UX Writing: The Art of Designing Conversations

What Is UX Writing?

It refers to the practice of writing small pieces of text that intend to help or guide users on various touchpoints as they interact with an interface.

It primarily aims to establish a medium of communication between the user and the interface. It also helps in mending (or evading) any potential conflicts or discrepancies that users may face while interacting with a digital product.

UX writing differentiates itself from other forms of writing by being extremely concise, yet communicating a lot of meaning at the same time.

What Are Microcopies?

The small pieces of text (mentioned in the previous section) that a UX writer crafts (writes) are referred to as microcopies.

Some common examples include:

  • Button texts
  • Instructions/help texts
  • Error messages
  • Captions
  • Tooltip & hint texts, etc.

(Not to forget those obtrusive pop-ups that say, “this site uses cookies…”.)

An ideal microcopy should be clear, concise, and useful — as depicted below by Google in the evolution of their error message copy when a user enters an incorrect password while trying to sign-in.

In the original version, users are simply intimated that there is some error due to which they won’t be able to sign in. There is no context whatsoever.
In the 2nd version, it is made clear that there is a sign-in error, which occurred because the user has entered an incorrect password.
In the next version, they made the message concise, yet meaningful, by ditching the error type. The presumption behind removing it may be that since the user was trying to sign-in, the error ought to pertain to sign-in.
At this stage, the message clear and concise, but the action button beneath it isn’t adding much value. If the password is incorrect, users must be provided with either an option to try again or to recover their password.

How UX writing can be helpful

Envision a situation wherein you are at an electronics store to buy a new television and you find a model that interests you. Within a few seconds, a salesperson appears out of nowhere to brief you through all the different features of it. He guides you on how to operate it, how to set it up, what precautions you must take while handling it, etc.

UX writing is that salesperson (or guide) for a digital product or service.

It shortens the learning curve

Interfaces are evolving each passing day, and with each such evolution comes a new learning curve. UX writing acts as a helping hand here by guiding users on each step and explaining to them everything that needs to be explained — thereby expediting their learning process.

It clarifies uncertainties and reduces anxiety

At touchpoints where users need to make a commitment (sometimes monetary) that may be irreversible, they crave to get as much clarity as possible. If something’s uncertain or missing, they become anxious and may step back. Efficient UX writing can curb down their anxiety at these places.

For instance, imagine you are about to get a trial version of a new streaming service that just dropped in last week. Before hitting the ‘start trail’ button, wouldn’t you want to be sure if you’ll need to put in your credit card information or not? (Or that will you be charged beforehand?) A small microcopy that clarifies this would be much appreciated.

It makes the interface more humane

The voice never changes, but the tone does. A friendly tone can add a personal touch to an interface — it may make the users feel they are chatting with an actual person sitting behind it — making the overall experience more humane, more convincing.

It may drive more user engagement

Using language that is appropriate from the users’ context can make a substantial impact on their engagement with your product or service. Google, in its 2017 I/O illustrated how just by changing the phrase from “Book a room” to “Check availability” on a hotel search result page increased the user engagement by 17%.

When users are on a hotel search result page, they aren’t at a stage where they can commit to any particular hotel immediately. Although, the phrase “Book a room” sounds like they will if they go forward with it. Instead, the phrase “Check availability” is more appropriate given the context, as this is what they most likely be willing to do at that point.

Best Practices in UX writing

Strive for simplicity and clarity

Use simple words and phrases to ensure that your text resonates with a large and varied target audience. Also, keep in mind that not all users will be proficient in a particular language. In fact, use words and phrases that can be easily translated into multiple languages, as English may not be a primary language in many places.

Hemingway Editor can come in handy for when you’re not sure if what you wrote is lucid enough for most people or not. It judges the ‘grade level’ of your text — which explains the level of expertise users need to have to understand your text, and highlights (in red and yellow) where your writing gets too dense or complex.

Empathize with users on each touchpoint

Try to evaluate your copy for any and every touchpoint from users’ context. Once you do, everything falls into place. Remember the Google hotel booking example mentioned earlier? Only by stepping into users’ shoes, you’ll know in which areas (or touchpoints) they’ll need help.

Focus on the word ‘micro’ in microcopy

Keep your text as concise as possible, yet communicate a lot of meaning at the same time. Long texts will attract attention, and we wouldn’t want a microcopy to be the dominant element on a screen/page. It should just be a means to guide or help users slightly.

I wrote more about using dominance in your designs here:

Be creative (when appropriate)

Microcopies don’t need to be boring or machine-like. You can add a bit of humor wherever it seems suitable and use a language that is more personal (or friendly).

For instance, we can replace the typical newsletter CTA button text from “subscribe” to something like “I’m interested” — cause that’s what you are when you hit that button.

However, when using humor, be cautious. Being whimsical at times when it isn’t appropriate can do more harm than good.

Mailchimp is one of the few companies that aces this technique. You’ll find brilliant microcopy examples all over their website (or app).

Use imagery (when necessary) for context

Use images or illustrations for times when words aren’t enough, and users may need some more context to understand something. An appropriate imagery can amplify the clarity of a microcopy.

You may usually find images on onboarding screens, like the one below in the Mailchimp iOS app.

However, things may go south if you overdo it — as images occupy a relatively large area on a screen/page, which can be a problem, especially in mobile interfaces.

Also (and this one is a long shot), some users might think you are questioning their ability to understand things.

Summarize

A Nielsen Norman Group study on how people read on the web concluded that:

“People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.”

Keeping this in mind, write a concise yet meaningful summary title for any text that exceeds 2 lines — this will enable easy scan-ability and decrease cognition, as users won’t have to read extra but will comprehend more to understand what’s written.

By Ritwik Mital

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