How to write UX copy that makes your product a joy to use
By Tobias van Schneider Published March 24, 2020
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.
Study a speaker on stage. A bad speaker passively dumps information on their audience, more concerned with hitting their Keynote bullets than connecting with the crowd. A good speaker delights and inspires their audience. At the end of their talk, people feel ready to jump out of their seat and take action.
Good UX copy is like a good speaker. It makes its users feel lighter, encouraged and capable. So to write UX copy that moves your users, similar principles apply.
Use positive tone & language
Naturally, the words you choose and the energy behind them provokes a different response in your reader. Positive, encouraging messages are more likely to inspire confidence than negative ones. Guilt or shame certainly has an effect on people and it can work well in advertising, but it’s rarely useful (with exceptions) in your UX copy.
You may be familiar with “confirm shaming.” Desperate to secure leads for their newsletters, companies shame visitors for opting out. To escape the pop-up window, they have to click text that reads something like “no thanks, I prefer to stay out of the loop” or “no thanks, I don’t like great deals.”
To opt out of newsletters, visitors must click a link that inherently insults them.
This approach might be effective, but I don't know that it's ethical. It may also leave a bad taste in people's minds about your brand. Besides, there are much smarter ways to get people to do what you want than cornering them. A headline that motivates visitors to sign up may be harder to write than a shaming opt-out link, but it’s can be just as effective.
A newsletter pop-up on Everlane.com motivates sign-ups through positive language.
People may be drawn to negativity, but they are motivated by positivity. And the goal here is to motivate. Use language that inspires action and you are more likely to get the response you want.
As an example, see the onboarding process for our portfolio system, Semplice. Onboarding by nature exists to drive people forward. It’s your first impression. Someone is using your product for the first time, and you want them to feel confident and excited about each next step. So we aim to motivate on every screen.
Each time we ask someone to enter their information, we give them a positive little push with the help text. To keep newcomers moving forward, we encourage them to “go with their gut” when choosing their set-up. We use inclusive, action-oriented phrases like “let’s start” to make them feel like we’re in this together.
This approach builds confidence in your user and trust in your product. You can apply it to any experience in your own product: Your headlines, your helptext, your confirmation text, your error messages.
Instead of "Form submitted," say "Success! We received your message and will write back soon."
Instead of "You forgot to enter your email address" you can say, "Please enter an email address."
Rather than "Uh oh! Something went wrong," use "Let's try that again."
Instead of "Your form contains errors," say, "Please enter a valid address."
(There's a lot more to say about writing good error messages – we'll be writing about that soon.)
Notice Mailchimp's use of phrases like "We want to help" and "Let's do it." Positive language that immediately instills confidence and trust.
This doesn't mean you need an exclamation point in every sentence, or that you need to congratulate your user every moment like they're a child. It's about infusing positivity into your messages, with the words you use and the mood your messages evoke. Your goal is to create some momentum. Positive, goal-driven language is part of your product’s combustion engine, creating movement in your product.
Affirm & build confidence
As the voice of your product, you are omniscient. At any point in time, you should know where the user is and anticipate what they will and should do next.
Work screen by screen or step by step and think about how the user feels in that moment. Aim to affirm their decisions and build confidence with every action they take, leading them along to their goal.
With our Semplice onboarding, we build confidence from the first step by a. validating their decision to use our product and b. making them feel like they are part of something bigger.
Later in the onboarding flow, we ask the user to tell us their profession. We know creative types well enough to understand even this simple question may trigger insecurity, so we playfully assure them it’s not a life or death decision.
Designers talk all day about intuitive design. UX copy plays a big part in that. Make them feel confident about the action they are taking with your help text, and affirm their choice after they take it with confirmation text. Like the friends and family cheering runners on at each milestone of a race, you’re there on the sidelines to help your user reach the finish line.
Write in active voice
The way you structure your sentences changes their energy. You want your UX copy (and almost anything you write) to have forward-moving energy. That’s active voice.
Example of active voice: “She ate the pizza.”
Example of passive voice: “The pizza was eaten by her.”
Do you feel the difference? The second sentence is wordy and falls flat. The first is clear and strong.
Here’s what’s happening: Grammatically, “she” is the subject of the sentence. When the subject is doing an action (eating the pizza) it’s considered active voice. When the action is happening to the subject (eaten by her) it’s passive voice.
Always try to make your subject (he, she, I, the girl, the dog, the wind, etc.) do the action, instead of the other way around. This will almost always make your sentences more concise too, which is good for all copy, but especially UX copy. Active voice is Grammar 101, and we’ll do a lot more of it soon.
For more UX copywriting tips, read our other articles from this series: