By Tobias van Schneider Published October 27, 2020
Both ad writers and UX copywriters share the same challenge: They are writing for an audience that doesn’t read.
Some might read your headline, if you’re lucky. They will only read your body copy if they’re sitting on the toilet or stuck on a train. They will avoid your digital banner ad at all costs. Humans famously have short attention spans. The internet’s only made it worse.
According to a Nielsen Norman Group study, people are likely to read just 20% of the words on an average web page on an average visit.
We don’t read.
It may seem even more difficult for UX writers, considering our copy is stuffed into boxes and underneath buttons and grayed out in form fields. But modern reading behavior is actually our advantage. While scanning, our eyes go straight to the headlines, buttons, bulleted lists and help text that allow us to complete our task in the most efficient way possible. Otherwise known as the UX copy.
Our goal as UX writers is not to captivate our readers. It’s to help people accomplish their goal. It’s a compliment to your product if someone can complete their tasks without paying much attention to your UX copy. (We say UX should be intuitive, don’t we?) With that in mind, we can take what we know about modern reading patterns to make our copy better.
Lead with the conclusion
Journalists are taught to start their news articles with a “lede.” The lede summarizes the entire article in just a sentence or two, explaining the who, what, when, where and why of the story. It’s visualized as an inverted pyramid, beginning with the most newsworthy info.
The idea here: Get to the point. Write an article that doesn’t require us to read the whole article. Do the same for your UX copy.
People often read in an F-shaped pattern online, starting with the content at the top left of your page and making their way down. Naturally, this means the copy at the top of your page gets the most attention. So lead with your main message on every page. You might just find, while prioritizing your content, that you don’t need the less important content at all.
This applies not just to your paragraphs and visual hierarchy, but to individual sentences. When we write passive, poorly structured sentences, our message gets buried. More on writing strong, active sentences here.
Write headlines that answer questions
The same rule applies to your headlines. Ideally, we can get answers and understand your main message by scanning the headline alone.
Say you have an issue with your coffee grinder and reach for the instruction manual. You likely won't read the entire manual, but rather skip ahead to the troubleshooting section that most closely describes your issue, scanning headlines like "Unclogging your grinder" and "Replacing the on/off switch." Your UX writing doesn't necessarily have to be this dry, but you can use the same approach. Include the benefit or the answer in your headline, or at least point us there.
We often feel pressure to be “clever” with our writing. This leads to puns, poetic lines and marketing speak that makes for useless headlines.
Consider an app that offers one day delivery for pet food.
You could write a headline that says: “Delivery times that make your tail wag”
Or it could say this: “Pet food, delivered tomorrow.”
The latter answers the question before we even ask it: How soon can I get my pet food? The former doesn’t say much at all, but does make you gag a little.
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” David Ogilvy
Don’t waste words
Knowing we don’t have our user’s attention for long, and not much of their attention at that, we have to choose our words carefully.
Writing concisely is hard. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter."
To that end:
– Remove buzzwords and promotional language. Adjectives like “cutting edge” or “revolutionizing” are useless, meaningless fluff. Plus, they’re cringey and played out. So are adverbs like “seamlessly” and “fully” and “very.” So are filler words and phrases like "of course" and "in order to." Cut them and your sentence gets tighter and stronger.
– Write your sentence, then write it again, but shorter. Keep rewriting until your sentence is at least half the length it originally was.
– Don’t try so hard to impress. You could say “Increase your profitability” or you could just say “Make more money.” You could say "Suggested from your recent activity" or "You might like this." While your exact wording depends on your product's voice, the most simple option should always win.
NN Group did a fascinating study around concise copy and usability, comparing different versions of the same paragraph. Some used promotional language, others used bullet points and tighter copy. The final, improved paragraph was 124% more usable than the original.
Every additional second we spend, scrolling, clicking and searching increases the interaction cost (the sum of mental and physical effort) required to use your product. Your goal is to keep the interaction cost as low as possible.