UX writing principles for designers

4 min read
Kaila Lee
  •  Jun 14, 2019
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We’re in the prime of UX writing: the design-adjacent copy practice for digital interfaces.

In 2017, John Maeda, the head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic and former design partner at Kleiner Perkins, boldly claimed that writing is design’s “unicorn skill”. Fast forward to 2019—UX writing is now one of the top UX trends for the year, as the focus on storytelling and narrative UX urges designers to rapidly adopt a content-first approach.

Good UX writing marries design and written language; great UX writing makes them indivisible. Whether your team has a go-to UX writer or you’re a designer who owns product content, you can advocate for empowering visual and verbal flows. It’s what helps users tap, swipe, click or do whatever action they need to get to their goals.

“Good UX writing marries design and written language; great UX writing makes them indivisible.”

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In (not) so many words, I’m here to equip you with the tools to write copy that not just complements, but elevates your work. These are insights I’ve gathered over the course of several years as a UX writer/content strategist working on web and app designs for brands including Facebook, Academy UX, Genentech, and various local organizations.

The designer’s guide to UX writing

Whether you’ve been asked to write copy or you want to learn on your own, these are a few tips and tricks of the trade to look out for.

Focus on the onboarding flow

72% of users say it’s important to them to complete app onboarding in under one minute. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for talking.

According to Jonathon Colman, a senior content design manager at Intercom, the 6 key elements of an effective onboarding flow include:

  • A welcome message
  • An identity for the product or company
  • A problem(s) to be solved
  • At least one explicit value proposal
  • The mechanics of using the product
  • At least one call-to-action (CTA)

Good example: Dropbox

What works: Dropbox successfully uses snapshots of key features to introduce users to Dropbox Paper. Copy for each screen is limited to a header and one line of subtext—providing context, without overwhelming the user. The focus is on user actions (e.g. capture ideas, plan next steps, share your thoughts).

Two buttons (Watch intro video/Get started) offer users clear options to begin interacting with the product. The overall tone is encouraging and informative, which creates a welcoming experience right off the bat.

Tip: Pare down text to the essentials. Strive for simple, bold statements about key interactions and offer lightweight supporting details about how the user can achieve their goals.

Maintain consistency across platforms

Copy needs to fit screens of all sizes, so for digital product copy, flexibility is key. While you may be able to fit more text onto a larger screen, your brand’s voice and tone must remain consistent.

Be wary of non-responsive UIs, and embrace the opportunity to stretch your copy’s muscles.

Whereas on mobile the goal of content is largely to help the user complete a task efficiently, on full-screen interfaces, you can expand the copy help users understand how to navigate the product and accomplish their goals.

Good example: Spotify

What works: Whereas on mobile there’s only one header and call-to-action button for the user to find songs, on desktop, there’s a brief header and subtext providing context for where and how users can add songs to their playlist (e.g. add recommended songs, or search for a song).

Tip: Strategically utilize the extra space on full-screen views to point to different product features and capabilities.

Incorporate accessibility into your brand voice

Great content is inclusive. Keep in mind that you’re when writing, there’s no such thing as “edge cases”—you’re writing for everyone. Create accessible content through prioritizing clarity above all else.

We’ve previously explored best practices for writing accessible microcopy that promote readability while preserving a brand’s voice and tone. For those with cognitive disabilities or visual impairments, content acts as a guide to help them understand how to navigate within and interact with a product.

Good example: Netflix

What works: The use of labeled steps helps the user understand where they are in the process. Clear headings are helpful in establishing structure and grouping related information. The button copy reiterates the purpose of the step and ensures that the user knows what comes next.

Tips: Minimize complex language and clearly label key elements of the experience. Descriptive copy aids comprehension. Here are several principles to consider when writing accessible copy:

  • Use short, simple sentences
  • Use familiar, common words and phrases
  • Use consistent terminology
  • Make pronouns clear
  • Avoid idioms, slang, jargon, abbreviations, double negatives or culturally-specific references
  • Avoid ambiguity and provide sufficient context
  • Avoid word clusters (e.g. with regards to, in terms of, go on about)
  • Consider text length and placement

To ensure clarity, a good rule of thumb is to write for a seventh-grade reading level or lower. Hemingway is a great tool to help gauge this.

The Hemingway app at work

Exercise brevity

A good practice for keeping things simple is to identify the most essential bits of information and use those to get your point across.

What works: Shopify delivers important messages directly while showcasing the value of certain features. Each sentence is bite-sized and personalizes the information that the user would have to change.

Tip: Keep copy to a minimum so users are able to grasp the basic message. If you’re still running into problems, the problem might go beyond copy—which should function as a guide, not a crutch.

Use active voice

Empower users with copy that literally calls them to action. While passive voice might be appropriate for system actions, active voice is always the move for user actions.

Good example:

What works: Notice that the landing page of immediately presents two clear and actionable CTA buttons (Import Your Site Now / Launch Demo) that drive users to engage with the platform. The button copy uses active voice and offers distinct paths forward to the user.

Good example: Uber.

What works: Uber effectively utilizes active voice to invite users to view the ride status of their friend or family member. The header, body and CTA are all written in present tense to clearly describe the corresponding action.

Tip: Choose verbs over nouns to motivate user action. Write in present tense to make the copy simpler and more digestible.

Lead with what’s important

Write scannable copy that lets users take quick and accurate actions.

Good example: Airbnb.

What works: Airbnb encourages users to add to their lists by providing instant feedback on the list’s state and letting the user know what actions they can take.

Tip: Front-loading sentences helps condense copy and simplify your interface.

Be helpful

The goal of UX writing is simple: to deliver the right information at the right time.

Good example: Instagram.

What works: Instagram clearly lets the user know the consequences of taking an action and addresses their concerns in a simple line of text. Through explicitly telling users what to expect, the copy reassures users in an authentic way. Transparency is integral in fostering user confidence and trust in a product.

Tip: Lay out all of your users’ options in front of them and let them know the actions they can take. Establishing trust starts with ensuring that users are aware of the results of their actions and feel supported throughout the process.

Be conversational

Copy should inform and guide, but it should also create an experience that sounds human. Let your copy reflect the authenticity and personality of the people behind the words.

Good example: Mailchimp.

What works: Mailchimp effectively conveys updates about a new feature in a warm and upbeat tone that uses “you” to involve the user in the conversation.

Good example: Slack.

What works: Slack incorporates its fun and playful personality into their lighthearted update messages when the user has gone through all of their unread messages.

Tip:  A dash of creativity is always welcome—there’s nothing more gratifying than writing a piece of copy that brings a smile to someone’s face.

…and that’s a wrap!

We’ve given you a flavor of some UX writing best practices to incorporate into your work. The point where great design and copy meet is the sweet spot for A+ UX.

Prioritize clarity and offer supporting context where appropriate. Building empathy with your users is integral in developing meaningful content at each stage. Remember, the ultimate goal of UX writing is to help your users own the product experience and achieve their goals.

Want to read more about UX writing?

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