May 2018
Text by Nithya Krishnan

Image: alphaspirit/

Nithya Krishnan is a user assistance developer and user experience advocate. In her 10+ years of experience in the field of technical communications, she has authored end-user documentation across various domains. With an academic background in information technology, her interest lies in creating a cohesive learning environment for all roles involved in a software development process.




Write to design

A good user interface is usually associated with visually appealing elements such as colors and buttons. But it is words that truly deliver your message. "UX writing" not only improves your copy, it helps you to develop user interfaces with a catching, narrative design.

Technical writers have long been working on providing copy for user interfaces. However, as we transitioned from traditional graphical user interfaces to web-based applications and, more recently, to conversational user interfaces, the challenges have changed, and so has the definition of good text.

Text is an essential element for any user interface, as the right words in the right context help users achieve their goals and find what they were looking for. Thus, text is an integral part of your content strategy, an approach that involves crafting, developing, managing, and publishing written and graphical content to create a consistent and pleasing user experience (UX). Your content strategy should always focus on what the user wants to achieve, and the design of both graphics and text should follow suit.

The discipline of UX writing can be regarded as part of a content strategy, one that focuses on helping users achieve their goals with the simple use of text. UX writing helps you to craft copy that supports the general design concept and enables successful interactions, thus enhancing the user experience.

Defining good copy

In the field of design, any content that is written in text, however big or small, is commonly called copy. For any user interface, visually appealing elements such as illustrations, colors, shapes, icons, and buttons are crucial. But imagine if the text on a button or a menu option keeps you guessing about the meaning. Wouldn’t that be rather annoying to a user? It might even stop him or her from using that website or application again. When we think about the products we love, most of the time, it really is those tiny and delightful details that make us want to go back to using an interface. Good copy plays a pivotal role in the experience users have with the interface and determines if they come back to it. It builds a connection.

Great products can change the way people work. That’s why it is important to constantly innovate and design solutions that enable users to make their lives better and easier. Using text that not only guides the user, but defines the way in which the product is consumed, adds a whole new dimension to the way we design interfaces; it simply means making the user experience more inclusive.

Copy needs to be clear, consistent and simple, so that people can interact with the product intuitively. When users don’t notice that they are being guided, it means that the UX writing has been done well. In addition, UX writing, as any other copy content, should be based on the context and the target audience.

Image 1: Copy is an essential part of any content strategy


Storyframes before wireframes

To create good user interfaces, content can’t be an afterthought. It must be the first thing that you start analyzing. For instance, if you want to use a website to engage with your users, the content – not the layout – must come first. This is why it is essential to include UX writers right from the early stages of the design process, even before creating wireframes.

When you plan what you want to communicate to your audience, words are often the best starting point from which to build your layout. Fabricio Teixeira, design director at Work & Co, framed this subject in his article "Storyframes before Wireframes", suggesting that by starting designs in a text editor, we can tell better stories through our UIs.

Some key aspects of having good copy are:

  • It provides clear feedback and next steps.
  • It helps to set expectations. Clear, upfront and transparent copy reduces risks and encourages users to act.
  • It says it clearly and simply.
  • It helps you get started.

The challenge of UX writing is to stick to a modular design. You must simplify text and turn a complicated message into one that outlines the problem, process and outcome in a simple manner. Taxonomy plays a crucial part in creating copy.

In general, a UX writing portfolio needs to do three things: Clearly outline the customer problem, explain the process and/or approach, and reveal the final outcome.

Adopting a conversational tone

As we move into a more conversational trend in the applications that we consume, a UX writer must understand narrative and conversational design aspects to be able to convert product requirements into a clear and engaging user story. The writer must showcase an inventor’s spirit, highly refined aesthetic sensibilities and a fine-tuned ability to contextually communicate the right message in the right place at the right time.

When people read content written in a conversational tone, it gives them the feeling that they’re being spoken to directly. Rather than talking to your audience as a whole, you’ll be conversing with them personally. Unfortunately, most of us have spent our professional lives following rigid, boundary-driven rules. It does take an effort to break this habit and communicate effectively and colloquially. It is important to note that writing in a conversational tone does not equal writing sloppily or using poor vocabulary.

The crucial step is addressing the reader directly. An easy way to do this is to pretend that you’re writing to a close friend. Forget formalities. Make your writing more approachable and less arduous for your readers. By stripping off the clutter, you can focus on the core message you are trying to communicate. Once you’ve crafted your message, read it out loud. This helps you to spot errors a lot more easily.

The essence of good copy is to turn every message in your digital product into a valuable conversation.

Some more dos and don’ts:

  • Copy must contain useful data but not be poorly presented.
  • Copy must be presented in a visually amazing way but not show the lack of meaning and purpose.

Keep a good balance between words and graphics, and make them work together smoothly. This means that appearance and meaning support each other, and both become more powerful elements in the user experience. Recalling the words of the famous American author, Dr. Seuss, "Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent."

Image 2 shows good examples of how copy can provide extra delight to users when interacting with certain applications/websites.

Image 2: Catchy copy can make a website or app more engaging and fun.


Becoming a UX writer

If you’ve been working in content writing or content design and strategy, you will already have a fair understanding of what user-centricity is all about. To move into the field of UX writing, you need to become more sensitive to this aspect, in both the way you think and write. Here are some suggestions to help you on the path of UX writing:

  • Keep an open eye and develop a heightened awareness of your surroundings and your interactions with both people and technology. When ordering food online or buying your favorite brand of shoes or a home appliance, ask yourself: How was the experience? How did I feel and what made me feel that way? Did I experience any delightful moments?
  • Study the creative process of artists and designers. Phrasing, tone, and delivery are some aspects to keep in mind. All creative professions open their minds to deeper subjects.
  • When applying for a UX writing position, your CV is your first interview. Highlight some examples of your work or provide a portfolio at the time of your interview. This can help to substantiate how well you fit in.

What’s in store for UX writers

We are so accustomed to looking at design as a medium that’s mainly about wireframes and mockups that we tend to forget the text. But what about the small details that really change the way users consume products? We can’t deliver narrations through visuals only.

What we need are words. And that’s the storytelling part of design. Moving towards a more conversational path, there is an increasing need for UX writers. You write your story as you design your interface. With a narrative design, storytelling helps to gain and keep the attention of the user. When you use metaphors to resonate with the content, it becomes a more natural approach to conveying an idea. Just as we see a deeper integration of technology in our daily lives, we will see a deeper need for storytellers, people who are intuitively good at anticipating what words are needed, and when.

As a UX writer, you are an advocate for your organization’s design. You must work to shape product experiences by creating useful, meaningful text that helps users complete the task at hand. You should help set the vision for content and drive cohesive product narratives across multiple platforms and touch points. As a stellar writer, you have a portfolio of work demonstrating content that simplifies and beautifies the overall user experience.

During the course of your work as a UX writer, you will have the opportunity to work with people in a variety of UX design-related jobs including researchers, product managers, engineers, marketing and customer operations professionals. Collaborating with each, you must strive to establish a cohesive language and a unified voice across products and platforms. You must use both empathy and logic as you design your product. You play the pivotal role of endorsing the product with not just good, but great copy.

You must be flexible and work well in a truly agile environment. You may have to define your own role and responsibilities, take on cross-functional tasks (like generating a wireframe, developing voice guidelines, or planning editorial strategies), and do so effectively.

In other words, as a UX writer, you are walking into an environment where nothing is certain, and where you must be able to do your job well, but also advocate your own importance in the process.

Creating your UX writing portfolio

Once you’ve moved into the field of UX writing, and have enough to show for it, it’s important that you give yourself good credit for it. And how do you do this? By creating a portfolio that highlights your key competencies and examples of your work.

You can use some of the following tips to market your work:

  • Are your samples easy to access and follow?
  • Does your writing cater to the target audience?
  • Is your writing clear and succinct?
  • Does your writing reflect the problem and show the user how to respond to it?

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