10 UX copywriting tips for designers

4 min read
John Moore Williams
  •  Nov 20, 2014
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All too often, tech companies lack the writing staff to get copy written for every single interface, ad, and interaction. Which means that designers like you often end up speaking directly to customers. Here’s a few tips to help you make the most of your user interface copy, broken up into sections on writing, editing, and design.

When you’re writing copy…  

1. Embrace the power of “you”

The word “you” automatically catches your attention, but even more importantly, it establishes a relationship between you and your reader. It brings your reader into the story you’re weaving. Not convinced? Let me rewrite that paragraph without “you”:

The word “you” automatically catches attention, but even more importantly, it establishes a relationship to the reader. It brings the reader into the story.

That’s a lot less engaging, isn’t it?

Check out how often MailChimp uses “you” in this example copy from their amazing Voice & Tone site (the yellow and orange highlights):

MailChimp uses “you” 4 times in just 2 sentences!

2. But don’t make it about you

When you’ve worked hard to help create an amazing product, it’s tempting to tout that quality and craftsmanship. But why should I care? I want to know what all that work means to me—how it’ll make my life a thousand times better. After all, you’re trying to sell me on your product, not your team.

Apple routinely nails their marketing, but the body copy below is all about them. Wouldn’t it be more engaging if they talked about how much more incredible my photos will look on this bigger, better display?

Amazing work, guys. But what does it mean for me?

3. Don’t try to sound smart

If you’ve got something smart to say, you don’t need 10 dollar diction to prove it. Choosing words based on how “big” they are can actually alienate more readers than it impresses.

Unless you’re designing in a technical or academic environment, aim for a 5th-grade reading level. You can test your copy’s reading level in Word or with Hemingway Editor. I highly—highly—recommend using Hemingway Editor regularly.

When you’re editing copy…

4. Read it aloud

Often, what looks right on the page will sound awkward and robotic out loud. Do this especially if your brand voice guidelines call for a conversational style—as many do these days. If it doesn’t sound right read aloud, it’s not conversational.

5. Be the editor writers hate

You know, the one who goes “I don’t care if it’s clever. And rhymes gracefully. And works as a dirty pun in Swahili. You don’t need it.” That guy. Or girl. Be him. Or her.

Dedicate several rounds of editing just to cutting, both on the sentence level and the paragraph level. Be ruthless with your copy and you’ll get it down to precisely what it needs to say, no more, no less.

To help you be ruthless, aim to cut 50% of your word count with each editing round.

6. Remember that writing and editing are different

Even people skilled at both try to practice them at different times, focusing on getting the ideas on the page before judging how well that was done. This is sort of what Hemingway meant by his famous dictum:

Don’t actually write drunk. Just don’t try to write and edit at the same time.

And don’t expect to do all the editing yourself: even the best writers often benefit from a second pair of eyes. Especially when their writing eyes were drunk.

Note: hopefully this goes without saying, but I’m not recommending you write UX copy while drunk. That’s a terrible idea.

When you’re designing copy…

It’s important as a designer to always have the messaging in mind so you can build a visual story that complements the copy. If you’re lucky enough to have someone totally focused on the copy side of that story, here’s a few tips to help you help them.

7. Label

People don’t know what they’re looking at unless you tell them. So tell them. You’ll find this handy if you’re serving dynamic content, because it helps readers determine what something is at a glance.

It’s also super useful to think of headlines as labels. If a reader’s on a features page, chances are they’re more interested in what the product does than in how cleverly you can describe it.

That’s not to say you can’t try to inspire or amuse sometimes. Just don’t do it at the expense of clarity.

8. Embed links in relevant, descriptive language

Most times, people don’t want to read every word on the page. In fact, they’re often just looking for a link. So make sure your links make it extremely clear what will happen on click.

This is super important for accessibility because screen readers let users navigate from link to link, skipping copy in between. They won’t be able to tell the difference between the dozen “learn more” links on your page. And it’ll make your SEO expert happy too.

Here’s Google using specific link language:

Way to let me know where that link will take me, Google.

9. Design with content in mind

Almost every design decision impacts copy, so consider whether that impact is helping or hindering your writing.

For example, that super-tall product shot is beautiful. No argument there. But remember that the copywriter has to balance that image out with copy—and does he or she really have that much to say about how Gorilla Glass is basically shatterproof and crystal clear—beyond that?

And that 64pt Helvetica Neue Thin headline looks great as “Lorem ipsum dolor,” but can the copywriter really sum up your whole product suite in 3 words? It’s worth considering.

10. Scale the page to the topic

When you’re trying to decide how long a page or section of a page should be, keep a simple rule of thumb in mind: if your product’s unfamiliar, complex, or expensive, you’ll usually need more content. You won’t have to do much to sell someone on a t-shirt—but a tool that helps you SEO-optimize your social sharing is another story.

And that trumps the old “keep it above the fold” rule. And yes, you can tell your marketer I said that.

Did I miss anything?

No doubt I did—copywriting’s a big topic. So if you want specific tips on anything copy-related, hit me up and I’ll see what I can do to answer it here. 

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