Our new book, Content Delivery, is here! 🎉 Grab your free copy →

Content Production

The role of copywriting in UX and onboarding

Art • 4 minutes

Wherever you look online, there’s a lot of talk around UI/UX design.

UX copywriting? Not so much.

A quick search on a leading job site spat out almost 4,000 UX/UI designer vacancies compared with less than 50 for UX/UI copywriter. 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 down to linguistic nuance: UX copywriter is not a recognised 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? I think so. In this blog dissecting what makes a UX team, copywriting barely gets a mention. In this post I’ll attempt to get to the root of why this is the case, and why it’s a problem.

All style, no substance

There’s a real danger that, when copywriting isn’t paid proper attention, products can fall into the trap of being all style and no substance.

When Path was launched in 2010 it was on the fast track to success, and accrued tens of millions of users thanks to sleek design – virtually every designer I knew set out to reverse engineer that home button – and no shortage of media hype.

Path

Two weeks later it was being widely criticised 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 a South Korean company fairly quietly acquired Path (which, for some reason, remains extremely popular in Indonesia) a few months ago.

The trajectory of a company can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but I can’t help but think that weak copywriting explaining the purpose of Path was an important one. For example, its homepage blurb…

Stay connected with family & close friends

…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, but a clearer proposition might have given the app a better crack at going mainstream.

Bonus Content! Want to learn more about content strategy and UX? Download our free 63 page guide and learn how to embed content-first thinking into UX design techniques.

Download our 63 page guide: Content Strategy for UX Designers

UX copywriting and 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.

There’s nowhere copywriting is more important to UX than the onboarding process.

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

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.

At the other end of the scale, we know from experience that onboarding – when it’s 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. Well worth a read.

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

Semantic Satiation

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, annoyingly 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 with this is that, when a product fails to deliver on what’s been promised, it leaves users feeling cheated or frustrated. And nobody wants that.

When a product fails to deliver on what’s been promised, it leaves users feeling cheated or frustrated.

Ad copywriting =/= UX copywriting for UX

It goes without saying, but it’s still worth highlighting here, that the desired outcome of advertising/clickbait copywriting is completely different to 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

UX copywriting should never be primarily about being funny or clever.

It should, in a nutshell, ‘say what you mean’.

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?”

Free 46 page guide

Content Strategy: A Guide for UX Designers

This hands-on guide for all UXers explores the intersection of content strategy and UX design.

Read

Conclusion

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 the way many products onboard new users and treat existing ones demonstrates 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 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 clauses like ‘no credit card required’ and ‘we’ll never send you any spam’ are so ubiquitous, and it’s because 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.

The role of copywriting in UX and onboarding.

Free Online Masterclass

Content Strategy & Delivery

Kristina Halvorson

Anyone who struggles with content consistency and efficiency—and who doesn't?—will greatly benefit from this course. If you want to get smarter about content planning, creation and delivery, start here.

Kristina Halvorson

CEO & Founder, Brain Traffic

Reserve my place

Brand new book

Download your free Kindle, ePub and PDF copy

Download
iPad with Content Delivery cover

Easily organise and produce content for website projects

Start your trial now
Mark McClendon
Our content processes used to involve an ineffective mix of spreadsheets, documents, and a slew of file storage solutions. With GatherContent we've solved all of those problems and more. Mark McClendon — Partner & Executive Director, VML

Late content from clients will delay projects and website launches

Content challenges and inefficient processes result in bad outcomes for your agency’s projects, letting down clients, delaying projects and losing you money.

See how agencies use GatherContent

Get the most from GatherContent

Book a free 30 minute call with one of our team to help you get set up with GatherContent and answer any of your questions.

Book a 30 minute call

About the Author

Art

Freelance Copywriter & Content Marketer

You might also like these posts…

© GatherContent 2018 WeWork, 2nd Floor, 115 Mare Street, London E8 4RU, United Kingdom. VAT No.: GB140105279. Company No.: SC400199