Good UX copy doesn’t have to be short

4 min read
Patrick Stafford
  •  May 3, 2018
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One of the first lessons any professional writer learns is brevity.

  • “Omit needless words.” –Strunk and White
  • “Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.” –David Ogilvy
  • “The secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” –William Zinsser

These apply to UX writing as well. As a general rule, concise copy that gets to the point will usually work.

“There is such a thing as being too brief.”

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But not all the time. UX copy is dependent on so much outside your control. The subject of the content itself, the position of a page in the user flow, and your users’ wants and needs.

We often strangle ourselves into writing short copy no matter what. Not only can this hinder sales, it chokes any life or tone out of your copy. There is such a thing as being too brief—it kills personality.

Long copy has just as much potential to convert buyers as short copy, sometimes more.

You just need to be careful in how you use it.

Take your assumptions and break them

There’s a great scene in Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams teaches a bunch of boys how to write poems. One student sheepishly shares his, not having put any thought into the exercise: “The cat sat on the mat.”

The group laughs, but Keating offers some encouragement: It’s fine that the poem is about a simple theme. “Just don’t let your poems be ordinary,” he says.

That’s exactly the problem when UX copy is too short. It gives you exactly the information you need and nothing else. Where’s the room for tone? For a little sparkle? For delighting the user? We can’t let our UX copy be boring.Twitter Logo

Copywriters are sometimes handed designs and told to make the words work. But what if we can’t make them work? Often, designers opt to have only two or three lines of copy to maximize white space. Sometimes that’s just not the right decision, and copywriters need to push back by recommending visual changes.

Related: 10 UX copywriting tips for designers

By focusing too hard on an incessant need to make copy as short as possible, you can run into some consequences:

Short copy can be confusing.

Back in the Windows 95 era, Microsoft used to label a user’s main folder as “My Computer.” Then in Windows 7 it dropped the “my” and used “Computer.” Then in Windows 10, the name changed again to “This PC.”

Why the change? Hard to say if you don’t work on Microsoft’s user research team. But the implication is clear: The shorter message didn’t work, otherwise they could have kept it. Removing a word caused more problems, not fewer.

Short copy can be frustrating.

If you don’t spend the time to explain what’s happening and why, then your users aren’t going to be happy. Error messages, on the whole, can be pretty bad at this.

When we become so focused on the “less is more” principle, we forget that less is sometimes… exactly that. Less. With no information on what to do next.

Short copy can prevent extra context.

We tend to assume attention spans don’t exist anymore. But actually, longform content is winning the internet. So why do we assume that web pages should have to be as short as possible all the time?

If you look at the research on copy length, it’s not the actual length that trips people up. It’s elements like site structure, scannability, legibility, and concepts like “cognitive load.” In other words, don’t make people think too much from one paragraph to the next.

As UX designers (yes, copywriters are designers, too), we tend to take our metrics at face value. If we see a heatmap that shows users aren’t scrolling through a page we might assume it’s because they don’t like scrolling. Maybe. But it could also be that your copy lacks context.

Just like Optimizely says: “A successful landing page uses congruence and context to keep users focused and interested in whatever your page has to offer.”

Part of the reason this longer copy works is the bold, specific headline

Research shows site structure is a key element in getting people to read more. (Another reason why copywriters need to be involved in design from day one.) You don’t have to go far to find examples. Crazy Egg has a good one: A longer landing page increased conversion by 30%.

Give users a reason to keep reading, and they willTwitter Logo.

So what can long copy do for you?

We know what short copy can do. But what can longer copy do?

  • Longer copy gives you more opportunities to rebut objections in the user’s mind
  • Longer copy adds more context—especially in detailed product or feature pages
  • Structured correctly, longer copy builds the opportunity for trust
  • Longer copy gives more opportunities to express tone of voice

None of this means that you should use as much copy as you want. No, the typical rules apply: People still want copy that gets to the point.Twitter Logo

So… when does longer copy work? Let’s take a look at some examples.

When your brand enables you to

Apple’s product pages are pretty long anyway. That’s because they’re structured well, with big, bold headlines and beautiful pictures.

Yet the copy is pretty long, too. Check out this paragraph:

That’s 88 words. But read every sentence—it has something to say. It’s offering value point after value point, and it comes under bold headlines and pictures. It isn’t the first thing the user sees, easing them into it.

It’s a good strategy. Hook them with the beauty, then sock ’em with the detail.

When you’re listing features one by one

Stripe uses bold colors to brighten a typically boring subject. But that technical promise demands details, and that’s when long copy can help. Just look at this paragraph:

Not only is there a pull-out quote to help legibility, but every sentence offers something new. When you’re giving gifts to the user, it’s okay to indulge a little.

Same here, with MailChimp. Every single sentence offers the user something new, so by the end they’re convinced it’s something they need to try.

When your site structure provides context

Slack has a great team of writers, so it’s no wonder their material reads well. Here’s another reason: Every page on this site is structured so the headline gives you a reason for being there.

The headline provides immediate context, creating an expectation in the user’s mind: “How?” That provides the paragraphs below with permission to delve into more detail.

When you’ve asked questions, and you need to answer them

It’s a simple storytelling technique: The more you build something up, the more answers you need to have later on. Chekhov’s Gun and all that.

This Basecamp page does a lot of setup. Lots of figures and promises about what they’ve done. That build-up demands an explanation, which is exactly what they give:

This is a good example of how to structure longer content, by the way. Each paragraph serves a purpose:

  1. Sympathy. Providing connection.
  2. Differentiation. Only we can fix your problem.
  3. Examples. Look at all this stuff we can do!
  4. Sale. Give us a try.

It’s the same structure you see anywhere else on the web. Except this time, the copy is longer to allow the tone of voice to breathe a little.

“The structure of a page matters more than your copy length.”

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Test, test, test!

Remember, none of this means you should write as long as you want. Instead, you need to test your longer copy and make sure you understand why users are drawn to it in the first place.

Keep these guidelines in mind:

  1. People aren’t bothered so much by length, but by lack of context
  2. The structure of a page matters more than your copy length
  3. You need to justify every word, so if you’re writing more then you better have a good reason
  4. If your design doesn’t give you room for enough words, then recommend a change
  5. Copywriters are designers, too.

Just remember: Never let your copy be boring.Twitter Logo

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