Making sense of UX Writing

June 18, 2019by Lynette TanUser ExperienceWriting0

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We’ve seen the rise of UX designers. Finally, companies understand that designing a website or mobile app to optimise and improve user experience is not just about aesthetics. When users interact with your website, they are looking for something – information, an action, or someone. And the written word is often used to help direct the user to what he is looking for.

You might think that, well, it’s just copy, isn’t it? Words like “click here”, “download now” or simply, writing the menu for the website. Can’t a copywriter do it?  Well, the reality of user experience design today is that we interact more and more in different ways, and a writer who lack the empathy to think like a user just doesn’t cut it.

A writer who lack the empathy to think like a user just doesn’t cut it.

Traditionally, copywriters write to get attention. It could be a headline for a magazine or an advertising copy, and the intention is to get the readers to “look here”. But UX writing is different. It is more functional, less marketing. And it has to take into consideration the different ways the user interacts with the interface.

For instance, we can ask a question on a website and get instant answers. I can speak to a robot (or an “assistant”) about the weather forecast today. Or how about using your voice to bring up the menu during a virtual reality game?

Source: The New York Times

There is an increasing overlap between graphical user interfaces and voice user interfaces, which necessitates a new skill set – UX designers with an understanding of narrative and conversational design.

But hoping to find this skill set in a single person is a bit like asking a writer to do UX design. So while a writer might be able to write good copy, he or she will also need some UX knowledge, and be able to work with UX designers. Their work is likely to be varied as well, which may include generating a wireframe, developing voice guidelines, writing microcopy and planning editorial strategies.

UX writers thus need to be flexible, collaborative, yet be able to advocate for their own stand in the process. So let’s take a look at what UX writing is and some general guidelines on how to approach UX writing.

What is UX writing?

At its simplest, UX writing is the act of writing copy for user touchpoints. This copy must not only help users navigate the interface optimally, it also reflects the brand voice.

UX writing is the act of writing copy for user touchpoints.

A good example of UX writing done nicely by Grammarly is seen below. For instance, a good UX writer would probably decide that when you prompt a user to subscribe or add an application to your desktop, they want to know if it is chargeable.

Source: Econsultancy.com

Research

UX writers are seen as members of the UX team and are expected to participate in user and audience research as part of the user-centred design process. Here’s an example of a job description of a UX writer for Carousell:


We’re looking for a UX Writer to join us in our mission. Someone who sees design opportunities behind every “lorem ipsum”. Someone who uses their gift of language to craft effective and compelling content across Carousell’s touchpoints in English.

  • Manage and deliver on the day-to-day writing assignments for Carousell’s products
  • Ensure that content on our products reflects Carousell’s tone of voice
  • Work closely with product and other functional teams to understand our business and user experience goals and define the content strategy to achieve those goals
  • Conduct and participate in user research
  • Collaborate with product designers to create compelling user experiences
  • Develop, maintain, and enforce Carousell’s lexicon and style guide to ensure content quality and consistency across Carousell’s user touchpoints and markets.

To make a clear distinction from being just another writer, a UX writer would have to be proficient in user research and understand how to drive their user journey through the words, questions and commands used at the different user touchpoints.

Writing

This should come as no surprise, but writing is pretty much expected for the role of UX writer. And we’re not just speaking about writing generally good pieces of content, but the focus here is on microcopy. You will be expected to explain every single word choice and defend it.
Of course, the job scope will vary depending on the hiring company since it’s a relatively new position in the market.

Collaboration


While a writer may work in silos or work pretty independently, UX writing would most likely require you to work in close collaboration with other departments. This could be with the UX designers, marketing department and legal team. You will likely find people questioning your choice of words, giving you subjective opinions of why they don’t quite like your choice, so adopting a teamwork mentality is an important attribute for a UX writer.

There are also a few responsibilities that pop up here and there and those include:

  • Build out and execute editorial strategy
  • Build out and conduct content strategy
  • Write marketing copy
  • Write user-friendly training materials

These responsibilities are obviously not strictly UX-focused. As mentioned, this is a new position, so it is likely that some organizations cannot justify hiring someone who only writes interface copy, so a skilled writer who works as a cross-functional team member who can kill two birds with one stone makes a better candidate.

It is however, important to distinguish UX writers from other writing roles. As of now, it doesn’t seem like there are many types of formal training out there for UX writing, so we’d assume UX writing roles would mostly be cross-functional. But, the specific role of a UX writer should not be confused with the following writing-centric roles:

The key differentiator is that the UX writer’s focus is on writing that improves the user journey.

How to succeed?

As we see it, the heart of the UX designer is writing for experience. This would mean a deep understanding of the user persona. Demographics, user intentions, user journey, what’s currently working and what’s not are all part of what a UX writer would need to find out. This is also where it is substantially different from being another type of writer.

As part of understanding your user, it is likely that you will participate in User Research or even conduct it entirely. You will thus need to familiarise yourself with the different User Research methods, to design the surveys and studies.

Source: Simple Usability

You will also need to be able to write concisely. While writing articles require great vocabulary, probably using descriptive sentences and more of a story-telling approach, UX writing is more precise. Often, it could just be about choosing a single word, or writing a short phrase.

Yet, even if it is writing microcopy, the stuff you write will have to embody the brand voice. Is your brand serious or casual? Inspiring or directive? Your copy will have to reflect that.

Since you’ll likely work with UX designers, it might be important to have a general idea about UX design, the process, as well as jargon used so that you can communicate effectively with them.

While UX writing isn’t entirely a science, there are rules and techniques that can help you succeed as a UX writer. At its base, there are 3 simple guidelines to follow:

1. Clear

Often, you may find words used on a website or app to be software problems and not people problems. Remember, a UX writer’s job is to focus on the user, so using verbs is imperative. A verb is a word that can direct the user to action. For clarity, always remove the technical terms and put the action in the context of the user.

Source: Realbigwords.com

Don’t we all feel assured that we won’t be charged yet?

2. Concise

Concise writing is key for effective messaging. It’s not just short, but direct. Writing concisely is helpful since people tend to scan text instead of reading every single word. And it’s not just about making sure every single word you choose is important, you’ll also need to frontload your text to make sure people catch the most important information at the start of the message.

Source: The Mobile Spoon

3. Useful

Writing useful commands and messaging often means developing a call-to-action (CTA) which can guide your users to the next steps.

Source: UX Planet

Look at the example above. While the messaging of “wrong password” is concise and to the point, the option of “OK” doesn’t do much for the user. What’s useful could be the options “Try again” or “recover password”.


It’s not always easy to follow the three principles concurrently, but after getting to the final messaging, conducting AB testing can help to further improve the user experience.

Is UX writing just a trend? We aren’t sure, but as a UX designer, I think UX writing has always been there… we just didn’t name it this way but some people were already working with this approach for a while. The main difference might lie in the fact that most of the products out there were not user-centric, but putting emphasis on product features over user benefits.

If we look at how UX design has progressed in the last few years, UX writing might just be here to stay. For one, we are quite sure that the future of apps and website are going towards highly customized experiences for users. And getting the right messaging across with UX writing does seem like a part of it.

Are you looking to improve the user experience for your product? Contact us for a chat and find out how we can help.

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Lynette Tan

Content Strategist at Pixel Tie. Lynette has more than six years of professional writing experience, having started out as a commodities analyst and specialising in personal finance content. Increasingly, she sees content production as a key marketing component that businesses should adopt as part of a wider marketing campaign and hopes to help companies amplify their brands through effective content strategies.