UX writing and why text matters

August 10, 2020 | Reading time 6 minutes

An image tells more than a 1,000 words, but words tell you how it works. UX writing makes that magic happen. It’s the craft of designing the words that make an app usable for everyone.

Each time you interact with software, you see and hear the results of UX writing. The words provide feedback and make using a product easier and more delightful. Even if people aren’t aware of it.

UX writing makes or breaks a product.

Take this example. “Windows 10 won’t update Error code 0x80240fff”. Why not say: “This doesn’t work and we don’t care about your issue”. The message is the same. Both are evenly bad and the reason UX writing matters. People should understand a message them without Googling.

UX writing goes beyond error messages. It’s about the subtle hints that help the customer getting things done. It’s the little text on a button or below, that lets you use an app without thinking. A button in a shop can say “Next” or “Check your cart”. In both cases the button executes the same task, but the second tells you what it does.

Proper UX writing improves the succes of your app or website. It balances between design and content strategy, but with a more narrow focus. The content strategy is the guide for tone of voice, style and audience. Design is the guide for the product.

Role of the UX writer

The UX writer might be the most creative role in the product team. She is the first person who tests the design of a product. Her job is finding solutions to problems that people might face and writing is her instrument.

See the UX writer as a talented servant or butler. She or he serves customers through text without them asking for it.

Rules for UX writing

UX writing is not rocket surgery, but there are obvious and less obvious rules that improves your writing. Following them improves your writing.

Keep the text short

People don’t read guides or read them badly. Get the message out with as few words as possible. A good text is concise and efficient, but don’t scrap necessary words.

In UX writing every word counts. Each word must have a purpose and using fillers is like swearing.

Keep sentences short

Shorter sentences are easier to read. Try to keep them under 15 words in documentation. In an app shorter is better.

Use an active voice

To get things done you want to use an active voice.

Bad
The Sign Up button should be clicked to sign up for our newsletter.

Good
Click Sign Up and receive our newsletter.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

People are familiar with words like Menu, Next and Sign in. Don’t be creative by using new words. It forces people to think about the purpose of it and makes the product more complex.

Sometimes boring is good.

Be consistent with naming

Don’t use words that are synonymous of each other or don’t fit with the platform. You must be consistent. Pick one and stay with it. People get confused when you switch between words.

Bad

  • Add item to your cart.
  • Go to my basket.

Good

  • Add item to your cart.
  • Go to your cart.

Be consistent with the platform

Use the words that fit with the platform. On a phone you use ‘tap’ instead of ‘click’ and on a PC you use ‘click’.

Use plain text

You want people to understand the text in a blink. That means avoiding jargon. To you, the jargon is clear, for others it’s not. Use plain language that everybody is familiar with.

Make it personal

Your product is aimed at the user and the user is a human. Make the text personal so that she identifies with it. It’s like building a relationship.

Bad
Read more about the product.

Good
Discover what you can do with the product.

Be careful with humor

Your humor is not my humor and what’s considered funny in Belgium is not funny in Japan. You can be funny, but don’t push it.

Avoid dates where possible

People get confused with dates. Say today or tomorrow instead of the date. It prevents users from thinking about what date it is.

Microcopy

Small text elements are a cornerstone in UX writing. You have a few words to achieve your goal and to help people. This is called microcopy. Good microcopy has the following characteristics:

  • It communicates clearly.
  • People understand the meaning of the text without thinking. An error code like ‘0x80240fff’ fails this test.
  • It informs you about progress so you don’t have to guess.
  • It tells you what to do next.
  • It tells you what’s coming. Think about chat apps where you see who’s typing.
  • The text is casual.

Designing words

UX writing is more than writing a text and you have to go beyond the words. It needs design.

Use data

Google makes it easy to see which words people use for searching. Use this data while choosing words. Take this example. I entered four options for signing in and it shows that the majority of people uses ‘sign in’ and a small percentage uses ‘log on’.

UX writing tool. Image of Google Trends that shows which words people search for.

Use lists

It’s easier to scan a list than a paragraph. Use lists for summing up items.

Use visuals

Use visual effects for prioritizing text elements. You can use tools like color, typography, spacing and capitalization to emphasize items.

Two example of a request for access message. The left image only shows text. The right image has a visual hierarchy. A tool for UX writing

Use mockups

A text in a Google Doc on your laptop doesn’t have the same visual effect as that text on a phone screen. It might be larger than the screen and you can’t see the visual effects. Write, or at least test, your text in a mockup.

Closing thoughts on UX writing

Writing is an essential part of building products. It lets you rethink the design and UX writing is part of that. Its goal is guiding people so that they don’t have to guess.

UX writing makes that the product you use, sounds human. It turns people into happy users.