are still written for men, they are also feeling the need for change and soon will make it a standard. In my opinion the key lies not with decision makers but UX designers and UX writers. We’re the ones holding the pen and we can work our way from the bottom up.

What advice would you give to beginning copywriters who don’t know how to rate their writing work? Everyone learns to write in the first grade after all.

Have people read what you write, and listen carefully to what they say. The more you train yourself to ‘read’ what you write the way a specific user would, the better writer you become.

Finding the right tone and voice

What’s most difficult in setting a brand’s voice and tone?

The hardest part is making clients understand how crucial this stage is for the entire project. We have to persuade clients that it pays to delay the writing phase for a few weeks, until the voice and tone is complete.

Setting up the tone and voice is one thing; how do you make sure the tone of voice permeates all the company communication?

Great question! Since I’m a freelancer, I can only implement the voice and tone in the digital products I write myself, and then give clients the tools to implement it in other platforms of communication. In some companies I have regular meetings to go over the copy they write themselves and make sure — together — that it’s written according to the voice and tone. This way they learn how to do it.

To get to know a brand’s audience, spend a few hours on relevant Facebook groups.

Sometimes it is difficult to get in touch with the brand’s audience, especially in online business where you don’t meet the people in person. How do you find out about their authentic language?

This is my favorite subject! I recommend that: 1. You spend a few hours on the relevant Facebook groups. You’ll find treasures. Everything you need is right there, waiting for you, including ready-made slogans, the exact value they’re looking for, everything. 2. Listen to phone calls at call centers. 3. Make two to three guerilla interviews. 4. Listen to recordings of usability testing.

What if the company serves two different types of audience. For instance experts and beginners? How would you proceed in defining the tone then?

The definition of the brand’s voice stays the same for every audience, but the messaging and tone will vary.

Forget being cool and focus on the user

Your handbook Microcopy — The Complete Guide is very practical and full of great examples. How long did it take you to write it?

Thanks! It took me six months, but when I started I had the methodology all set up, because I had already been giving workshops. In the last month of writing I told my clients I was taking some time off to finish it. They were amazingly supportive and patiently waited for my return to work.

People tell me they have the book always on their desk.

Which response to your book made you the happiest?

There’s a type of response that I hear again and again and it’s my favorite — when people tell me they have the book always on their desk, within hand reach, and that they use it all the time. It makes me so happy because this is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote it.

You recommend conversational style in your book. What tips would you give UX writers to emulate human conversation in digital interfaces?

My rule says: Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say. Imagine that you are a customer service rep and there’s a client standing right in front of you — how will you say (not write) what it is you wish to tell them?

Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say.

What would you advise to copywriters who are worried of not producing cool enough copy?

Please don’t try to be cool. As I see it, trying to be cool is the plague of the microcopy world, and what makes microcopy exhausting and annoying for users.

Microcopy isn’t about being cool, it’s about being human. Empathic microcopy can be naturally cool, don’t worry a bit about it. Just keep the user in the center and write solely for their benefit.