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,
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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 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 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.
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: 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.
If you’re interested in UX writing, you can’t go wrong with using these UX writing tools:
Are you interested in learning more about UX writing? Check out these resources and then see what ux writing jobs are currently open for applicants.
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.