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The role of copywriting in UX and onboarding

by , Freelance Copywriter & Content Marketer

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.

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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.

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:

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.

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:

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?”

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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.

About the Author

Freelance Copywriter & Content Marketer

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 fitness to tech and business issues.

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