Write User Experience Right

“UX design, research, and writing are part of a trinity.” That’s what I learned from Yehoshua Rubin, a UX writer at Google. Why does he say that? Well, “one cannot fully function without the others.” Given that these three roles are so intertwined, I had to complete my blog series on UX by diving into UX writing. Here’s the grand finale to my posts about UX design and UX research.

Defining the Role

Not a lot of people know what UX writers do. I certainly didn’t before getting the chance to speak with Yehoshua. He’s got a simple way of explaining his job, though. UX writers like him are “designers who use words.” This Coursera article explains a bit more about what that means.

Basically, a UXW will write what’s called microcopy. That’s all the words in digital products like apps, websites, and B2B software. Think of a digital product you use often. Does it have a menu? Buttons? Error messages? All the text in those features would be the responsibility of a UX writer. UX writers have to make the microcopy of their product intuitive, understandable, and aligned with the brand’s content strategy.

Wait, wait, what’s content strategy? And is a content strategist the same thing as a UX writer? Nope! Because UX writing is a new field, it’s easily confused for other roles. For instance, a content strategist plans out what kind of content a company needs. A UX writer works in line with the overall identified content strategy. A UX writer is also not a copywriter. Copywriters tend to write for marketing, creating ads and social media posts to attract new users. UX writers aren’t writing for billboards, though. They’re writing for the users already engaging with the product. And finally, UX writers aren’t technical writers like me. Technical writers write longer pieces like instruction manuals, reference guides, and blogs like these!

How the UX Roles Work Together

Let’s consider why Yehoshua said that writing, design, and research all need each other in UX. A UX writer needs to write microcopy that’s easy to understand. But wait, how do we know what’s easy to understand? That’s where research comes in! A UX researcher might support a UX writer by conducting a study. They’ll show two groups of participants different text and see which group understands their text more easily. Voila! Once a UX writer gets the results of the research, they’ll brush up the content and their confidence in it.

Still, even the most understandable content won’t reach anyone if it’s hidden off to the side. That’s why UX writers and designers need to work together. Designers might decide how many categories to include in a menu. Then it’s up to UX writers to label those categories. Or UX writers might dream up a super catchy button to get users to interact with the product. Then it’s the designers who have to figure out where to place that button on the screen.

As you can see, professionals in every kind of UX role will end up working closely together to make sure that users have a seamless experience with the product.

Anyone Can Write, Right?

It might seem like UX writing is nice, but not critical. After all, anyone can write “About” in a menu or “Check Out” on a button, right? Well, not really. Of course, anyone can write just something for buttons and error messages. But great UX writing is intentionally crafted to support users through an easy experience with the product. UX writers can make an error message fun instead of frustrating. They can also make menu options obvious, not confusing. That’s hugely important for a company. As Yehoshua notes, confused users are less likely to keep using the app or software. They’re also less likely to recommend it to friends. And as I discussed in this post about customer service, that’s a big loss. The modern experience economy depends on users connecting to and recommending your product.

This article from FastCompany advocates for a content-first design approach. That means the content should dictate the design, not the other way around. Why? Well, because content is what keeps users coming back. A great design can hook users in, but if they can’t find what they’re looking for, you’ve lost them. Great content, on the other hand, interacts with users. It can make them laugh, feel empowered, or want to know more. The authors of this piece advise companies to think of design as a packaging for great content. They also note that this works well with mobile-first design. That’s a best practice for UX designers and writers, by the way.

Strong Tips for Powerful UX Writing

There are a bunch of other best practices for UX writing. This article features 16 of the most important ones. For instance, be concise. (I’ll let that speak for itself.) Also, write in short chunks. App and software users aren’t usually settling in to read long paragraphs with a hot cocoa. Instead, they’re scanning. Great UX writing is easy to scan and doesn’t require a long attention span. In addition, UX writers should stay in the present tense and active voice. Oh, and specific verbs like “Send” are better than vague text like “Okay.”

mobile firstSpeaking of mobile-first design, there’s a lot to that. Essentially, the concept is that UX writers and designers have to think about how users are going to access their content. Lots of digital products and softwares are available across devices. (For example, Pyrus boasts that it will work on any device, from your laptop to your smartwatch.) But there’s way less space on a phone screen than on a desktop monitor. Shrinking the monitor’s display down to fit a phone isn’t the smart way to adapt. Instead, UX designers and writers have to start small. Progressive disclosure lets them keep content sparse on small screens and reveal more details as users tap or scroll. Progressive enhancement means that the content and design are enhanced as the user’s screen gets larger and larger.

Write with Style (Guides)

When I asked Yehoshua about best practices for UX writers, he pointed to a style guide. UX writers at any company should have writing guidelines to follow. Style guides help all the writers in a field or on a product stay consistent. They cover everything from punctuation to grammar to word choice.

This Forbes article links to a bunch of style guides you may or may not have heard of. MLA and APA might sound familiar from your high school or college days. But did you know that many marginalized communities have developed their own style guides? These guides explain how others can use language to respect individual members’ dignity and honor the group’s culture. For example, the Center for Disability Rights maintains this style guide to advise journalists outside the disability community. They cover topics like the debate on person first vs. identity first language. The Native American Journalists Association also published the Tribal Nations Media Guide. And those are just two of a bunch of examples.

To get all these ideas in one place, the Conscious Style Guide curates content about various topics and communities. Categories include  ability, age, ethnicity/race/nationality, and spirituality/religion/atheism. The goal is to provide up-to-date information about debates in how best to use thoughtful language.

After reading this article, I bet you’ll look at microcopy more seriously next time you glance at your phone. And think about the difference it would make if your team got UX writing right!