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Front end developer coding at desk
Front end developer coding at desk

UX Writing: the ultimate guide

UX writing, UI content and microcopy are all terms you might be hearing more and more over the next year. It's an upcoming trend in web and app design, and it's becoming an essential part of website and online marketing strategy.

UX Writer at work

Great UX writing can help users through a complex process and make it seem simple.

It can provide the extra touch that shapes how someone feels about your app.

It can show users where they've gone wrong and how to get back on track.

UX writing clears barriers and increases engagement.

That's why it's so vital to the success of any app or website.

In this ultimate guide, we talk about:

What is it?

UX writing is essentially the words that help someone use a website. UX means user experience, and UX writing is simply the words that guide the user.

Like Enter name here in a form field, showing you what details need to go where.

Or Please enter valid email address when you've forgotten the @ sign.

Or View all orders on a button, telling you what you'll see when you click.

Before the rise of UX, a lot of this writing was done by developers. 

But now people are understanding how important these little bits of text are, and so UX writing has become a specialist field.

Is UX text the same as microcopy?

Microcopy is definitely part of UX writing, but UX writing requires some longer-form text too.

Microcopy, or microcontent is the very short text that you might find on a call to action, email subject lines or even page names.

UX text includes all of that, but also includes things like tooltips, error messages, and any text that helps a user perform an action on your site.

Isn't it just copywriting?

Yes and no.

A good copywriter should ideally be a good UX writer too, but copywriting means you're creating text to persuade. A UX writer is providing the text that shows you what to do.

In short, UX writing isn't about sales and marketing, it's about usability.

So you don't want a copywriter trying to turn it into a chance to push a message, you want a writer who can make something crystal clear.

There's a bit of snobbery in the industry that frowns on the term UX copywriter, because UX writers and copywriters do often have different focuses for their content.

But some copywriters can wear both hats (I like to think that I'm one of them!) and can produce UX writing that guides and assists users, whilst still retaining the personality and tone of the rest of the site.

Why does it matter?

UX writing is something that seems small, but has a huge impact on the overall experience on your website.

If it's done badly, or not at all, it can be the reason that someone doesn't go through with their purchase, use their account, or finish what they were doing on your website.

And at the same time, it's this microcopy that sets the tone for your whole project. 

When you see a 404 message that really sounds on-brand, or have a suggested form field that fits the style of the app, it makes the user experience complete.

For example, drivingwithdogs.co.uk/404 

The text here tells you you're in the wrong place, gives you a link to get you back on track, AND keeps the same voice as the rest of the site (dog puns included!).

That's UX writing that really works.

Where is it used?

Most UX writing is needed in functional areas of an app or website, in user accounts, shopping baskets, and booking forms.

But you'll find you need a little everywhere, even if you only have a contact form and 404 page - a little text will help users get in touch or get back on track.

 

Who should write UX text?

In the past, these bits of text have often been provided by developers, but over recent years writers have started specialising in UX.

Some copywriters are also UX writers, and provide microcontent on top of marketing and sales copy. 

But UX writers often come from a wide range of backgrounds, and you can find that technical writers, marketers, editors, developers or someone outside the industry entirely has a real talent for UX writing.

Whoever is in charge of the microcopy, they'll need to work closely with the team in charge of the user interface design, and the teams responsible for user research and user testing. 

These are the areas that define the goals and the success of your UX content.

Developers

In the past, the vast majority of projects left UX writing to the development team, usually as they are creating things like forms, success screens etc.

Often this leaves the text as dry and technical - and occasionally including some pretty spectacular spelling mistakes!

That's not to say that developers can't write great UX text, but if it's just folded in with their dev work, it's easy for mistakes to be made and opportunities lost.

Copywriters

If you have copywriters creating the text for the rest of the site, it can sometimes be a good idea to let them handle the UX writing too.

But one flaw you can find with this approach, is the UX text turning into sales copy. 

This isn't what UX writing is for. It isn't designed to persuade, but to inform.

That's not to say that it needs to be dry and technical, but it's purpose is different to normal sales copy. Remember that you're not writing blog posts here, it's got vastly different requirements.

Marketing Teams

You're likely to run into similar problems with a marketing team handling your UX writing.

If the focus is on pushing a message instead of helping the user achieve a goal or understand an action, you're sacrificing usability for advertising space. 

But content strategists can be invaluable to shaping UX content, and often provide the scope and plan that ensures all the microcopy is created in line with the content strategy.

UX Designers

These guys have "UX" in their title, so they must be the best choice. Right?

Some UX designers are also great at UX writing, and will factor it in as part of their process. 

However, many don't see it as part of their remit, and focus more on the visuals and user experience design. Or see their role in producing microcopy as an exercise writing design, seeing it as making sure the text looks right, instead of thinking of it as a functional tool. 

So make sure your team is geared up for microcopy and UX content as well as the functional and visual elements of UX.

Dedicated UX Writers

Obviously a dedicated UX writer is likely to be your best option.

Lots of UX writers do come from a background in design, development, UX, or marketing.

Some even come from the offline world, like editors, technical writers or even journalists.

But being able to write, and being able to write for UX, are very different talents.

The key to being a great UX writer, is being able to guide a user through text, whilst finding some room for personality too.

It's often these touches that really shape how a user feels about the site, and have the biggest impact on your audience.   

What skills do you need for UX writing?

To become a great UX writer, you need to balance a lot of different skills.

Research and planning - a UX writer should be getting involved at the start of a project, in the planning phase. 

Here's where you identify the audience you're speaking to, what they're trying to do, and how best to speak to them.

Analytical - UX isn't a static task. You're likely to need to make changes and updates to your writing as a site grows and you get more user feedback. 

You'll need to be able to analyse how users interact with a site, and change the UX writing accordingly.

Marketing - UX writing isn't copywriting, but that's not to say a little marketing experience won't go a long way. 

You're still essentially trying to communicate with a customer to get them to perform a task - and make them feel good about it.

Editorial - Yes, you need to do spelling and grammar checks. 

It really, really, really matters. 

And no, you will never create 100% mistake free text - but aim for it anyway!

Creative - Actual creative flair is sometimes overlooked for UX writing, but a clear brand voice can really shape a user's emotional response to your site. 

 

What needs UX writing?

At Edge of the Web, when we start a project, we're often asked what text we can provide.

Sometimes we provide editing, sometimes full copy, sometimes we fall somewhere in-between.

But we always handle the UX writing.

A small part of that is that a client's not going to have a clue about all the different areas that need UX writing.

But the larger part is that it's a job that we can generally do better. 

Most UX text is based on the UX process, so your web agency should be perfectly placed to manage this for you.

Our list of UX text areas usually includes the following:

CTAs

Calls to Action are one of the most obviously important parts of UX writing. Sometimes these are carefully controlled by the marketing team or copywriters, but not always.

CTAs are usually best when they're short, simple and informative - you want it to be clear what's happening to a user after they click, whether that's getting search results, visiting a new page or making a purchase.

But there's still some room for creativity. For example, on our website drivingwithdogs.co.uk, the call to action to get your search results isn't just a dry "Search". We had a little fun with it and decided on "Fetch Walks".

The user still knows exactly what happens when they click that button, but it's got a little personality and fun to it too.

Forms

Once a user's made the choice to fill out a form on your site, the last thing you want is for them to get confused and click away. 

That's the point they've bought in to your site and service, so dropping out here is 100% a failure of UX.

But good UX text can give users all the information they need to complete a form without any issues, and it can be done in lots of different ways, such as:

  • Good headers
  • Greyed out text to indicate what information goes in the box
  • Additional directions, such as the number of characters required
  • Good inline error messages, for example "Please enter a valid email address" when someone's left out the @ symbol

Alternative options

UX writing can also help users find alternative options. 

For example, prompting people to sign in to their account before making a booking or purchase, so they don't fill out their details and THEN get a message that they already have an account.

Creating paths around the website for users to find their way back, or helping them use an alternative process makes it easier for a user who's got lost to get back on track instead of giving up on the site altogether.

Tooltips

Tooltip text works really well if you have users who might need a longer explanation, or more help in completing something on your site.

It prevents you from needing a big block of text that interrupts the form and makes it look complicated, but allows for a much longer bit of text to provide that extra assistance.

Success and failure messages

More than anything, success and failure messages need to give users a way to fix the error. 

Don't strand people with an error screen with no clue what it means or path back somewhere familiar.

Sometimes they need a route back to where they were, sometimes they need an instruction on how to resolve the issue, but your UX text needs to help them make the next step.

404 error pages

The ultimate error message is, of course, the 404 page.

We actually like to use UX text to make these fun and really reflect the personality of the site, as well as leading back to the Home page or another significant page.

Accounts

Accounts areas on a website can be pretty complex, and often need UX text to explain not just what you can do within the account, but also what each of the different areas in your account are for.

Emails

It's strange how often automated emails are left to the development team to write, and unless you've got a dev team that's really hot on UX writing, it can often lead to issues.

Automated emails are a necessary evil, whether they're a copy of the form you've just submitted on site, a link to verify your account, or an update that you've asked for.

These emails sometimes get seen as an extra chance to market to users - and they are a good opportunity for that.

But you really need a UX specialist to balance the desire to sell, with the actual purpose of the email to start with.

UX>Marketing.

CMS

This is something that you often don't need to worry about. If you're using a platform like Wordpress or Squarespace or Drupal, all this already exists.

But if you use a bespoke CMS, it's really helpful to include UX text to help administrators navigate and update the site.

This is really the area for UX writing in its purest form, as this area is solely for administrators, so it's all about providing instruction.

Having said that…. It can be nice to include a few little touches here and there to keep people entertained.

Just because this text isn't for the general public, it doesn't mean you can't have fun with it!

Incidental text

I'll be honest here. Incidental text isn't really a proper industry term.

It's actually just how I describe the text around the website that isn't strictly functional, but pads out a design, and often gives little introductions to certain sections or functions.

For example, a sentence of text leading in to a contact form, or introducing a Case Studies section.

There's often bits and pieces of text like this dotted across the site, and they do seem to fall down the gap between the copywriter and the UX writer, so we often provide this text for clients.  

 

Establishing a writing style

Style is really the difference between a good, and a great UX writer.

Here are the essential qualities for writing fantastic UX text.

Short

Use only as many words as are necessary for someone to understand what they need to do. 

Use only the words you need to get the point across. 

Use as few words as possible. 

Use fewer words.

Simple 

This text is all about usability, so avoid jargon like the plague.  

If your Gran or your four year old nephew wouldn't understand what you wrote, it's too complex.

Consistent

Make sure you're using the same terms across the text. 

Introducing a new name for something in the UX text is just going to confuse people.

Shortcuts

Don't be afraid to use shortcuts. 

No, not emojis or text speak, but things like numerals instead of writing out a number or date.

Voice

Avoid a passive voice. UX text is about actions, so use an active voice.

It's usually faster too!

Creativity

If you're lucky, you'll even get the opportunity to have a bit of fun with your UX content.

When you're writing for a site that's got a fun personality, is lighthearted or for the general public, you can sometimes draw the narrative voice of the main copy on into the UX.

The important thing is to ensure that everything you write is UX first. It's nice if you can also use a narrative voice, or push a marketing message at the same time, but they are not your objective.

As a UX writer your primary concern is making life easy for your user.

Everything else is decoration.

 

When to write UX text

The question of when to write your UX text is a bit of a tricky one.

The process starts at the beginning of a project, when you're looking into the planning and research for your client and their audience.

It's here that you come up with user personas, and start to establish the right approach to motivate them.

It's also where you start to create a sitemap and scope of functionality, which will give your UX writer an idea of what they'll be writing.

During the design and development stages, you're likely to find a whole host of UX writing tasks that you hadn't anticipated.

As the site becomes realised in look and functionality, that's where you'll identify the vast majority of areas that need UX writing.

But it's an ongoing job, and you'll need additional bits of micro content even after the site goes live. Not just if new features or pages are added, but also as you see how users interact with the website.

You might need additional text to explain how to do something, or where to go next.

So UX writing needs addressing at every stage of a project.

 

How to write UX text

The process of writing UX content is unique to each writer, but I like to use a fairly straightforward process.

This helps me scope out what's needed, identify all the text required, find the right tone and create a logical workflow.

Audience

First off, I like to know exactly who I'm writing for, and what they care about most.

There's a huge difference in approach when you're writing UX text for different user personas. 

A high level manager looking for services for their company is going to be motivated by a different style of language to someone who's setting up a personal account with an online shop.

Even if they are the SAME person.

So working out who you're writing for is the best starting point.

Voice

Once you know your audience, you can work on establishing your voice.

A lot of this will be guided by the marketing team or whoever is doing the bulk of the copywriting.

You always want the voice to be consistent, so keep your language compatible with the rest of the text on site.

Scope

UX text is a nightmare to scope out, as it exists in tiny bits and pieces all over the website.

Of course, the more functionality on site, the more UX content needed.

And don't forget the back end either.

So I try to put together a general checklist, including:

  • Front end pages
  • Footer
  • Processes
    • Forms
    • Tooltips
    • CTAs
    • Error/Success messages
  • Automated Emails
  • Accounts Pages
  • Accounts Processes
  • CMS Pages
  • CMS Processes

Identifying the UX content needed on each of these different areas of the site should give you a fairly accurate picture of what's needed.

But be prepared to have forgotten or missed something pre/post launch!

Workflow

Creating a UX workflow is also quite difficult, because you're producing very small snippets of text over a really wide area of the site.

I find that it's good to start with the main content pages, and from there follow the user journey through the processes.

I work on them like a storyline, following the path through a process and identifying all the text needed on each section - including where the user may go wrong.

By working your way through the user journey, it helps you keep your place through the site, and it's also a good way to do a bit of user testing along the way.

I'm renowned in the office for finding bugs prior to launch - and this is the exact reason why!

If we're providing UX text for the CMS as well, I also do the writing alongside the CMS guide for users. 

Doing these together makes sense, because the CMS guide is really a long-form version of UX text (with screenshots to help!).  

Editing

This is probably the easiest phase!

And the main points are:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it correct

Obviously you'll want to check for spelling and grammar. But beyond that, simplify and shorten as much as you can.

 

To round it all up

UX text can really make a huge impact on your site's success, so it's really worth taking seriously.

It can be the difference between someone finding a process too confusing to continue, and loving how your site works right down to the very last detail.

Even if you don't have a UX writing expert on hand, make sure you go through all your microcopy and UX content to make sure it's helping your users - not getting in their way!

If you're looking for an agency to provide awesome UX writing as well as stunning design and epic development, we'd definitely love to hear from you!

sam.jpg

Sam Orchard

Creative Director