The role and discipline of content strategy is largely defined, but new lanes have emerged. One of the most important and fastest growing of those is the role of UX writer.
Now an integral part of design teams at companies like Google, Facebook, Booking.com, and more, user experience writers create any text you see, or hear, in a user interface. Anywhere you see a user and computer come together to get something done, that’s where UX writing plays a role.
The prefix “UX” is critical here, because any copy that’s placed in a piece of interaction design simply isn’t copy - it’s what design expert and publisher Jeffrey Zeldman would call “decoration”. UX writing urges and helps users take action, which only works effectively when that copy has been designed, iterated, and tested as part of a formal UX process.
The rise of this role is really no surprise: frictionless copy within an interactive design creates competitive advantage, and can be directly tied to value.
Jody Allard from Microsoft puts it this way: “UX writers do more than write, however. They act as customer advocates, considering every aspect of the experience from the customer’s perspective”.
The fundamental job of the UX Writer is to help users understand the why and the how at each step of a task so that it feels simple and uncomplicated.
The UX Writer evaluates the screens and might make suggestions to the product designer through the design process about what should be changed, removed, or even added to make the design better.
Depending on the needs of the company and the team, the specific types of writing can change a lot. Typically, UX writers work on these types of material:
Now, that copy is usually for software, but it can also be for web apps, or other types of web-based interaction design. Think of something like a complex website navigation system, or even a product selector. Or a chatbot.
Onboarding text, instructions, error message, contextual help and tooltips, form field labels, and more. This is all part of the UX writing family.
In smaller companies, one writer might work on all of this. At larger companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or others, there might be several UX writers specialising in one particular feature or product.
Writing for user interfaces is a bit like writing poetry: every word must have a purpose, every sentence must be essential, meaning matters, and timing is everything. You’ll need to advocate for succinct writing as if it’s part of your DNA.
But the principles of good UX writing extend beyond that.
The process of traditional copywriting can be fairly straightforward: collaboration with an artist to come up with something clever and bouncy.
Writing UX copy is a thorough, robust process that will involve UX writers coming into contact with designers, researchers, and then finally, face to face with the customers themselves. UX writers, in an ideal world, are often partly responsible for creating research tasks themselves.
For many UX writers, a traditional design process would look something like this:
While the UX writer is responsible for actually creating the copy, being part of a design team requires constant collaboration and input. Not only from the team, but from customers along the journey as well.
UX writers typically interact closely with:
Understanding and cultivating these relationships are critical for UX writers, because a good UX writer will not just react to whatever designs are put in front of them - they will actively design and champion ideas or features of their own from a content-first perspective.
It’s difficult to point to specific examples of “great” UX writing, By definition, any UX writing that works will be a result of exhaustive testing and customer-centered design. What looks ineffective out of context might be the right thing for users.
That being said, there are organisations that do a good job of showing how short, succinct, and well-placed copy within interaction design can showcase brand, and make things easy for users.
One of the more commonly cited examples of how good UX writing is implemented in design, Slack’s UX methodology often works because it doesn’t let “delight” get in the way of telling the user what’s going on. The headline, “loading”, provides the right context, before then offering something a little extra below it to inject personality.
Tinder is a good example of how UX writers can be used to boost engagement within an app itself. Rather than always setting expectations or giving instruction, Tinder’s UX writers provide support for users to actually take part in the activity of messaging.
Known for its cheeky copy, Mailchimp’s interaction design is deceptively simple: read the button copy here. It says exactly what the user should do, what they should expect, and their future behaviour.
Creating traffic-based apps can be a nightmare, so Google’s UX writing job is fairly simple: give information in a clear, succinct way that leaves no room for confusion. The small piece of copy at the bottom provides some good context. The phrase “that’s getting worse” is written colloquially, hinting at the need for human connection between computer and user. No doubt similar phrases would have been put through rigorous testing.
If you’re interested in UX writing, you can’t go wrong with these:
The discipline of UX writing is varied and deep. To that end, there are already several thought leaders in this space who have different and dynamic views about what UX writing is, and what it should be.
Scott Kubie from Brain Traffic is one of those. His thoughts here capture a popular opinion among UX writers about what the discipline is at its core:
“If you are a UX writer, you are a UX designer, and you need to learn UX design. Not the software (necessarily), but the principles and methodologies. It's less "writing, but apps", more "design, but words."
John Saito from Dropbox is another key thinker here, and cuts to the core of why businesses should even invest in UX writers in the first place:
“Once users start noticing typos and inconsistencies, they start losing trust in your company. If your company can’t take the time to write properly, why should they trust you with their time and money?”
Finally, one of the big debates in the community is the difference between content strategy and UX writing. Are the same? Where do they fit with each other? Ultimately, it may not matter. Andrea Drugay from Dropbox lays it out like this:
“UX writing and content strategy both need to take into account a broad view of the entire experience with their product, no matter if the “product” is software/SaaS, ecommerce/retail, or a media site.”
Are you interested in learning more about UX writing? You can’t go wrong with these resources:
Patrick Stafford is a co-founder of the UX Writers Collective, which offers online courses in UX writing, He's also a senior digital copywriter at MYOB, Australia's largest accounting software company. Patrick hosts "Writers of Silicon Valley", a podcast featuring interviews with UX writers and content strategists around the world.