UX writers transform confusion into clarity but are these tiny words the key to better products? Let’s find out
Microcopy, UX writing, product writing, content design… it can be hard to keep up with the names writers have to define their work.
But there are subtle differences between these seemingly similar monikers.
To end the confusion: UX writing is the words you read in a user interface of a product. They’re short, to the point and can be used for a variety of reasons.
The most prominent reason for UX writing is to help users achieve their goals when they use a product. This is achieved through:
- Useful tooltips
- Relevant push notifications
- Product copy
- Button text
- Error messages
This kind of writing is distinct from other types of writing.
Content marketing, for example, makes an audience aware of a product. It’s also used to inform an audience.
Copywriting is the art of persuasion. It sells you something. Technical writing is instructional; it is usually written after the software development phase.
UX writing starts during conception and continues through the design stage.
These types of writing are very similar but require different skills.
Take copywriting, for instance. There is a lot of room to be creative and free, to create drama and intrigue. Here writers can use wordplay, irony and sarcasm to their advantage.
Technical writing, in contrast, requires an analytical mind and needs to be so clear that it doesn’t leave a user confused or asking more questions.
The rise of UX writing
UX writing is nothing new. It has been around for a very long time, albeit under different names – technical writer and interface writer are just a few.
It’s only with the rise of UX design as a discipline that writing has started to gain the recognition it deserves and take on a life of its own to become UX writing.
UX designers create environments where people accomplish their goals in an easy way. Words act as a gentle guide as they encourage users through an interface.
It’s worth saying if there are no words, you’ve got no product. Getting them right is essential.
Dare we say it, these small words can act as your friend. A voice that says: don’t worry, I’m here and I want to help you.
See how these 10 examples of microcopy boost the user experience.
How small words make a powerful product
To understand the power of words, let’s look at an example by Google.
In her Google I/O talk How Words Can Make Your Product Stand Out, content strategist Maggie Stamphill, speaks about one subtle change in the copy they made when users search for a hotel using Google.
Previously, the copy read “Book a room”. Sounds good. Direct and to the point. What’s wrong with that?
But when searching for hotels, people aren’t ready to commit to booking a room. It’s not where they’re at yet. This copy was asking too much too soon.
Maggie and her team changed the copy to “Check availability”. This version meets the user where they’re at in the journey. They only want to know what’s available before committing.
This small and—what some might consider minor—change resulted in 17% more engagement.
How’s that for making your product better?
These small words can have a big impact when it comes to usability.
Voice and tone are the heart of UX writing
UX writing is used to establish a relationship between the user and the product. It’s here the words used in an interface can:
- Build trust
- Show users a path
- Encourage action
- Make people feel good
The writing achieves this through voice and tone. The voice of a brand or product is consistent. It won’t change. The tone, however, is where you’ll find variation.
Think of it this way: your voice is your voice. You always sound like you. But if you want to congratulate a colleague on a promotion, you’ll sound happy and excited.
If you’re upset because your significant other “forgot” to remove the plates from the dishwasher then you’ll sound disappointed but you won’t sound like another person (maybe you do, depending on your level of anger…).
Put simply, tone is how we express emotion through voice.
An example from MailChimp’s style guide
MailChimp’s voice and tone guide says:
“Before you write for MailChimp, it’s important to think about our readers. Though our voice doesn’t change much, our tone adapts to our user’s feelings.”
Then there’s Polaris, Shopify’s design system, which says:
“Shopify’s voice is a reflection of who we are. We should always sound like Shopify. Our tone adapts appropriately to the context and situation. The best way to decide what tone to use is to ask yourself what the merchant is likely feeling when they encounter your message.”
Shopify’s tone and voice guide
Both make mention of what the user is feeling. This is vital because it promotes empathy. Empathy means you can put yourself in your users’ shoes. It’s what makes you choose a short simple word over an unnecessarily long one.
Creating a set of guidelines in the form of a style guide is what helps UX writers do their job.
Style guides provide guidance (imagine that…) on which words and expressions to use and which to avoid.
A style guide is like a pattern library for writers. They’re full of contextual examples and help get everybody in an organization on the same page. Both the style guide and the pattern library end up in an overall design system.
UX writing makes your product more human
John Saito, UX writer at Dropbox, says that these small words can make your product or brand be more human. Why do you want to sound human? Well, if this error message is anything to go by…
As you can see, this message is not aimed at humans. It is technical and difficult to decipher. It is computer speak, not human speak.
No doubt there will be a number of people who will understand exactly what this message is saying.
Probably the people who wrote it. Maybe a few developers throughout the company. But a user? Will they understand it? In fact, the better question might be: do they need to?
This type of writing is not user-centric. If a user were to receive this message, what mental state might it put them in? Does it instil confidence as they continue to use your product? Or will they move throughout your product with trepidation?
Rhiannon Jones, content designer at Deliveroo, says of error messages:
“Error messages are structural necessities. They’re the nuts, bolts, sticky tape and blu-tack of content design. When they don’t do their job, everything else you’re trying to build falls down.”
UX writers can take the incomprehensible and turn it into something crystal clear. A writer has the ability to persuade, engage, convince, encourage and relax your users simply through their word choices. This not only affects the UX design but the customer experience, too.
As UX writer Ryan Cordell points out:
“Microcopy is how your product communicates. It provides answers, feedback, comfort, guidance, encouragement and more. If we fail to design the words we use, this still communicates something to the user.
It says we can’t or don’t want to help. It says we don’t care as much as we should. And that’s catastrophic for the customer experience.”
How do you make your writing sound more human?
It’s one thing to know the power of UX writing but another thing to put it into practice. How do you make your writing more human so your product is better?
Write like a human
It might sound obvious especially if you are a human.
But many people start typing then turn into a strange thing indeed. Gone from their vocabulary is ordinary, plain English words.
Instead, there’s esoteric jargon and complicated language. Jargon does have its place but so often it’s the result of uncertainty or the desire to sound more intelligent that you need to be.
To write more human, use plain language. Hoa Lorange writes that plain language is for everyone. Even experts prefer plain language.
When you write plainly, you will boost the usability, readability and credibility of what you’re saying. There’s little room for ambiguity when you write plainly.
Language is used to communicate and plain language empowers you to write clearly and concisely. It removes any potential barriers between you and the user.
Lorange makes the pertinent point that nobody complains about a text being too easy to read.
Use your users’ language
Another super easy way to write better is to use the language that your users use.
Rachael Mullins, the product content strategist at OpenCities, says:
“Whatever the medium, I think you can learn a lot by paying attention to how people use words to express their ideas—whether in song lyrics, food labels, street art, or conversations you overhear on the train.”
Places like Reddit or User Experience Stack Exchange can be great for seeing how people use language. You can uncover cultural nuance, too. As Reddit is used by millions of people all around the world, there’s the opportunity to look for nuance, similarities and differences.
By the way, we did a teardown of Reddit’s redesign. Fancy reading?
Imagine you want to write something ironic or humorous in your product. Humor in a product is a delicate subject because it can be hard to get right.
You and your team might think you’re onto a winner with that snappy zinger but what if your users who don’t have English as their first language don’t understand it?
When you use your users’ language, you have to accommodate all users, not just the ones who are like you.
Test your writing
Write something then testing it is a very quick and simple way to know if your copy is working. An A/B test between two variations will make clear which kind of language your users respond to better.
Cloze tests are another method. A cloze test is an exercise where a number of words are removed from a sentence and the participant is asked to replace the missing words.
This can be great for understanding what language your users use and knowing how comprehensible your copy is. Comprehension and highlighter tests are also great alternatives for testing UX copy which Tímea Falmann goes into more deeply here.
Write daily and read often
If you don’t write very much, building a writing habit can do wonders. Your writing doesn’t have to win Pulitzer prizes. This habit will demystify any hangups you might have about writing.
Start small. Even if it’s 100 words a day in a Google Doc. Building a habit of writing will help you become more aware of the words you use.
You’ll gain clarity (which is great for writing for products) and a wider vocabulary. You can look back on what you’ve written and begin to analyze: what can you improve? Can you turn passive sentences into active ones?
This also goes in hand with reading. Reading is just as important as writing. Reading will give you insight into syntax. You’ll obtain new knowledge and understand the language better.
It’s important to read books, of course. But next time you’re using a product, keep your eyes open for how it speaks to you. It might inspire you.
Why UX writing is the key to better products – the takeaway
UX writing will not save the world. But it will play a big role in making your product better. Small, subtle changes can have a big impact, as the Google example shows.
No matter the experience you want to give your users, they’re going to need to read in order to make any sense of the interface or experience.
Those words are vital to get right because they can create long-lasting customers who have a positive experience with your product.