If you work in design, you’ve probably noticed by now the wave of “UX writer” jobs being posted online over the past couple of years. From Google to YouTube, Dropbox, Amazon and PayPal, every big tech company now has a team of UX writers.
But what is UX writing?
As John Maeda, Automattic’s head of computational design, pointed out in his 2017 Design in Tech Report, “Words are really important because the graphics don’t make sense sometimes.”
Not long after Maeda’s report came out, Fast Co Design followed up with a piece called Forget Coding: Writing Is Design’s Unicorn Skill.
But this article isn’t about why designers should learn to write better (though they certainly should!). No, it’s about why the task of UX writing shouldn’t automatically fall to designers. UX writing is a skill, particularly as English – especially for those who speak it as a second language – can take years to master.
From word choice to voice and tone, and concepts like cadence, assonance and alliteration, these are elements of English that even native speakers spend years studying at school.
So what should designers and developers do?
In this article, we’ll explore what UX writing is, how to get started finding your product’s “voice” and why getting help with UX writing is a good investment.
What Is UX Writing?
UX writing is still very much an emerging field, but as UX Booth explains:
“UX writing is the act of writing copy for user-facing touchpoints. This copy must not only embody the voice of the organization, but must also be considerate and useful for the user.”
Meanwhile, UX Planet describes UX writing as:
“… the practice of crafting copy which is directly used in user interfaces to guide users within a product and help them interact with it. The major aim of UX writing is to settle communication between users and a digital product.”
Within the discipline of UX writing, there are two different kinds:
- Copywriting: Whether it’s the text on a 404 page or the copy on a landing page for a product, this type of UX writing tends to be punchy and/or flowery. It’s the language that gets you excited about using a product.
- Transactional/navigational: These are the words that help guide a user through using a product. According to Dropbox UX writer John Saito, when it comes to this kind of UX writing, “The goal is to not have your words be noticed, so it becomes a seamless experience.”
The copy – i.e. words – created by UX writers is known as “microcopy.” The name refers to the small components of text which serve as prompts and hints to the user. UX writing is not the same as marketing copy, which you would commonly find on a website or in an email.
Microcopy is the interface text you see when using a product, including instructions, buttons, and error messages, as well as product tours and wizards, menus, notifications, labels, links and chatbots. Basically, all the small components of a digital product that has words.
One of the best examples of UX writing is MailChimp. If you’ve ever used this email marketing tool to send an email, you might’ve felt that twinge of anxiety a lot of people feel when they hit send.
MailChimp tackles this mini stress all too cleverly by tapping into its users’ emotions. After you hit “Send,” the success messages work to lighten the mood, congratulating you on a job well done and offering a high-five.
The MailChimp team could’ve just displayed the message “Email sent.” But pairing the animation with simple microcopy makes the process of sending emails much more of a fun task. It also sets MailChimp apart from other email marketing platforms, whose transactional copy might be far from friendly.
According to Chase Curry, a senior product designer at MailChimp, designing the Freddie high-five animation took a couple of weeks, which may seem like a lot of time to dedicate to something as simple as an in-app animation. But, he says, “For us, though, it’s details like this that remind our users who we are, and that we’re all humans.”
Finding and Documenting Your Voice
So by now you might be wondering what your product’s voice is?
It’s important to work this out and to document it, so next time you need microcopy for your product, you have a clear idea of what to write. But also, it’s helpful when reviewing and updating existing microcopy in your product.
Every product, whether it’s a WordPress theme or plugin, has a voice, and that voice might evolve slightly over time.
Most big companies have a style guide or some kind of guiding principles on what their voice and tone should sound like.
Take MailChimp (again) for instance. The email platform has a very distinct voice, which is fun, lively and young. According to the company’s style guide, Voice & Tone, their voice doesn’t change much: “…our tone adapts to our users’ feelings.”
This is typical for many companies – a basic principle of UX writing is that your voice tends to be the same throughout your products, but your tone will change depending on the scenario. For example, the tone you would use for a landing page might be welcoming, whereas the tone for an error message might be more empathetic.
Branding company Larsen outlines how to create the right brand voice in six steps:
- Define. Choose three words that capture the personality of the voice you want for your product/brand. Then limit those words with three more words. For example: bold, but not arrogant; irreverent, but not offensive; loud, but not obnoxious.
- Differentiate. Check out how your competitors communicate. What’s their voice? Their attitude? What can you learn from them and how can you distinguish your own voice?
- Listen. How do your customers communicate? Are they formal and serious? Or casual and conversational? It’s important to consider what kind of voice will be most appealing and authentic to your target market.
- Inspire. Your brand voice should be inspiring, bold, and speak directly to your target market. Use verbs and short phrases.
- Engage. Don’t try too hard. Let your brand voice relax and be “real.” Even the most serious companies shouldn’t shy away from having a conversational, friendly tone that has loads of personality.
- Evolve. Your goal shouldn’t be to create the perfect brand voice, but to create one that works for your product or brand right now. Your voice will evolve over time as your products change and as you keep pace with your target market.
Examples of Brand Voice
Let’s take a look at some examples of different companies’ voices, and how they tackle UX writing.
As part of its Material Design system, Google has published a comprehensive style guide for its UX writing team, and others who might be interested in adopting their writing guidelines and techniques.
Google’s voice is clean, simple and functional. Further, the company’s style guide that: “Text should be understandable by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their culture or language.” In addition, “clear, accurate, and concise text makes interfaces more usable and builds trust.”
The guide addresses language, tone, capitalization and punctuation, and global writing, all with very clear examples.
For example, Google recommends that user interfaces should refer to the user using either “you” or “your” or “I” or “my”:
It’s also recommended that you avoid the pronoun “we”:
And always be concise – write in small, scannable segments to facilitate navigation and discovery.
Facebook is home to one of the longest standing UX writing teams around, though they refer to them as “content strategists.” The team works closely with product designers, UX researchers, engineers, data scientists, product managers and others to “identify and synthesize people problems,” according to Natalie Shaw, a content strategist at Facebook.
“We maintain simple, straightforward and human language to talk to our community across all of our products, and to do this we get involved early on in the product design process,” Shaw writes for Medium.
While Facebook’s content strategy team doesn’t publish its style guide publicly, there’s a lot we can learn from simply browsing through Facebook pages.
Facebook’s voice is friendly, simple and conversational. For example, when you log in to your account, you’re simply asked:
Previously, the placeholder copy was, “What’s on your mind?” without the name. It’s a small addition, but the addition of your name makes the message much more personal, like Facebook is talking to your directly.
Whether you realize it or not, there’s microcopy everywhere in Facebook. One very noticeable place is at the top of the news feed when you log in, where Facebook typically places messages recognizing holidays and events:
Facebook’s content strategy team is also tasked with putting words in the virtual mouths of chatbots. Content strategist Emily Konouchi explains how she developed microcopy for Messenger after the platform was opened up to allow advertisers and developers to create bots in this insightful piece for Medium.
Dropbox has had a dedicated UX writing team for years now, at least since 2015. John Saito, who is prolific on Medium, shares his thoughts and ideas when it comes to UX writing for the company.
While Dropbox doesn’t share its style guide (it’s published internally in Dropbox Paper), Saito shares a sneak peek:
Like other big companies, Dropbox aims to be “straightforward, helpful, and human” in its microcopy.
For instance, a great example of how Dropbox handles transactional microcopy is in the “Personal account” section. Under “Notifications” you can update how often you receive emails. The microcopy is concise, brief, and easy to understand. There’s really no confusing what checking each of these options means:
Likewise, when you choose to cancel your account, Dropbox explains in very clear language what will happen next. It’s even accompanied by an illustration of a “pro” fish tank and smaller “basic” tank to help you understand that you’re downgrading your account.
And the button text couldn’t be clearer. But, obviously, Dropbox wants you to click the blue button and not cancel your account.
UX writing is well and truly a thing now and there’s no turning back. Every product and brand has a story to tell and it’s important that you are able to find the right words for your story.
If you’re a designer who wants to learn how to write better microcopy, I highly encourage you to check out Google’s Material Design guide to writing. MailChimp’s Voice & Tone guide is another great resource for learning how to write effective copy.
But if you’re part of a growing team, you might want to consider hiring – or at least contracting – a writer to help with your product UX. Your products will not only be infused with more personality, but your users will appreciate that they’re easier to use and navigate too.
When it comes to UX design, it seems as though there is a new rule or trend every year. With such rapid changes, you need a design strategy that will stand the test of time. This article offers exactly that.
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