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 of your words and microcopy?
This is where UX writing shines in your product design team. UX writing is product writing that aims to influence your users’ actions to guide them toward a better overall user experience. Instead of trying to sell users on your product like copywriting does, UX writing focuses on helping users get more from your product.
Whether it’s a tooltip highlighting a new feature or error notifications that educate users, UX writing is your product’s voice in an ongoing dialog with each user. If the product sounds “wrong” (pretentious, unclear, inappropriate), it’ll negatively affect the relationship you’re building with your users.
Products are never inherently self-explanatory—they need UX writers to speak for them. Every piece of UX writing is a chance to further your conversation with each user, improve their experience, and, ultimately, convince them that your product is worth sticking around for. What's more, you don't need to be a wordsmith extraordinaire to put UX writing into action. Here are some basic best practices anyone can follow, plus UX writing examples of what you should and shouldn't do to get you started on honing your UX writing skills.
1. Keep copy clear, concise, and practical
Beyond anything else, your copy needs to be easy to understand to be successful. If users don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them because it’s poorly described or ambiguous, it’ll lead to frustration. It'll also make your product design look bad—if you can’t put any effort into writing, why should a user trust that you haven't cut corners elsewhere?
To meet this minimum standard, your writing needs to be:
- 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.
Your copy's usability isn't measured by how pleasant it is. It's measured by how well it helps your users complete a task efficiently. A good example of this comes from Facebook’s Privacy Checkup page. This page aims to organize the different tools Facebook has developed to keep users’ data secure.
At the top of the page is a brief description that succinctly goes through what is here and what to do next. Each option has a short description of what it accomplishes, not some jargony name, so people can easily pick the one they want. Finally, at the bottom is a note for people who haven't found what they’re looking for, making it easier for them to eventually solve their issue.
Microsoft has a similar security page, but its UX writing is much, much worse.
Starting at the top: the blurb under “Security basics” tells us nothing more than what each option already tells us, so it adds nothing of any real value. The options themselves don’t do a good job of describing what each one does. If you want to add 2FA, should you go to Password security, Advanced security options, or Stay secure with Windows 10? Users will just have to click through to each option until they find what they want. So instead of solving their problem and moving on, they come away thinking that this product isn’t well made.
2. Use microcopy to anticipate and answer
Throughout the flow of your product, your customers will subconsciously question the user interface to figure out what to do. It's your job to identify potential questions like: What's that? What does that do? Where can I find this? How do I use that? You then need to respond appropriately with precise microcopy: the small bits of text on descriptions, buttons, etc.
Apple is a master at doing this right to the point where it’s downright eerie how inside your head they are. For instance, when Apple prompts you to add your credit card’s CVC, it includes an image and a bit of microcopy describing precisely what they need from you.
Apple anticipates that some of its end users won’t know where to find their CVC number. To improve its users’ experience, Apple tells them where to find the CVC without any hassle, frustration, or the need to call customer service.
Google Images’ reverse image search function is an example of a digital product that hasn’t anticipated its users’ questions. On Google Images, there is a camera icon on the search bar. Many people don’t know that this icon allows you to perform a reverse image search.
The reverse image search is a very useful tool, but many people don’t know how to do it because the visual design isn’t clear enough on its own. Google hasn’t done a good enough job anticipating the question, “what does that camera icon do?” or “how do I perform a reverse image search?” So now, a great feature goes underused, and it opens the door for third-party websites to fill this need.
Not every user question will be self-evident. User testing will help you uncover friction points that are resolvable with better UX writing and microcopy. You can learn more about finding these friction points in this article on uncovering user frustrations and getting insights.
3. Find the appropriate voice and tone
Strong UX writing comes from having a defined voice that adjusts its tone appropriately, depending on the situation. By finding that perfect voice and tone to suit your product, you more effectively communicate with your users and better define who you are in their minds.
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 words 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 learn more? The answers to these questions can be turned into descriptive words that make up your brand principles and form the basis for a style guide. From here, make sure the sound of every word and phrase in your product adheres to these principles.
Just because you’ve nailed your brand voice doesn't mean your job is done. You also need to moderate your voice through appropriate tones. Your brand voice can be fun and jokey, but if people are filing a complaint against one of your customer service reps, no one wants to hear a knock-knock joke.
For example, when a user completes a task successfully, it’s 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 with your UI text.
Email client Front does a great job of having a defined brand voice while still knowing how to moderate its tone when appropriate. Front’s voice is very approachable and business casual. This voice comes across in the phrase: “you can vacation worry-free” when you set a vacation responder. However, on something more business-related, like your email signatures, their tone takes on a far more to-the-point attitude.
Despite having different tones, both of these pieces of microcopy feel authentic to Front and never lose usability. Each piece of microcopy does its job first (describes the function of that tool) and then worries about creating that brand voice after.
In contrast, the scheduling app Calendly doesn't keep a consistent brand voice throughout its UI. Its UX copy veers from friendly and approachable to robotic on its categories page. It almost feels half done.
The “Getting Started” section starts off strong. It sounds very human, and it does a great job of mixing in usability by telling you what you’ll do (connect your calendar and discover features). After that, the UX writing quality falls off a cliff. Instead of a friendly description of each option, you get a robotic list that often tells you only as much as the header.
It wouldn’t even take too much work. A simple change from “Mobile Apps for iOS & Android” into “Explore our iOS and Android apps for on-the-go scheduling” would make the writing more lively. It also tells users more about why they’d want to learn more about the apps. It’s a missed opportunity Calendly could use to connect more with its users through its UX design.
4. Continue to expand your knowledge with copywriting and UX writing courses
Great UX writers are often also great copywriters. It’s easy to over-simplify and say that UX writing is for helping users and copywriting is for furthering your business goals, but the reality is that good UX writing and copywriting should be doing both. The UI design process doesn't happen in a vacuum. Improvements in content strategy, user research, and A/B testing fundamentals will help you collaborate with the whole product team and draft better UI copy. If you want to learn more about effective UX writing and copywriting, check out these online courses and resources to learn more.
- 4 copywriting principles that will make new users like you
- The Best UX Writing Courses (and How to Pick One)
- Learn UX writing and content design for FREE
- Quick Course On Effective Website Copywriting
- What is the best UX/UI pattern for your product tour?