UX Writing: The difference between good and great designers

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This week I was tasked wireframing a user flow for a native android app. I’ve never given much consideration to the differences between responsive web to iOS to Android. And I’ve barely used design software such as Sketch. A pen and paper is my usual jam. I spent the week trying to keep up with colleagues, understand the intent behind the design and watching as many youtube tutorials on all things Sketch to Android to more.

I consider myself to have all the visual design skill of a tea towel. And although the emphasis was on the wireframes and not the UI, there’s still an expectation to consider the UI up front because it’ll force you to make critical decisions now and not later. I get that. But by the end of the week, I felt like I was down a rabbit hole, a jumbled mess of wires and hotspots on the page. And what I realised in this process was that, even as a writer, I’d spent little to no time considering the words on the page the entire week. I was so focused on intent, process, steps, buttons, form fields- sidetracked by shades of charcoal and pixels of padding.

Safe to say the penny dropped. I realised why content becomes an afterthought for many design teams. Something to 'fill in the gaps' at the end of the design process. However, what I’ve realised over the years is great user experience rarely happens when writers (or designers) are tasked with filling the content at the end.

When we know better, we do better. And while I spent my daily commutes reading articles on wireframing and visual design techniques, maybe more experienced UX/UI designers are struggling with their writing. We all bring different strengths to the table. And the good thing about UX design is we get to flex a lot of different muscles to create great work.

While I continue to fumble my way through prototyping and visual design, maybe others are fumbling through content design and UX writing. If you’re a UX/UI Designer who wants to improve your writing, or work within a design team who want to adopt a more content-led approach, this article is for you.

Thanks for reading.

We can all write, right? Wrong.

There’s a common misconception that because ‘we can all write’, the copy in our designs is the easy bit. It’s not until you start grappling with the words you start to realise the challenge ahead of you. Here are the 7 principles that have helped improve my UX writing.

1. Clarity

UX writing is a lesson in letting words go. When it comes to in-app product flows, forms or any user interface- you’ll never spend so long considering so few words. You need to edit ruthlessly. Every word needs to earn its place on the page. This doesn’t mean your UX copy is always going to be short form. A key principle of good content design is accommodating for the words you need in your design from the beginning. Clarity is the number one way to support your users to complete their task and reduce error. Above all else, what you say in your product interface should be as clear, simple and straightforward as possible.

2. Concise

In other words, keep your content scannable.

People read differently on the web; we tend to skim and scan rather than reading every single word. Further to this, Jakob Nielsen's eye-tracking research shows people read left to right, top to bottom in an ‘F-shape’ pattern. When considering the F-shape, it’s important to front-load your content. Put the most important words up front. This way, if people only read the first 2-3 words, make sure they get the gist of things.

Consider this example:

A: “Please check janesmith@gmail.com for the 6-digit verification code.”

B: “A 6-digit verification code has been sent to janesmith@gmail.com.”

Which do you prefer? Option B emphasises the 6-digit code, rather than reiterating the user's email address. There’s less cognitive effort to find out what you need to do next and helps the user appreciate what’s at stake.

However, Option A is written with an active voice, rather than passive. This is preferable in most circumstances. Who said writing for the web was easy? It’s not always going to wrap up in a neat package, and you’ll have to use your best judgement for the context and severity of the situation.

My vote is Option B, despite not being grammatically perfect. The risk of someone missing the most important information on the page outweighs using an active voice in this circumstance.

3. Context

Meet them where they’re at. In essence, consider the frame of mind of your user in that moment. Be empathetic, be helpful. For example, don’t try to be cute or funny when the user is entering sensitive information, such as medical or financial data.

Side note: Consider context when creating your error messages. You want to describe what triggered the problem and help people to recover. What options do users have to move forward? Use language that mirrors the emotions they might be feeling. Nine times out of 10, there is no place for humour in error messages.

4. Consistent

Consistency in UX writing encompasses a few critical items. Firstly, it’s about maintaining a consistent tone and voice throughout the entire user experience. Tone and voice are separate things; we all have one voice, but our tone changes depending on the circumstance or nature of the conversation. If you’re unsure where to start, it’s worth reading your company’s brand guidelines.

Consistency also refers to our grammar and other rules around writing style. Do you capitalise every word in headings or use sentence case? Do you use active voice, or passive? (Hint: use active voice when possible). Do you contract your words using apostrophes? Do you use slang? These are all questions of style, rather than doing things right and wrong. Whatever rules you decide around style and grammar, be sure that everyone responsible for the words on the page is following the same guidelines. When people start taking creative licence around your UX writing, you start to have a leaking boat which is tricky to recover from.

Consistency also means mirroring the language and style of your website, brochures, marketing collateral, emails etc. If you get pushback from the marketing team because your UX writing isn’t funny/cute/wild enough- gently remind them there is a place for those personality attributes, but often only in very specific screens of the user interface or product flow. Less is more, and don’t let the ‘personality’ of the brand hinder usability, understanding, or the overall user experience.

5. Conversational

Conversation implies people are talking naturally. That there's some kind of back and forth exchange of information. As designers, our focus is to design conversations that solve customer problems.

If you’re stuck, sometimes it’s helpful to pick a task (or intent) and write down what a conversation would sound like between the business and the customer/user. I recently worked for a fintech who were an SME lender. We fleshed out what conversations might look like with new customers. It went a little like this;

Customer- “Hi, I need a loan for my business.”

Us- “Sure, can you tell me a little about your business?”

Customer- “I run a cafe in Surry Hills”

Us- “Oh, great. How long have you been running the cafe?”

Customer- “Around 18 months. We have 12 staff.”

Us- “Thanks. How much would you like to borrow?”

You get the idea….

Flesh out the conversation between you and your customer. Review your work. You might spot gaps in knowledge, plan the order of information, uncover product ideas or reveal natural, conversational language you’ll use in your design later.

Conversations point to the natural order of information. And this natural order helps inform your design.

6. Consideration

This is the one that gets me the most. We become so focused on churning out designs we often make changes to copy- I’m talking fundamental and important changes- on the fly. We need to give the UX copy the time and consideration it deserves. This means considering content- headings, body copy, instructional information and calls to action etc- from your initial wireframes or sketches. Avoid Lorem Ipsum whenever possible.

UX writing is tough. Much like prototyping, you have to wade through the uncertainty, mess and confusion to get to the good stuff. When I was stuck on prototyping the android app this week, my UX Lead said to me, '“keep designing it out’. I kind of like that phrase, and the same applies to your writing. Get used to the shitty first draft. There’ll be many deleted versions that won’t see the light of day. You won’t nail it the first time. But keep on designing it out, and hopefully you’ll have something great that sticks at the end.

7. Critique + COLLABORATION

It’s so important to have someone else look over and critique your work. If you’re feeling insecure or worried about the design, try to remember your words don’t matter. The end product does. Try not to be precious. Getting critiqued by colleagues (or even better, feedback from real users) is the best way to improve your writing. You’ll start to notice the subtle differences in thought processes and language that really make a difference.

If possible, get additional feedback from people who are not designers. What you might find if you ask fellow designers for feedback on UX copy is you’ll get comments based on visual elements. I.e. “This copy is too long” or “it doesn’t fit the space/field.” We all approach our work through a different lens, and the common lens for UX or UI designers is a visual one.

Giving feedback on copy can also be hard to articulate. Another common fallback position when people don’t know what to say is, “it’s not the right tone of voice.” Try asking questions aimed explicitly at whether the messaging is right, instructions are succinct, whether the text is helpful or a hindrance to users, whether it’s natural and conversational and the right content for the context. Go back to your user stories and intents and ask your reader to put themselves in the shoes of the user.

The lone genius is a myth. Collaboration is fundamental to creating designs your customers love. So get used to hearing some harsh, but helpful, feedback.

I’ll wrap it up there. I hope that helps any UX designer or aspiring UX writer improve their skills. Feel free to reach out in the comments below. Good luck and have fun with it!

Casey Elmer