Your product is ready to go: The layout is intuitive, the style is elegant, and the flow is seamless. It's looking good, but how does your product sound? Not the sound from the speakers, but the sound from your words?
When we read, we recognize words as pictures and hear them spoken.
This is important because the choice of words gives character to what we hear. So depending on your product's copy, your product's character may seem complex, uninspiring, and stern, or—if you choose your words carefully—it could be easy, motivating, and fun. This is the arena of UX writing: the craft of writing words that directly relate to the user's action, the motivation before that action, the instructions that accompany the action, and the feedback right after the action.
When you get these right, you can create a positive experience that increases the usability of the product, engages the user, and enhances your brand for positive differentiation.
What's more, you don't need to be a wordsmith extraordinaire to put UX writing into action. It is simple, and that's the point, so let's take a look.
UX writing to improve usability
As everybody's attention span gets shorter, so does the time your product has to engage. In this small window of opportunity, your product needs to guide the user forward by speaking to them clearly and practically. This way, your product can answer the user's questions, dispel concerns, and prevent errors. This can be done in two ways.
Keep it simple, stupid (KISS)
The KISS acronym was coined by a military airplane engineer. He told the designers that what they made had to be simple and easy to understand in order for it to be useful in the face of combat. Your product may not be going to war, but in the chaotic, noisy, and distracting world we live in, the principle is valid.
Your copy needs to be easy to understand to be successful. It needs to be clear, concise, and practical.
Clear = Instead of: An authentication error has occurred. Write: You entered an incorrect password.
Concise = Instead of: You must log in before you can write a comment. Write: Log in to comment.
Practical = Instead of: CoffeeApp's visitor quota for testing is at 623,329. Write: 90% of your allowance has been used. View “My Account” to upgrade.
The usability of your copy is measured not by how pleasant it is, but by how much it helped your users complete a task with minimal effort.
Anticipate and answer
Throughout the flow of your product, your users will subconsciously question the interface to figure out what to do. It's your job to preempt questions like: What's that? What does that do? Where can I find this? How do I use that?—and to respond appropriately with precision.
Not every user question will be self-evident, so to ensure that your product is responding appropriately to your user's train of thought, look to user testing to uncover the points of user uncertainty that are resolvable with words.
UX writing to motivate action
The key to successful acquisition or onboarding is reducing the time it takes the user to get to the first value, known as the “aha” or “wow” moment. If the user is unable to see why they should care about your product, they won't.
The most succinct way to help the user visualize your product's value is with your words.
Talk about the value, not the method
Your product needs to explicitly point out what the user will receive from using it, what problems it's going to solve, or how it will better their lives. Because time is of the essence, you have to focus on what the user will gain, not on what they need to do.
Instead of: Email marketing and campaign software for your business. Write: Reach and engage your customers with easy email marketing. Or: Build your brand. Sell more stuff.
Instead of: Loading. Write: Loading your design experience. Or: Loading your UIDesigner experience, the best way to share and collaborate on design.
Instead of: Sign up for our newsletter. Write: Get your weekly entrepreneurship fix. Or: Fresh, provocative, and insanely addictive content delivered weekly.
To make your value even more engaging, write in the present tense with an active voice to grab the user's attention, and try to front-load your sentences with the most important point.
Talk to amuse and excite
Entertaining—and sometimes humorous—copy can lift the mood of your users. As a consequence, they will like and appreciate the interface more and are more likely to cooperate and accept the UI's suggestions. So where appropriate, make your words whimsical to motivate your user's to take an action.
There are many good examples of entertaining copy in action, including MailChimp. But here, Tumblr's copy is both amusing and practical.
Unless your name is something like “Fifi Trixibelle,” it's unlikely to be unique. This means that selecting a username can be a sticking point in the user's flow.
To minimize abandonment, Tumblr gets creative and suggests a series of fun usernames, like “ColorfulCherryblossomArtisan,” to boost the user's mood. But what makes the copy even smarter is the “You can always change it later” to dispel the user's concern of it being a decision for life.
UX writing to express your brand
Conventions, best practices, and trends make differentiation in the digital space a challenging thing to achieve. You need to follow these three principles to ensure that your digital experience is intuitive, easy, and up to date. If you stray, you risk leaving your audience alienated. So how can you stand out?
Again, you need to use your words. By carefully crafting the sound of your product, you can develop a personality. And products with personality are the ones that leave their competitors in the dust.
Finding your brand voice
A personality is an individual's pattern of thought and behavior, made up of values and ideas. These do not vary often, which makes people predictable. Humans trust predictability because we know what to expect. If we meet someone whose personality swings wildly, we're unlikely to trust them. This makes it important for your product to define its voice and then stick to it. Otherwise, your users will be suspicious.
To find your brand voice, you need to set your brand principles. These can simply be three or four adjectives that describe your brand and how you want people to perceive it. Google's fun brainstorming approach for coming up with these is to imagine that you're signing your product up for a dating site.
What is it about your product that makes it stand out? What makes it seem most interesting to people? What would make them want to swipe right and want to learn more? The answers to these questions can be turned into descriptive words that make up your brand principles. From here, make sure the sound of every word and phrase in your product adheres to these principles.
When to change your tone
Although people's personalities do not change much, the tone of their voice does. This is important, as the sound of your voice needs to match the context.
For example, when a user completes a task successfully, it is a good opportunity to go full out “woot woot.” But if the user is about to make a big decision, like paying for their subscription plan, you need to play it “safe and secure.”
A great way to help you think about how to vary your tone is with a tone journey map.
Google uses this to help visualize the whole conversation they'll have with a user as the user proceeds through a task.
The tone journey map helps you identify opportunities to express yourself and highlights the points when your product needs to be respectful and reassuring. The goal is to get the balance right to let your product's personality shine while maintaining your user's trust.
Read it loud and proud
Humans use computers as if the computers are human. This means the words in your product are leading a conversation with your users, and this is a conversation you cannot leave to chance.
UX writing is essential to how your users experience your product, but it is a simple thing to get right.
Read your product's words out loud to make sure they are clear, concise, and practical. Remember to lead with benefits, not features or tasks. And stick to your brand principles to bring your product to life.
Margaret Kelsey is a content marketer at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.