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Content 101: UX Writing

Content 101: UX Writing

8 minute read

Content 101: UX Writing

8 minute read

Content 101: UX Writing

Patrick Stafford

Co-founder, UX Writers Collective

What is UX writing?

While the role and discipline of content strategy have been largely defined, 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. 

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, e-commerce/retail, or a media site."
Andrea Drugay
Group Manager-Copy, Slack

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 a competitive advantage, and it can be directly tied to value.

What does a UX writer do?

UX writers create the copy used throughout a digital product. This can include copy on buttons, menus, error messages, and more. Unlike a typical copywriter, UX writers have to have a thorough understanding of the user and user experience design.

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 might make suggestions to the product designer or product team through the design process about what should be changed, removed, or even added to make the user experience better.

Scott Kubie from MailChimp is a thought leader in the UX writing space, and 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."
Scott Kubie
Staff Content Strategist, MailChimp

Beyond writing microcopy and improving the user experience, the UX writer is also tasked with helping create the brand voice for the company or product. They may even create a style guide that offers guidance on how to use this brand voice across all of the organization's content.

John Saito from Lattice is a key thinker in the UX writing space 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?"
John Saito
Senior Product Designer, Lattice

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Types of UX content

The specific types of content that a UX writer will create depends on the needs of the company, the team, and the end-user. However, these are the most common types of UX content:

  • UI text (UI = interface text delivered via screens or voice while using the product)
  • UX copy (UX = text for any part of the user experience, including marketing and support copy)
  • Interface copy
  • UI content
  • Microcopy
  • Content
  • Product or in-product copy

These types of copy are usually created for software, but UX content can also be for web apps or other types of web-based interaction design. This could be something like a complex website navigation system, a chatbot, or even a product selector.

Onboarding text, instructions, error messages, contextual help and tooltips, form field labels are 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 specializing in one particular feature or product.

Principles of good UX writing

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. Effective UX writing must: 

  • Set expectations Users need to understand what a product can do for them and how to do it. They need instructions and a dose of reassurance. The product must engage them with clear, concise, and delightful copy.
  • Answer users' questions before they ask them UX writing must anticipate and answer users' questions as it guides them through tasks. This conversation is at the core of UX writing. It’s not easy to capture on a single screen. The conversation runs through the entire user experience.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the product itself You’ll also need to understand exactly how the product works so you can teach users the best way to use it. What’s hard? What’s easy? For complex or difficult tasks, you’ll need to break down all the steps in the process so users can easily follow along.
  • Be thoroughly researched To write well about any product, you’ll need to know more than just how the digital product works. You also need to know what that product does for its users and how it makes their lives better.
  • Involve competitive analysis You should know what the competition is offering and how they talk about it. Ideally, your writing will reinforce your product’s unique value proposition or the most important benefit your product offers to users that they can’t easily find somewhere else.
  • Incorporate content design For UX writers, content isn't just about the words being used but also the way the content is designed. Good UX writing incorporates content design principles that are based on user research and intimate knowledge of the end-user journey to display the content in a way that makes it most useful for the user. If the UX writer is not also a content designer, they will typically collaborate with someone on the product design team to ensure their content incorporates UI design principles.

UX writing methodology

The process of traditional copywriting can be fairly straightforward. It typically involves collaboration between writer and business to come up with something clever and bouncy.

Writing UX copy is a thorough, robust process that will involve UX writers collaborating with designers, researchers, and then finally, face-to-face with the customers themselves. In an ideal world, UX writers will be responsible for creating research tasks themselves.

For many UX writers, a traditional design process would look something like this:

  • Defining the problem Working with designers, developers, product managers, and stakeholders, UX writers would work to help define the scope of the problem in front of them. That could be gaining new users, increasing engagement, or any other particular problem the organization faces. The UX writer’s role in these discussions is to help think about what ways UX writing might be used to help solve that problem - or if UX writing is the right tool to use at all.
  • Ideating Together with designers and anyone else on the design team, UX writers should be helping find solutions to whatever design problem they face next. That means UX writers should be involved in sketching out the problem in a visual way, while also creating tools like content priority maps or hierarchies to help others on the team understand the most effective ways for content to be placed in a piece of interaction design.
  • Prototyping While continuing to gain feedback from designers, product managers, stakeholders, and anyone else involved in the project, the UX writer will help designers create a more high-fidelity prototype of the chosen solution.
  • Researching Working alongside designers and researchers, UX writers play a critical role in research. The UX writer should be creating copy-specific tasks for researchers to provide to customers. They should also be watching the research take place, taking notes on how users react to the language being used in the prototype.
  • Iterating Working with the UX researchers, UX writers will take both qualitative and quantitative feedback to apply to their UX writer and make it more effective. They might also work with an optimization manager to create hypotheses and frameworks for future A/B testing, to iterate on a bigger scale, and get quantitative feedback quickly.
  • Deploying While the design is being deployed, UX writers may have to work alongside developers and engineers to adjust copy on the fly if technical constraints or challenges force the design in a different direction. For example, the size of a tooltip alert may need to be shortened, which requires the UX writer to truncate copy.

Who is involved in the UX writing?

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:

  • UX designers Taking part in sketching sessions, ideation, and defining the scope of the problem. Continuing to iterate copy through designs and research.
  • Internal stakeholders Working to understand the key metrics and business goals required as part of any project.
  • Product managers Taking note of any long term plans or roadmaps to understand the context of the customer journey.
  • Researchers Crafting user tasks and research notes, while also taking part in research itself to gather new data points.
  • Developers Continuing to create copy and edit alongside developers as text is put into development.
  • Optimisation managers Identifying hypotheses and ideas for A/B testing copy to further refine and discover what users respond to.

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.

UX writing examples from top brands

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 organizations that do a good job of showing how short, succinct, and well-placed copy within interaction design can showcase the brand and make things easy for users.

Slack

Slack is one of the more commonly cited examples of how good UX writing is implemented in its 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.

A screenshot from Slack with the text: Loading ... You're here! The day just got better.
The Slack UX example is all about being direct

Tinder

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.

An image from Tinder with text saying: You matched with Khloe 1 week ago. Give them a compliment and watch what happens.
Tinder’s UX example shows how simple encouragement goes a long way. Source

Mailchimp

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.

An image from Mailchimp with the text: High Fives! Your mail is in the send queue and will go out shortly.
Mailchimp’s UX example tells you exactly what you need to know.


Google Maps

Creating traffic-based apps can be a nightmare, so Google’s UX writing job is fairly simple: To give information in a clear, succinct way that leaves no room for confusion

The small piece of copy at the bottom - 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.

A screenshot of Google Maps on a mobile device. Shows a map with the end destination marked and the driving route and time highlighted.
Google Maps’ little details add a ton of context

UX writing tools to help improve your skills

If you’re interested in UX writing, you can’t go wrong with using these UX writing tools:

  • Daily UX Writing Challenge Content strategist Ryan Farrell created a newsletter with 14 UX writing prompts.
  • Sketch The design tool of choice for most times.
  • Grammarly Always the best way to check whether something is easily understand, or structured well.
  • Hemingway Another great tool that does some and more of the above. 
  • Figma The best way for UX designers to learn how their words impact design is to actually design.
  • Note pad Nothing better than a piece of paper and a pen for sketching. 
  • GatherContent I personally use GatherContent in my team to manage strings and content used across various designs.
Need to know: The GatherContent platform allows you to have your style guidelines embedded where writing happens.

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About the author

Patrick Stafford

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.

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