This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here.
Throughout this series, we have a resounding message: UX copy doesn’t have to be dry and technical. When done well, it is as much a part of your brand as the design itself. That said, there are best practices to follow for a reason.
An artist once told me that to break the rules, you first have to master them. Look at Picasso. As chaotic and crude his paintings may seem, all misplaced features and disjointed limbs, Picasso knew how to draw the human figure perfectly. It’s only by understanding the proper technique that he could turn it on its head, quite literally, in a compelling way. He learned to do it right so he could do it wrong.
People have basic expectations when using the web. Especially given their tendency to scan rather than read, it’s important to consider those expectations when writing UX copy. It’s possible someone will only read the headline before hitting a button. Or they might read the button and nothing else. If your product doesn't work the way they expect it to, the way they intuitively navigate other products or websites, they'll move on to something else that does.
We have plenty of room for creativity when writing microcopy, but we should first understand the way it’s typically done and why.
Learn these guiding principles as you would learn to draw the human form. By observing the lines and shadows, understanding the subtle nuances and eventually mastering the rules, you can then learn to be creative within them.
1. Always tell your user what’s wrong and how to fix it.
These typical error messages do not help the user:
“Oops! Something went wrong.”
“That doesn’t look right. Please try again.”
“Error: Code 500”
"Discount code can't be applied to this order."
These are error messages that do help the user:
“The page timed out. Check your connection and try again.”
“That password doesn’t match. Need a hint?”
"Looks like the server failed. Try refreshing this page."
“You've already used this discount code. Got another?”
Always aim to explain, as succinctly as possible, what happened and how the user can resolve it. Avoid leading them down a rabbit trail of help docs if you can provide the answer straight away in your error message. You’ll save your user, and yourself, time and frustration.
2. “Front-load” your headlines & messages. Lead with the answer.
Say we need to enable a specific setting before using a feature in your app.
You could say: “This feature only works when X is enabled. Go to settings and enable X to use it.”
Or you could say: “Please enable X under Settings to use this feature.”
The first message states the obvious before finally offering a solution. The second message gets to the point and allows us to understand in seconds what we need to do.
3. Always let your user know where they are and what happens next
You should always be guiding the user and telling them exactly what to expect, each step of the way. It’s a conversation that, if done well, your user doesn’t even realize they’re having.
This conversation happens through your help text, your headlines, your CTAs, your confirmation dialogues.
Pop-up dialogue that says, “It’s not possible to recover files after deletion,” tells your user to think twice before hitting delete.
A button that reads “Review order” eases a customer’s mind in a purchase flow, assuring them they’ll have a chance to look over their details once more before making their purchase. Likewise, a button reading “Complete order” says this is it, you’re about to pay.
With good UX copy, no one should ever “accidentally” make a purchase, pay more than they expected to pay, make a permanent action without sufficient warning or proceed to a step they’re not prepared for. Think about what questions someone may have at any point in a process, and answer that question before they ask it.
4. Only relay the information your user needs, at the time they need it
Say you’re looking for a bathroom in a museum. If the sign said “Turn right, take the steps to floor three, turn left, then left again and the bathroom will be on your right,” you’d likely pee your pants before finding your way to the bathroom.
Instead, you expect to see a sign with the bathroom symbol and an arrow. You follow that sign to the next turn, where another sign awaits you. Sign by sign, you eventually arrive at your destination. The signs allowed you to navigate without thinking, which is to say, they reduce cognitive load.
Don’t overwhelm your users with paragraphs of instructional text. Relay only the most important information someone needs to know at that step in their journey, then progressively share more as it becomes relevant.
This only skims the surface, but we’ll dive deeper soon and share what this looks like in practice.
If you're just now discovering our UX copywriting series, catch up on these articles: