9 UX writing tips for designers and developers
March 03, 2022
UX writing is the practice of crafting text for digital interfaces that help users interact with products more conveniently. While it is not expected for designers and developers to be professional writers, knowing how to write UX copy is valuable when creating digital products. The following UX writing tips might help.
1) Write clearly
Do not assume your reader knows the point you’re trying to make. Think about what exactly you want to say and say it clearly. No one wants to read a piece of text multiple times before understanding. A quick scan should be enough. People usually quickly scan text rather than read everything, since they lack time and have a short attention span. Therefore, every word you use should be relevant and understandable. Here are some tips to help you write clearly:
- Use simple words.
- Use the active voice instead of the passive voice. Using the active voice makes sentences flow better and motivates user action.
- Be uniform in your choice of possessive adjectives (like my, your, her, our). For instance, don’t write “Your account”, “My Music” in the same menu. Pick an adjective and use it consistently.
- Use technical terms sparsely, and when you do, add a short definition or description. The reader might not know the service or product you are writing about. Do not assume they do. Before writing UX text, it helps to list and define the terms to use and those to avoid (such as terms that are difficult to understand, sensitive, or confusing). For example, instead of writing “Connection error, server unreachable”, you might say “You are offline. Check your internet connection and retry”.
2) Be concise
Paradoxically, it usually takes more time to write a shorter statement than a longer one because it is harder to condense important details into a shorter statement. When working on devices with small screens such as mobile applications, there is not a lot of screen space. You, therefore, have to try to fit as much value into the little available space. Here’s how to do this:
- Find a way to express concepts more succinctly.
- Use shorter sentences.
- Write the important stuff at the beginning of the paragraph so that it is read first.
- After writing each sentence, read through it and check if there’s anything you can delete without messing up the meaning of the phrase. For example, instead of saying “Connection error, the server is unreachable. You are offline. Check your internet connection.”, you might say “No internet”.
3) Be consistent
UX text is meant to assist, not confuse. The navigation and other components of a digital product should be consistent. Not just consistent design (colors, layout, etc) but consistent text. Consistency is harder to achieve when many people are working on an application (such as in open-source software) or when there are several pages. To maintain textual consistency:
- Make a list of all key terms, define them, and ensure they are used consistently across all pages of the app. For open-source projects, keep this list in a public document that is accessible to contributors.
- Document colors and fonts that should be used
- Don’t make the user think. Instead of using unique phrases, it might be better to give readers a familiar experience. Instead of writing “Reach out” or “Let’s talk”, you could stick with “Contact Us”, since it’s widely used and the users immediately understand what you mean.
- Do not use many synonyms throughout the product to express the same concept. For instance, if you decide to use “Contact Us”, stick with it. Avoid using similar words like “Supports”, “Reach out”, “Get Help” to refer to the same concept.
4) Be helpful
If you’re trying to guide people, do it properly. The navigation and other components should be smooth and self-explanatory.
- Think about possible issues or points of confusion your users might encounter, then try to guide them through these using text. You can find possible user issues via user research. User research can be as simple as reading open issues (for open source projects), checking frequently asked questions on chat/support channels like Reddit, Stack Overflow, IRC channels, Discourse or just casually talking to users about their pain points. Make sure your writing answers the frequently asked questions. If there’s a feature that people are regularly asking how to use, this is an indication that you need clearer instructions. Know when instructions are necessary, and when they are, be as succinct as possible. Use simple, well-structured sentences that are straight to the point and accurate.
- Avoid forcing long instructions into an interface with limited space. Rather, link to instructions/FAQs or use tooltips.
- Provide actionable error messages. For example, if you have a “No internet connection” error message, it’s more helpful to have a button that says “Retry” rather than “OK”.
5) Write naturally
The reader might not know a lot about a topic or domain as much as you do. It’s up to you to educate them, irrespective of their background and skills.
- Do not use many big or uncommon words.
- If you must use technical words, define them in case the reader doesn’t know what they mean.
- Avoid abbreviations, except common ones (e.g USB). If you must use uncommon abbreviations, make sure they have been defined earlier.
- Do some keyword research and include these keywords in your writing. Keywords are words that people usually use when searching for a resource online. Tools like Ubersuggest, Keyword Tool, and Google Trends can be used to find them.
- Set a tone, depending on your audience. For example, your tone may be casual or technical/professional. What voice/tone are you trying to convey? Consider your readers before making a decision.
6) Be human
It can be difficult to express human emotion via text, but it’s worth a try. Try to make the reader feel like you care about them. Be less mechanical and more emotional. Granted, it is not easy to talk naturally via written text. Speaking is easier and informal, while writing is more structured.
The points below might help you infuse some human warmth into your text:
- Instead of saying “The contact form has been sent. Expect a response shortly”, say “We have received your message. We’ll get back to you soon”.
- People from different cultures may be sensitive to be a particular topic. Keep your audience in mind.
- Acting human doesn’t mean you should be sympathetic. You don’t have to be too clever or hilarious either, as this may distract from the core meaning of your text or distract the user from a task or action. All in all, it depends on your brand, tone of voice, and target audience.
7) Be structured
Good information architecture is important. When the content of a site or page is well structured, it’s easier for users to find what they need. In contrast, disorganized content is hard to find and understand. When designing content,
- Make a list of your objectives. Know why you’re writing, who you’re writing for and the impact your text should have.
- Start with the most important content at the top of the page, and less important text below. The stuff below should still be important, but not as important as that at the top of the page. Anything that is not helpful should be removed.
- Use elements like titles, subtitles, and lists to organize content into sections
- Use keywords in headings to attract the reader’s attention
- Arrange content such that related things are next to each other visually
- Split long text into digestible bits
- Slowly reveal the content (where possible) to avoid overwhelming the reader.
8) Be focused
Yes, you have so much to say. But writing too much text may not help as much as you expect it to. There’s no guarantee everything you write will be read.
Look at your content and ask yourself if every piece of text is necessary. If something is important, you can compel the reader to pay attention to it by surrounding it with adequate blank space. People find it easier to focus on something when there is more space around it. For example, a button with space around it will catch the user’s attention. Whenever you have a call to action, highlight it with whitespace. Aside from focus, whitespace around text improves readability.
9) Be inclusive and accessible
Needless to say, accessibility is important. You should strive to build products that can be used by all.
Accessible language is language that can be easily read and understood by everyone. The reader might have a disability such as learning difficulties, poor eyesight, color blindness, poor motor skills (that impede their ability to move a mouse or use a keyboard), or have other limitations. Put yourself in their shoes and try to accommodate them by:
- Using simple words and avoiding technical terms if possible
- Providing concise, direct instructions
- Using text on links to explain what should happen after clicking
Inclusive language is language that is appropriate for all groups of people. Your readers might come from different cultures. Steer away from phrases or expressions that are sensitive to certain groups of people. Be respectful of others’ beliefs, and be careful not to negatively influence them with your choice of words. For example,
- Words like “retarded” are considered offensive nowadays.
- Avoid vague and unclear groupings, for example, “Asians”. In some cases, it might not be clear who exactly qualifies as an Asian.
- Unless necessary, don’t specify gender. Avoid gendered words like “salesman” (use salesperson). Instead of saying “wife” or “husband”, you can say “spouse” or “partner”.
- Avoid stereotypes.