The first sin of a bad interface is wordiness and clumsiness. Imagine opening a website whose navigation labels are presented as a poem. Kinda creative, sorta annoying. This clumsy creativity stand in the user’s way to achieving a certain task on a website or mobile app. The shift towards plain and easy-to-understand text on interfaces made major companies like Facebook and Airbnb reconsider their copy and make it all about helping users do whatever they want to do.
Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was the first to make users write concise text. It was a turning point when users couldn’t use redundant words and learned how to express ideas with few words – and therefore got used to short messages.
Internet vocabulary 101:
How Digital Is Changing Our Language
The necessity to write concisely isn’t the only change that’s occurred to language on the Web. Most social media platforms have introduced new words to the English vocabulary. Well, not exactly new words, but new meanings and cases where people can use them. If we follow someone, we don’t actually stalk them on the street, but see their posts on our feed.
Why caused these changes? I see three reasons: companies needed to (1) name actions, (2) make them catchy and easy to say, and (3) focus on users.
Now, imagine you had to say subscribe to my Twitter account instead of the standard follow me on Twitter. I bet you’d be exhausted after saying it to your 30th follower. It may sound funny to you, but for companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, it was a real obstacle. For users, it’s just a word. For companies, it’s a negative user experience.
To create positive experiences, the Big Social Four focused on what their users would find appealing and learnable. Those of you who have read Don Norman’s study on bad doors now see User Experience design more like a set of logical interactions among interface elements, rather than words contained within those elements.
What you may forget is that UX isn’t only about design. It’s about everything that contributes to positive user experience, including words.
It’s all about the user’s emotions
Using words and images to bring people to a product is fine. Using the same words to retain them is not.
A user browsing a website isn’t a robot who performs manual actions. They are a real person who experiences emotions with each tap, click, scroll, and swipe. The right microcopy demonstrates care and understanding about the user’s feelings at every step of their user flow.
Here’s how Upwork shows care for their users.
Upwork helps novice freelancers succeed when creating an account.
What if I learn something new? Upwork focuses on freelancers’ fears, concerns, and doubts. The box explains that freelancers can change the skills they’ve entered whenever they feel like. The purpose of this form is to set up an account. Without this bit of text, you might get confused about whether you’re creating an account once and for all, or an account you can edit in the future. This is UX writing.
Microcopy is the New Design
While the job of a copywriter is – roughly – to write, UX writing deals with more specific tasks. Put simply, a copywriter’s primary objective is to make users learn about the product and to make their first contact with it. UX writers make sure their first contact isn’t their last one.
UX writers create positive experiences from the moment a user comes to a website or opens an app, and mends the pain points in their user flow – using words. Together with designers, UX writers create products as we see them.
Why did UX writing appear?
Over the past five years, I’ve seen so many copywriting job titles that I can hardly remember half of them. But I didn’t see the UX Writer title until late 2016. So I thought ‘What is that, and why am I only seeing it now for the first time?
And then it struck me why: because we have finally come to a point where we can no longer tolerate interfaces like this:
Writing texts on such notifications used to be the job of whoever could write best in the office. Now that UX writing has entered the arena, users are seeing more clear, concise, and memorable copy.
So what do UX writers actually do?
- Work with designers and developers, starting at an early stage of production
- Research the target market so they can speak the users’ language
- Put forward hypotheses and do A/B testing
- Work with marketing and copywriting teams to create and follow the company’s style guide
- Write great copy
The result of a UX writer’s work is microcopy. It’s that little piece of text in an interface that helps users do stuff. Microcopy can include:
… and so much more. It’s impossible to define all types of microcopy, because they are unique to each website. Here’s an example of great microcopy by Pixar that deals with a page everybody has bumped into:
The 404 page is the worst that can happen to a user when browsing on your website. When a user wants to go to a page that he later discovers doesn’t exist, he has a bad experience. Luckily, the right words can save the day. See how Pixar saves the situation turning a frustrating experience into a funny one? That’s a concrete example of smart UX writing.
Your first steps as a UX writer
To become a UX writer, you must know the basics of (a) UX design and usability, (b) wireframing, and (c) interfaces. It’s also great to learn the essentials of behavioral psychology and decision-making.
Why learn design if you’re going to write?
Because your writing is a part of the design process. Unless you know stuff about usability, you won’t be able to create a journey that isn’t confusing to users. Unless you can use prototyping software like Sketch, you won’t be able to work alongside designers.
Remember, UX writers focus on users’ emotions, and their primary job is to make sure everything in an interface is clear, informative and doesn’t make users google How to…? questions. It requires great empathy and knowledge about user behavior.
Apart from that, best UX writers have a good command of the language. If your major was English and you like to use all sorts of fancy words and idioms, you’ll have to revise your approach. Good UX writers always bear in mind that their users may not be proficient in English, so the language they use must be simple.
Writing great copy typically involves plenty of research and testing. To understand how your users may behave on your website or app, you must answer the following questions:
When you have answered these questions, it will be easier for you to predict what the users want to achieve and how to help them do it best.
UX writing is catching on
If you think that this type of writing is just another trend, here’s the result for ux writer on Indeed:
It’s the same as any other trend. Big companies start it, smaller ones follow it. I predict that 2018 will be the year of the rise of UX writing as a job. Since businesses can increase profits by just changing a tiny bit of text, various enterprises are going to follow this example.
During the Google I/O 2017, Maggie Stanphill, a senior UX writer at Google, explained the possible business value of having a UX writer on your team. To cite one example: after one UX writer changed Book a room to Check availability, the engagement rate on the site increased by 17%.
As Stanphill explains:
We found that it was far too committing at this stage in the decision-making process. So we switched it to Check availability, and what we found what that this was meeting the user where they were at their mindset. They were still considering rooms, and they wanted to understand what dates were available, what prices were in that date range.
It proves that the ability to understand what users actually want to do on a web page or in an app can have a significant impact on the business.
Make the interface speak: Do’s and Don’ts of UX writing
Somewhere in the article, I mentioned that UX writers share conversations with users. Now I’m going to share some advice on how to improve microcopy in an interface, regardless of your company’s tone of voice.
Don’t let users make a mistake. It boils down to a simple statement – don’t use confusing language. Remove all fancy phrases, idioms, and easily confused words. If a product is targeting an international audience, it might be difficult for them to understand the differences like this:
Instead of reading Sign In, the label could be Log In, which would be less confusing to the average speaker of English.
Google approached this matter carefully, and they even have a rule for writing microcopy, which I’m going to share. Their principles of writing good microcopy consist of three points: it must be clear, concise, and useful. Here’s how they applied their principles to the Sign In error.
Having put the original statement through the three sieves of good microcopy by Google, the new message appeared. Wrong password is a more natural way of speaking than An authentication error has occurred.
Don’t use professional jargon. It’s what Microsoft used to be famous for. Before including any words, especially in system alerts and instructions, ask yourself: Do my users know what this means? Unless sure, change the copy until a kid can understand it.
Developers tend to believe that everybody knows what an IP address is. Well, some users know that IP stands for Internet Protocol – but trust me, nobody has a clue what it actually is. Instead of telling users about a conflict between systems, they could’ve written The Internet isn’t working because [blah-blah]. I wish I could finish the previous sentence, but I still don’t know what that message means.
Make it easy to translate. When you’re building a prototype of an interface, you must take into account that the page or site isn’t always going to be in English. Therefore, the interface should be easily adapted to fit the peculiarities of various languages.
I suggest you always consider German and Arabic. German is famous for its long words – the average word being 12 characters. Technical terms tend to have over 20 characters. If you can translate the microcopy on your interface into German and not change the entire interface – it’s a good one. I mentioned Arabic because it’s written from right to left. Make sure your interface is ready to be used inversely.
Be consistent. At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that most popular web services introduce new words into our everyday language. So if each button in the registration process reads Next, don’t write Proceed or Continue just to show how rich your vocabulary is.
Inconsistency confuses users, as it seems like clicking Next and Proceed will have different results. Rule of thumb: create a style guide and stick to it. Use the same phrases throughout your entire system.
Instructions must die – it’s the opening line Steve Krug uses in one of the chapters in Don’t Make Me Think. Instructions on how to do something casual, like filling out forms or installing software, shouldn’t exist. If they do, it means the product is too difficult to be used by users with little technical background. Let me share an example Mr. Krug provides in his book:
It’s the kind of instructions we’ve all seen before. As Mr. Krug explains, most of these words explain nothing but a standard procedure for selecting options from a drop-down menu. After removing all the unnecessary words, we have new instructions – consisting of only 34 words.
Labels must be near-invisible. This also has something to do with the simplicity of your language. If you can’t remember the text on that button that does something magical – it’s good copy. Users shouldn’t have to focus on reading buttons in interfaces, but rather, their choices should be intuitive.
UX writing best practices
In this part, I’ll share some examples of the best microcopy I’ve come across on the Web. Just as Dieter Rams has his Ten principles of good design, I want to present you with some specific examples that illustrate the principles of good microcopy. Let’s start with good-old buddy Facebook.
… is human-oriented microcopy. I just love the way Facebook encourages its users to write something on their feed – not by asking them to Update your status, but by addressing their feelings at that particular moment:
Tumblr uses witty language to tell users that their username is taken. Instead of the painful This username is taken – which yells at users, You’re not creative enough! – it gives a compliment: It’s a good one, but it’s taken. People at Tumblr realized that it’s not a good experience when somebody has taken your seemingly unique username, so they mend this pain point right away.
… guides users. One of the most difficult tasks people face with new people is how to introduce themselves. Airbnb, for instance, helps travelers write an introduction about themselves and mention what hosts expect to see in the request message.
But if you write a clumsy message on Airbnb, chances are you will still get accommodation. From my experience, hosts just want to make sure you’re not a psycho and know a little bit of English to be able to communicate.
Applying for a job is much tougher. When we’re asked to write about our professional achievements, we usually have no idea what to include to stand out from the crowd and not look foolish. Upwork provides a guide on how to write a good introduction and cover letter based on the freelancer’s skills.
…prevents concerns. Using conventional labels like Continue when going through registration or installing software may be confusing, and thus concerning: Where will this button take me? To prevent unknown consequences, companies tend to explain what a button actually does.
When users are browsing on Airbnb, they select an apartment, check the availability and then proceed to booking. The typical Book button implies that users will now provide their billing info and then proceed to checkout. But what if a user isn’t ready to pay now? Airbnb’s Book doesn’t instantly charge users, and the site makes sure users understand this.
… makes it easy to start. Tinder differs from other dating apps in that it doesn’t ask you to fill out lots of fields, introduce yourself, or describe your perfect partner. People who install Tinder get very excited about it. The procedure is as follows: (1) sign up with Facebook, (2) start swiping. The rest of the actions, like Write a profile description or Add Work & Education, aren’t imposed on the user, but offered to them after they learn how to use the app.
All in all, the amount of good microcopy on the Web is rising, and those are just a few examples of ones I particularly like. Pay attention to the interfaces you use every day, and you’ll see even more.
UX writing has emerged as a separate discipline because of recent changes in the way users tend to engage with digital products. Standing between copywriting and UX design, it has proven to be an essential part of the product development process. Unlike creative copywriting, UX writing deals with users when they have already tried a product. UX writer’s main job is to make sure every step of the user flow is focused on the user’s needs.
A unit of UX writing is called microcopy. All the text we see on web & app interfaces is microcopy. Good UX writing is self-explanatory, unobtrusive, and aims to help users do ‘stuff’. Since each product is unique and most brands have own tones of voice, there are no generally accepted principles of good microcopy. Google defines their principles as clear, concise, and useful, which seems like a good start for every company.
My last piece of advice: be empathetic. No witty word can help you increase engagement and conversion rates unless you think what your users feel and want at some step. Your task is to guide them through your product and be invisible at the same time. In this way, you can raise the bar of usefulness of web & app interfaces, and there will be peace.