The words on an interface are what creates a connection between your product and the users, and, when done correctly, they can be the deciding factor for your user if they enjoy using your platform or not.
The main job of UX copywriting is to initiate, develop and maintain a conversation between the screen and the users, and since text composes most of a platform’s interface, being it error messages, tooltips, button labels, or descriptions, every word is an opportunity for you to improve the usability of your product.
I’ve developed an interest in UX copywriting ever since I saw Google’s talk “How Words Can Make Your Product Stand Out” (Google I/O ‘17). I recommend you to watch that video, it is a very approachable and yet complete guide of Google’s guidelines on how to “design words”. It opened my eyes to the complex and nuanced world of this profession and how every word on your screen can impact the reception of your product.
After some years of working and researching on the topic, and a lot of trial and error, I’ve gathered some concepts and best practices that I’d like to share with you: the design thinking behind copywriting, as well as some do’s and don’ts on how to improve usability with good writing.
In this article you’ll learn about:
- How user research informs what you write
- Defining your message: What your users need to know
- Finding ways to best transmit your message
Who are you writing for?
Before you start putting words on a screen, the first step should be to know who do you expect to be reading them. By answering the question of “who” is going to interact with your platform, you’ll also be able to know some aspects of “how” you should address them.
The process of defining the profile of your users can take many shapes: you can be briefed by the stakeholders, discover it through meetings with management, or by contacting the users directly. Regardless of your methods, you should aspire to know the answers to the following questions when you are writing something.
- What’s the education level of your users?
- What’s their native language?
- Do they use specific business terminologies?
- Are they familiar with technologies?
Depending on your project, user research can provide you with drastically different personas, each with their individual lexicon.
What do you need to say?
Knowing how to space out the necessary information along with the user flow, meaning what the user needs to know in each screen, is a fine and tricky profession in copywriting – on one side you have a confused user exposed to too much information at once; on the other you have a user lost because you were too generous with your words.
“Whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writing, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen”William Bernbach, copywriter
Think like your users
One of the first steps in establishing the content of your copy is to put yourself in the shoes of the user. Context is key in deciding what to say and what to omit.
- Where in the process are they?
- What’s their mindset on that page?
- What do they hope to achieve?
It can even be the case that the answers to these questions differ if you have different user personas using the same product but, in the end, being aware of all the simultaneous user journeys happening on a screen will help you strategize your content accordingly.
There is often the case when you have to write for users with multiple levels of business knowledge in mind: the rookie and the veteran worker, for example. In this scenario, a good content strategy would be to write with the experienced user in mind and leave some “breadcrumbs” for the rookie users to explore. Things like tooltips, support chat, or FAQs can help them to learn more and unveil information as needed. This approach is especially fruitful long-term since one must assume the rookies will eventually be equally experienced to the veterans at some point, allowing for the explanatory copy to be delegated to specific additional actions without overloading the experienced user with “irrelevant” information at the same time.
Give them a peek behind the curtain
At this point, it is important to note that while you know the entire flow of your platform your users might not. Providing them with the necessary information to “succeed” on a given screen (meaning, complete task A) is only one part of your job. Additionally, you need to present them with enough context for them to understand why they are doing something or what lies ahead.
At the top of your copywriting priorities should be to convey the most vital information and present it as the focus of the screen, the foreground. However, afterward, why not take a step back and analyze the copy you created so far? Think of all the possible misunderstandings that your users might draw and fill in the blanks with whatever other useful details can help them on their journeys.
- Do your users understand why they need to provide a second email?
- Do they know to confirm their email address in their inbox?
- Why not tell them to have their purchase information ready when calling support?
- Why not let them know that support takes, on average, 1 to 2 days to answer emails?
- You could tell them how long it would take for them to answer your survey (maybe that would help you get more replies).
Even if these questions do not prevent the users from achieving their goals, like inserting an email address, they represent useful information, and sharing it helps you prevent unnecessary doubts, misconceptions, or even mistakes beforehand, therefore avoiding unsatisfied users.
We often work ourselves into writing short copy no matter what but going beyond what we categorize as vital can add to the scene, creating a fuller and clearer picture.
Make it seamless but not automated
Most of the time the user probably won’t even notice your copy, which is a good thing. It means the experience you created is seamless, and the users are able to achieve all of their goals without the interface getting in the way. But what happens if they get so fixed on completing their tasks that they miss something important?
Have you ever clicked on a button so fast you didn’t realize you had just made a mistake? I can recall multiple times when I didn’t save my progress on a project, for example, I clicked the close button and completely ignore the pop-up saying “Do you want to save?” because I’m so focused on closing the app, and then I end up just clicking a random button to remove the pop-up at any cost. Thankfully, nowadays, we have automatic saves, but it isn’t a standard behavior across every platform. This means the copy on the pop-up can make the difference between a user saving or losing their progress when using a more limited application. When we write copy, we need to be aware of this issue and it is crucial to make sure that the user is not in automatic pilot mode when we present them with an alert or an important choice.
You need to understand the complexity of the message you want to get across and evaluate the amount of copy needed based on that.
Go beyond your simple text blot when you want the user to pause and pay special attention to something important. I call this the power of text as a weapon of friction since we are “fabricating” copy to stop or at least slow down the user in his flow.
You can use this knowledge to improve the way you write for actions that have long-term implications like deleting important information or making a purchase.
How to express yourself?
Now that you know what you want to say, let’s talk about some tips on how to best communicate your message.
1. Decide upon the main terminology and stick with it
Use terms familiar to the user whenever possible, words like save, publish, submit, subscribe or archive are part of our everyday life. Decide upon naming conventions and keep them consistent throughout the whole interface. Don’t use synonyms.
2. Write in the present tense
Most actions in an interface happen immediately, so try to reflect that when you write. When things take place in the past or future, keep it simple.
3. Use active voice. Embrace the power of “you”
Whenever possible, use active voice instead of passive voice. This relays the action to the users, and, by using the word “you”, you’ll bring them to the operation they can/must perform, and catch their attention. It’s a great way to nudge them to take action.
4. Be positive. Be helpful
Encourage the user in the right direction, rather than telling them why they did something wrong. Take responsibility. For example, when an error occurs, say something like: “We hit a problem loading your search results. Try searching again”
5. Be conversational. Use contractions
During the daily speech, we use contractions so keep your copy conversational. Use common contractions, such as it’s, you’re, that’s, and don’t, or don’t if you wish to emphasize something like “Do not leave this page until it refreshes automatically”. Never form a contraction from a noun and a verb. For example, the sentence “Microsoft is developing new services” should never be written as “Microsoft’s developing new services”.
6. Numbers, not words
Shapes are more easily recognized than words. Also, they require no translation.
7. Words, not dates
Use ‘today,’ ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ instead of a date
Avoid unnecessary punctuation such as periods in copy for labels, hover text, bulleted lists, or dialog body text. Keep away from exclamation points, it can be interpreted as yelling at the user.
9. Keep it Simple
Avoid complicated constructions. Use tools like Microsoft’s Word’s reading level analysis or Hemingway Editor to check your copy level and aim for a 5th-grade reading level (or up to 8th grade). This ensures that the text can be translated into other languages without difficulty, and is more user-friendly for users who are not advanced in English.
10. Define capitalization guidelines
The way you capitalize your copy affects readability, comprehension, and usability. It even impacts how people view your brand.
It helps differentiate your title text from your body text. When used in buttons makes them easier to reference later without losing format (see the recommendation section). Some people describe it as more professional, trustworthy, formal and symmetrical.
It is easier to read, best for long text, and makes it simple to identify proper nouns in sentences. On a more subjective note, it is also considered a more friendly capitalization.
“We intentionally write in sentence case because we want our brand to feel natural and approachable”Ux Writer at Dropbox
It draws attention to an element of the screen but compromises readability since it’s harder to tell letters apart. It can be a way to add an additional level of hierarchy to your text styles.
- Use Title Style Caps to mark field labels, actions (buttons, links, etc), page titles, and navigation or icon tooltips. I feel like the ability to reference these actions later by using title sentences is the point that sets this style apart from the competition.
- Choose Sentence style caps for longer copies such as page or field descriptions and tooltips
- I would stay away from ALL-CAPS but they can be used moderately, only for super important items (short taglines, brand name, core navigation points in website header, short call-to-action text, and abbreviations like OK) and avoid it in all the rest of the cases.
Acknowledge the profile of your readers
Use user research as a tool to learn about your users’ academic level, native language, skill level, and comfort level around technology. Use this knowledge to define possible pain points.
Mind the structure of your content and word economy
Don’t be short, be economical. Every word should have a distinct job: helping users accomplish a task, answering their doubts, or informing them of their next step.
Transmit information effectively through good grammar and presentation
Verbs are powerful. Use copy as an opportunity to be useful and take the user into the action. Be conversational and keep your presentation consistent across terminologies, capitalization, and punctuation.
One of the most important points for you to understand from this article is that copy is not a precise science. Just like every conversation we have as humans are different, so are interfaces.