For many years, designing the interface of a product and designing its written content were two separate, waterfall processes.
“Words are easy to change; we can deal with them later”
“We need to focus on the core functionality first, then we add the copy layer”
The division of workflows would then lead to suboptimal results: truncated words conveying a wrong message, broken layouts because two lines became three, or frustrated users not knowing what to do next as the instructions were not clear.
To bridge the gap between design and content, the UX community responded by anointing a new role: the UX writer, a professional whose responsibility lies on designing the words in user experiences, to allow users to accomplish their goals and tasks.
Although the discipline of UX writing is becoming more pervasive, there are still hundreds of companies unable to afford having dedicated UX writers because of budget constraints.
The scenario above leads to well-intentioned designers wordsmithing the microcopy of an interface or outsourcing the task to adjacent areas such as marketing or technical writing who have other responsibilities. Thus, UX writing ends up living in a limbo between different teams.
But not anymore.
Enter Heuristics for UX Writing
Following is a set of rules of thumb and best practices to leverage by designers and writing enthusiasts to improve the quality of digital experiences, without going crazy over choosing “buy” vs “purchase” on a button label.
#1 Good UX Writing is Goal-Centered
Whereas copywriting focuses on showcasing the value of a product through writing, the chief task of UX writers is arranging words to guide users towards accomplishing their goals.
According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, there are two fundamental patterns of activity in the brain:
- task-positive network: “the state you’re in when you’re intensely focused on a task such as doing your taxes, writing a report, or navigating through an unfamiliar city”
- task-negative network:”the mind-wandering mode…a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking…”
Anticipating the state users are will allow UX Writers to better define the type of message that better supports users’ expectations.
- Define 3–5 jobs to be done or user goals and strive to make every message an aid for users to achieve those goals.
- Ask yourself in which state are users engaging with the system: task-positive or task-negative.
- If users are on a task-positive state, avoid your writing getting in the middle. If they are in a task-negative state, users will be more willing to get help.
#2 Good UX Writing Reflects Brand Values
Ammunition founder Robert Brunner defines a brand as when more than two people have the same gut feeling about a product.
To convey such gut feeling, a product needs to be cohesive and consistent: colors, symbols, images, typography, spacing, and of course, tone and voice. All of them dancing together to evoke a set of feelings and perceptions.
When crafting the words of your product, make sure they’re aligned with the style guide of the brand, and be deliberate about the selection of words that can better convey the personality and values of the organization.
- Define what values does the brand communicate to the user
- Ask yourself: what is the promise the brand strives to fulfill?
- Identify the attributes that reflect the brand
- Consider what voice and tone would a member of the organization use to talk to the customers
#3 Good UX Writing Taps into Emotions
No user will appreciate reading a robotic message from your interface. As Erika Hall states in her seminal book Conversational Design:
Conversation is not a new interface. It’s the oldest interface. Conversation is how humans interact with one another, and have for millennia. We should be able to use the same principles to make our digital systems easy and intuitive to use by finally getting the machines to play by our rules.
When interacting with interfaces and digital systems, people will inevitably compare the experience with interacting with a human, therefore the importance of imbuing the UI with words evoking feelings to make the experience more vivid and memorable.
To better tap into people’s emotions through your writing, it is important to realize what type of feelings come into play throughout the user journey.
- Based on the goal and state of the users, identify the likely feelings users can have throughout the journey, and select the words that better support users, whether alleviating negative feelings, or enhancing positive ones.
The better you can anticipate what users are trying to feel, the better words you will be able to choose to convey those feelings.
#4 Good UX Writing is Plain and Brief
As Luke Wrobleski states: obvious always wins.
The value of plain and brief writing is manifold: users will be able to read quicker, understand faster, and the writing will be more accessible to people regardless of their education level or specialty.
- Avoid using jargon, even if the experience focuses on a niche group
- Make the most of web-formatting rules such as headlines and bulleted lists
- Use active voice and present tense
- Follow Steve Krug’s third law of usability: get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.
#5 Good UX Writing is Proactive
The best-written error message is no error message.
UX writing should not only inform users about an error or issue but also protect them from happening in the first place. When working on error messages, the first question you should ask yourself is: How can we anticipate this potential issue to our user? If it is not possible, then the next question is: How can we help our users recover from this scenario?
By formulating these questions, you will increase the likelihood of designing a proactive experience, instead of a reactive one.
- Write to prevent errors, not only to inform them
- When errors might be inevitable, help users recover from them with clear next actions
If you are a design team of one or two, being tasked to design the microcopy and wording of a product can be overwhelming, as it stacks up with other responsibilities such as research, flow mapping, prototyping, documenting the style guides, to mention a few.
However, learning UX writing can have a great return on investment in your career. At the end of the day, writing requires clear thinking and synthesis.
Eventually, your UX writing skills will permeate in your written communication. You will be better at writing emails, Slack messages, scripts for presentations. And in the long-term, become a more articulate designer, capable of structuring your thoughts and manifest them in written media.
I encourage you to experiment with these heuristics, but also define yours, refine them, and share them with the design community. It will help us raise the UX writing bar even higher.