Words at work

– 6 min read

This is why your product team needs UX writers

Ashley Coolman

Ashley Coolman

Product managers have a lot on their plate. Researching, road-mapping, resource management, user testing, saying no on a regular basis, meetings meetings meetings, analysis and optimization… it all requires ruthless prioritization. Which means considering the impact of ‘Authorization error’ versus ‘Your username and password don’t match’ on user experiences is often left in the backlog indefinitely.

Awkward and unhelpful UX copy ruins every user experience. Even products with amazing market fit will suffer. More companies are hiring content strategists, content designers, and UX writers for this exact reason, but not everyone has the luxury of working with dedicated wordsmiths.

If you want people to understand — and, dare I say, love — your product, someone on your team must review how it communicates. Below are some tenets of good UX writing for anyone working on user flows and messaging.

Best practices for UX writing

"Words are powerful. They have the ability to create a moment and the strength to destory it."

Beloved products build positive relationships with their users. They make people feel happy. Empowered. Successful. Satisfied. And what sets two products apart is how they accomplish that.

Many practitioners break down UX writing into three best practices for making copy clear, concise, useful. I’ve broken it down into six because, in my opinion, there was more unpacking to do.

When you’re brainstorming and reviewing UX copy — i.e. all the words in your product interface — ask yourself if each message is useful, necessary, well-timed, clear, concise, and consistent.

Ask yourself if each message is useful, necessary, well-timed, clear, concise, and consistent.Click To Tweet

1. Useful

Your product exists to solve a problem. The copy within your product should do the same. Unfortunately, sometimes even well-intended messages have selfish motives.

Is your copy actually helping the user or do you just want them to see it? Put users needs above your organization’s and you’ll always produce inherently useful content.

2. Necessary

Part of being useful is also being necessary. Yes, having toilet paper is useful. Do I need 100 rolls at home? No. In fact, that’s taking up a lot of valuable space. Marie Kondo (i.e. de-clutter) your product.

Look through your feature descriptions, tool tips, onboarding flows, error messages. Are you wasting users’ precious time by asking them to read something they already understand? Don’t fill-in lorem ipsum for the sake of it; white space is still a good thing.

3. Well-timed

Another usefulness bear to poke: timing. Those extra 88 rolls of toilet paper are definitely useful, and, sure, you can call them necessary… but they don’t need to be in my house right now.

So think about cognitive overload. Does your user need to read this right now? Try deleting it. Now, has the user lost anything they need to make progress or understand what they’re looking at? If not, leave it out. They’ll be better served if you re-home that information.

4. Clear

As our product designer says, “There’s what you’re trying to convey, and then there’s some cloudy version of it that the user gets.” So ask yourself: when your user reads the copy, will they understand everything it’s trying to convey? The first time?

'There’s what you’re trying to convey, and then there’s some cloudy version of it that the user gets.'Click To Tweet

User testing and A/B testing will help answer those questions. Ask new and old users to point out things they don’t fully understand. Watch where they stall or take a “wrong” turn. Then, rewrite unclear language and consider adding more useful copy to guide users through moments of confusion or doubt.

Don’t over-assume. The hamburger icon may mean “menu” to you, but does that hold true for your entire audience? You understand what API means, but do all your users? Some people may be seeing these words or icons for the first time in your app, so find a balance between the heuristics, jargon, and clear explanations. When you write, use plain language to help everyone understand.

It’s possible this exercise will uncover experiences that need more than content editing. If you can’t clearly explain yourself in a moment, then consider product redesign. Don’t shy away from the work! Lean in to these opportunities to help your users.

5. Concise

You already know the stats. Nobody reads; everyone scans. How many words in this article have you skipped? How many words in your own product have you never bothered to read?

Your UX copy should be short. Scannable. Get the job done and then get out of the way. As UX writer Torrey Podmajersky recently said in an interview — which will be published on our blog soon — “Its job is totally to disappear.”

Quick tips: Start every call to action with a verb. Chop out redundant phrases. Be ruthless in your editing.

6. Consistent

Your marketing/sales team uses specific language. If your product talks about everything differently, how do you think your users will feel once they make the jump? Usually confused. Perhaps tricked or betrayed.

Another example. If an in-app message asks users to navigate to the menu, but the label actually says “settings”, how will they know those are the same thing? As a user, relying on “guess and click” (i.e. trial and error) doesn’t make you feel successful.

You need consistency across your company and product, starting from the very first moment. It’s the only way to build trust and brand loyalty. Organization-wide writing style guides are one way to maintain consistency in voice, tone, and style decisions.

Every word in your product matters to your users

Carefully-crafted content is as important to success as carefully-crafted design. Collaborate on your product content writing and review! Find a team of user champions in your organization — content strategists, UX specialists, writers, designers, engineers, support specialists, sales, analysts — and you’ll be better prepared to deliver a great product experience.