UX copywriting: What's powering the web's best digital experiences

UX copywriting: What's powering the web's best digital experiences

4 minute read

UX copywriting: What's powering the web's best digital experiences

4 minute read

UX copywriting: What's powering the web's best digital experiences

Art

Freelance Copywriter & Content Marketer

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Wherever you look online, there's a lot of talk around UI/UX design. But UX copywriting? Not so much.

A quick search on a leading job site resulted in almost 4,000 UX/UI designer vacancies compared with less than 50 for UX/UI copywriters. And most of those only came up because they were actually a vacancy for a copywriter who works with a UX/UI designer.

Admittedly, this may be in part because of linguistic nuance: "UX copywriter" is not a recognized term in the same way that "UX designer" is.

"Technical writer" might be a comparable term, but searching for this throws out very stuffy, narrow roles that don't sound nearly as creative or deep thinking as UX design roles.

So is it fair to say that, when it comes to user experience, copywriting is currently a bit of an afterthought? Maybe.

In this post, we'll attempt to get to the root of why this is the case, and why it's a problem.

💡 See Also: Content 101: UX Writing

What is UX copywriting?

UX copywriting is the art of writing copy on websites, apps, and other digital products that clarifies how to use a product. UX copywriting is essential to creating valuable and pleasant digital experiences.

While UX copywriting is most often seen in microcopy (short pieces of copy), it isn’t any less important than typical copywriting. In fact, good UX copy is vital to successful product design because it helps users navigate the digital landscape—whether that’s showing them how to use an app or helping them make a decision about where to go next.

What does a UX copywriter do?

A UX copywriter is a copywriter that specializes in writing for the user experience (UX). UX copywriters focus on creating clear and concise copy that can help users make the right decision about what to do next.

UX copywriters often work with user interface (UI) designers, product managers, marketers, and content strategists to develop user-focused copy for digital experiences. For this reason, they need to be experts at messaging while also having in-depth knowledge of the design process.

UX writers often use data and insights from user research and user testing as part of their content strategy. Understanding how users navigate the site or app helps them better make decisions about how to write the best UX copy.

All style, no substance: What happens when you don’t focus on UX copywriting

For example, when Path was launched in 2010, it was on the fast track to success and accrued tens of millions of users thanks to the sleek design. (Virtually every designer I knew set out to reverse engineer that home button.)

The app had no shortage of media hype.

Path app
Path is an example of an app that may have had better success if the copywriting was clearer.

Two weeks later, it was widely criticized for its obscure purpose. Is it a social network? Is it a photo-sharing app? Is it a virtual diary?

By 2014, only a fraction of the app's users were active daily, and in 2015, a South Korean company quietly acquired Path (which, for some reason, remains extremely popular in Indonesia).

The trajectory of a company can't be boiled down to a single factor, but I can't help but think that ineffective copywriting played a role. For example, its homepage blurb...

Stay connected with family & close friends

This really didn't differentiate enough from Facebook's at the time:

[Facebook helps you] connect and share with the people in your life

Granted, it's notoriously difficult to effectively spell out the direction you're taking when you're doing a stealth launch. However, a clearer proposition might have given the app a better crack at going mainstream.

How UX writing impacts onboarding

There's nowhere copywriting is more important to UX than the onboarding process. If a first-time user can't easily figure out what they're supposed to do and why, they'll often abandon the product and look for an alternative.

It's not just inexperienced startups who fail at creating a compelling onboarding process. Take the widespread criticism of Apple Music.

As much as we want to love #AppleMusic, the UI is ridiculous hard to follow... How many options?! #simplealwayswins pic.twitter.com/K5FHvwaRcv
— Strawberrysoup (@strawberrysoup) July 2, 2015

To say that Apple Music's onboarding procedure is confusing is to be very kind. It's so inelegant that one helpful site has done an in-depth breakdown of how puzzling they found the process.

Apple Music UI
In this screenshot from Apple Music, we see an example of copywriting that doesn't prioritize the users' needs. (Source)

In this screenshot from Apple Music, we see an example of copywriting that doesn't prioritize the users' needs.

Alt-text: Apple Music UI

At the other end of the scale, we know from experience that onboarding—when done well—can be a key mechanism in driving user loyalty.

Jackson Noel of Appcues shows that Slack has done just that in a great blog post on how to make people love you using copywriting. (It's well worth a read!)

The next big question is "how did we get to this point?"

Semantic satiation: Don’t let words lose their meaning

By 'this point', I mean a place where many people don't even seem to see how copywriting factors into design and usability. It could be that semantic satiation is partly to blame.

Semantic satiation is a fancy way of saying that a word or phrase has been repeated so much that it loses all meaning. A few good examples of this include:

  • "You won't believe..."
  • "Disruptive"
  • "Shocking"
  • "...that will blow your mind"

These phrases are overused to the extent that they've lost all meaning...but, as annoying as it is for copywriters, they work. At least, they work in terms of getting people to click links so sites can serve their ads and get paid.

But a side effect is that a lot of copywriting is becoming increasingly lazy. People are looking up best practices and taking shortcuts or shoe-horning things that don't quite work into their product because they know that using certain words or terms will get results.

The problem? When a product fails to deliver on what's been promised, it leaves users feeling cheated or frustrated. And nobody wants that.

Ad copywriting is not the same as UX copywriting

It goes without saying, but it's still worth highlighting here, that the desired outcome of advertising copywriting is completely different from that of UX copywriting.

UX copywriting should never be primarily about being funny or clever, but should embrace the following key tenets:

  • Simple
  • Clear/precise
  • Helpful

It should, in a nutshell, say what you mean (and mean what you say).

It should also work in harmony with UI design. There's a great post on the Invision blog about UX copywriting tips for designers that draws attention to this, and it features a quote I really like:

"That 64pt Helvetica Neue Thin headline looks great as “Lorem ipsum dolor,” but can the copywriter really sum up your whole product suite in 3 words?"

This brings up the important point that designers and UX copywriters often have to work together to decide how much copy needs to be created and where it’s placed.

Using UX writing to create clear user journeys

Copywriting for UX needs to be about a few different things, but its most important purpose is making it clear what to do next.

That may sound obvious, but a quick glance at how many products onboard new users and treat existing ones can tell you that maybe it's not.

This is where design and copywriting can really work together. Want a user to click something? Have a button with a strong call to action (CTA) that wiggles every 5 seconds. Need to draw attention to a message? Highlight it with a bright circle and dim the rest of the screen.

One final test to put your copywriting through before you hit publish:

Does it reduce user anxiety?

There's a reason that phrases like "no credit card required" and "we'll never send you any spam" are so ubiquitous.

They encourage conversion by negating worries on the part of the user.

If you can do the same with your copy, while putting something out that's fresh, helpful, and clear, you'll be on the right track for success.

Download our free guide Content Strategy: A Guide for UX Designers to learn how to create great user experiences through great content.

Wherever you look online, there's a lot of talk around UI/UX design. But UX copywriting? Not so much.

A quick search on a leading job site resulted in almost 4,000 UX/UI designer vacancies compared with less than 50 for UX/UI copywriters. And most of those only came up because they were actually a vacancy for a copywriter who works with a UX/UI designer.

Admittedly, this may be in part because of linguistic nuance: "UX copywriter" is not a recognized term in the same way that "UX designer" is.

"Technical writer" might be a comparable term, but searching for this throws out very stuffy, narrow roles that don't sound nearly as creative or deep thinking as UX design roles.

So is it fair to say that, when it comes to user experience, copywriting is currently a bit of an afterthought? Maybe.

In this post, we'll attempt to get to the root of why this is the case, and why it's a problem.

💡 See Also: Content 101: UX Writing

What is UX copywriting?

UX copywriting is the art of writing copy on websites, apps, and other digital products that clarifies how to use a product. UX copywriting is essential to creating valuable and pleasant digital experiences.

While UX copywriting is most often seen in microcopy (short pieces of copy), it isn’t any less important than typical copywriting. In fact, good UX copy is vital to successful product design because it helps users navigate the digital landscape—whether that’s showing them how to use an app or helping them make a decision about where to go next.

What does a UX copywriter do?

A UX copywriter is a copywriter that specializes in writing for the user experience (UX). UX copywriters focus on creating clear and concise copy that can help users make the right decision about what to do next.

UX copywriters often work with user interface (UI) designers, product managers, marketers, and content strategists to develop user-focused copy for digital experiences. For this reason, they need to be experts at messaging while also having in-depth knowledge of the design process.

UX writers often use data and insights from user research and user testing as part of their content strategy. Understanding how users navigate the site or app helps them better make decisions about how to write the best UX copy.

All style, no substance: What happens when you don’t focus on UX copywriting

For example, when Path was launched in 2010, it was on the fast track to success and accrued tens of millions of users thanks to the sleek design. (Virtually every designer I knew set out to reverse engineer that home button.)

The app had no shortage of media hype.

Path app
Path is an example of an app that may have had better success if the copywriting was clearer.

Two weeks later, it was widely criticized for its obscure purpose. Is it a social network? Is it a photo-sharing app? Is it a virtual diary?

By 2014, only a fraction of the app's users were active daily, and in 2015, a South Korean company quietly acquired Path (which, for some reason, remains extremely popular in Indonesia).

The trajectory of a company can't be boiled down to a single factor, but I can't help but think that ineffective copywriting played a role. For example, its homepage blurb...

Stay connected with family & close friends

This really didn't differentiate enough from Facebook's at the time:

[Facebook helps you] connect and share with the people in your life

Granted, it's notoriously difficult to effectively spell out the direction you're taking when you're doing a stealth launch. However, a clearer proposition might have given the app a better crack at going mainstream.

How UX writing impacts onboarding

There's nowhere copywriting is more important to UX than the onboarding process. If a first-time user can't easily figure out what they're supposed to do and why, they'll often abandon the product and look for an alternative.

It's not just inexperienced startups who fail at creating a compelling onboarding process. Take the widespread criticism of Apple Music.

As much as we want to love #AppleMusic, the UI is ridiculous hard to follow... How many options?! #simplealwayswins pic.twitter.com/K5FHvwaRcv
— Strawberrysoup (@strawberrysoup) July 2, 2015

To say that Apple Music's onboarding procedure is confusing is to be very kind. It's so inelegant that one helpful site has done an in-depth breakdown of how puzzling they found the process.

Apple Music UI
In this screenshot from Apple Music, we see an example of copywriting that doesn't prioritize the users' needs. (Source)

In this screenshot from Apple Music, we see an example of copywriting that doesn't prioritize the users' needs.

Alt-text: Apple Music UI

At the other end of the scale, we know from experience that onboarding—when done well—can be a key mechanism in driving user loyalty.

Jackson Noel of Appcues shows that Slack has done just that in a great blog post on how to make people love you using copywriting. (It's well worth a read!)

The next big question is "how did we get to this point?"

Semantic satiation: Don’t let words lose their meaning

By 'this point', I mean a place where many people don't even seem to see how copywriting factors into design and usability. It could be that semantic satiation is partly to blame.

Semantic satiation is a fancy way of saying that a word or phrase has been repeated so much that it loses all meaning. A few good examples of this include:

  • "You won't believe..."
  • "Disruptive"
  • "Shocking"
  • "...that will blow your mind"

These phrases are overused to the extent that they've lost all meaning...but, as annoying as it is for copywriters, they work. At least, they work in terms of getting people to click links so sites can serve their ads and get paid.

But a side effect is that a lot of copywriting is becoming increasingly lazy. People are looking up best practices and taking shortcuts or shoe-horning things that don't quite work into their product because they know that using certain words or terms will get results.

The problem? When a product fails to deliver on what's been promised, it leaves users feeling cheated or frustrated. And nobody wants that.

Ad copywriting is not the same as UX copywriting

It goes without saying, but it's still worth highlighting here, that the desired outcome of advertising copywriting is completely different from that of UX copywriting.

UX copywriting should never be primarily about being funny or clever, but should embrace the following key tenets:

  • Simple
  • Clear/precise
  • Helpful

It should, in a nutshell, say what you mean (and mean what you say).

It should also work in harmony with UI design. There's a great post on the Invision blog about UX copywriting tips for designers that draws attention to this, and it features a quote I really like:

"That 64pt Helvetica Neue Thin headline looks great as “Lorem ipsum dolor,” but can the copywriter really sum up your whole product suite in 3 words?"

This brings up the important point that designers and UX copywriters often have to work together to decide how much copy needs to be created and where it’s placed.

Using UX writing to create clear user journeys

Copywriting for UX needs to be about a few different things, but its most important purpose is making it clear what to do next.

That may sound obvious, but a quick glance at how many products onboard new users and treat existing ones can tell you that maybe it's not.

This is where design and copywriting can really work together. Want a user to click something? Have a button with a strong call to action (CTA) that wiggles every 5 seconds. Need to draw attention to a message? Highlight it with a bright circle and dim the rest of the screen.

One final test to put your copywriting through before you hit publish:

Does it reduce user anxiety?

There's a reason that phrases like "no credit card required" and "we'll never send you any spam" are so ubiquitous.

They encourage conversion by negating worries on the part of the user.

If you can do the same with your copy, while putting something out that's fresh, helpful, and clear, you'll be on the right track for success.

Download our free guide Content Strategy: A Guide for UX Designers to learn how to create great user experiences through great content.

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About the author

Art

Art is a freelance copywriter and content marketer based in the UK. He's worked with both startups and large corporations on topics ranging from gamblng and fitness to tech and business issues.

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