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In one way or another, we’ve all suffered the consequences of poor UX writing. It may have come in the form of a website more difficult to navigate than downtown Los Angeles, or an app that seemed more focused on being fun than functional. Regardless of where it shows up, poor UX writing has the potential to affect user compliance, app usage, and client retention, so knowing the tools of the trade prior to getting started on your digital project is imperative.
Your overall user experience is the sum of many parts, but UX writing is one of the more critical components. At its core, UX writing guides users as they progress through your digital product. Great UX writing can also work to build reader trust and allow them to identify with your brand and messaging.
UX writing differs from other forms of writing due to its purpose and intended outcome. When we write a blog post, we are providing our readers with information or entertainment. When we write for UX, we are putting ourselves in the mind of our reader to guide them through a series of product interactions. This requires UX writers to create clear and concise content that is simultaneously understandable, logical, and engaging.
A common mistake when writing for UX is thinking any technical writer can instantly master it. Sure, good writing counts, but writing for UX isn’t just about readable copy. As it turns out, UX writing is a nuanced creature that demands a thorough understanding of its quirks. The first step is to establish solid foundations for your UX copy to stand on:
“Microcopy” refers to the tiny bits of information peppered throughout a website or app – this can include buttons, placeholder copy in forms, captions, and error messages. When done well, this copy addresses concerns, provides context, and guides user action.
Microcopy needs to be short and sweet – be concise first, delightful second. Working to understand and implement microcopy can dramatically improve your overall UX and reduce the need for blocks of explanatory text.
Your writing needs to serve the needs of all your current and potential users, meaning jargon and industry-specific language are things to use with caution. You don’t want to be so general that you lose industry credibility by using inaccurate language but filling a page with acronyms and jargon is making a big assumption as to the knowledge base. No one ever likes to feel out of the know.
You can still establish a brand voice and tone, but it needs to be understandable and relatable for all your audience. A solid grasp of how to use plain language will be your best tool here. I highly recommend reviewing The Mailchimp Style guide to get started on the basics.
Use concise and accurate language and pathways in your navigation — it needs to match the expectations of your reader. Nothing is more frustrating for readers than having content promised but not delivered. Software pricing pages are often a perfect example of this bait and switch we want to avoid.
These companies will have a main navigation item named “pricing” but when you click through, it’s a list of features, and a contact form with the caption, “get pricing”. That is not a pricing page, that’s a features page. And that type of misleading navigation language will only serve to frustrate your reader and diminish your reputation with them.
Another good rule of thumb for navigation menus is that you never want content to be more than three clicks deep on a site.
Good: Learn > Blogs > UX Design
Bad: Learn > Blogs > Design > UX design > UX writing
Once the foundations are set, it’s time to dig deeper. UX writing must be precise, meaning that each word needs to be intentional and planned. You have limited time and space to make your point and guide your user in the right direction. If you can remember these four rules when you’re crafting UX text, you’ll be on the right track:
When presenting your users with an action or objective, Nick Babich of UX Planet recommends beginning each sentence with the outcome of a required action, ending with the action itself. This assists your user in understanding the process they are meant to follow and reduce user errors.
Good: To view available options, click here.
Bad: Click here to view available options.
Another one of Babich’s tips is to remain in the present tense. Using a passive voice is not only boring but lengthens explanatory text as well. Writing in the present tense with an active voice can reduce clutter and streamline user actions.
Good: Search completed. To begin a new search, click the restart button.
Bad: Search has been completed. The restart button can be used to start a new search
Users of all demographics have one thing in common: a short attention span. Even with the use of microcopy, certain tactics are needed to help keep user interest. Punchy recommends creating a sense of urgency for particularly important items to assist in gaining reader attention. In addition to this, play to the ego! Words like “you” and “your” attract some of the most attention from readers – use this to your advantage.
If we know user attention will be short, we need to make sure the first information they see includes critical items. Guy Ligertwood of UX Planet uses the idea of frontloading as a solution to this problem. Frontloading asks us to place the most important information first in a block of text, meaning that users will reach it before anything else on the page or line.
Good: Incorrect username.
Bad: The username entered is incorrect. Please try again.
There are many resources available to help you to master UX writing and ensure your content is up to par. Some of my favourite resources are people. Ask the experts you work with (such as sales folks or product developers) if your copy makes sense to them, then ask a group of people unfamiliar with your product to do the same. This will tell you if you’ve managed to bridge the gap between technical accuracy and user-friendliness.
Free tools like Grammarly can help to show where improvements to flow and readability can be made. Surprisingly, SEO assistants like Yoast can help provide another look into readability. Search engines like Google continually make updates to favour user-friendly content, so ensuring you’re scoring well in their system means you’re on the right track for website copy at least.
When in doubt, use your critical eye on the digital products you interact with. Look at what the websites and apps you like the most are doing. Why do you like them? What makes them successful and easy to use? The same goes for products that frustrate or confuse you. This process can help guide your UX writing strategy and offer examples of what your users will be looking to you to deliver. Take advantage of the free tools available to you, be willing to learn from your mistakes, and enjoy solving the exciting puzzle that is UX writing!