Once upon a time, designers were just designers. We didn’t have web designers, type designers, product designers, infographic designers – and we certainly didn’t have UX designers. Designers weren’t too concerned with differentiating themselves. They just designed.
With the evolution of technology came new breeds of designers with new specialties: 3D designers, app designers, UX and UI designers. Today, a traditional graphic designer may not know the ins and outs of UX design and vice versa. But no matter a designer’s specialty or title, they build on the same foundation. They follow the same core principles of color, balance, shape.
The principles of writing UX copy don’t stray that far from any other types of writing. Sure, some different best practices apply. You have to work within different limitations. Your audience and their expectations may be unique. But when it comes down to it, the main key to writing good UX copy is knowing how to write good copy.
Of course, there are certain goals we seek to accomplish when writing for a website or a digital product. So let’s first back up and define what UX writing means today.
What is UX writing?
UX copy (or as some like to call it, “microcopy”) is messaging that guides a user through a product experience, whether that’s a website, app, platform interface, database or CMS. It’s the buttons, headlines, captions, hints, help text, error messages, form field placeholders – the bits and pieces of text that tell us where we are in a process and what we should do next. The term microcopy is, in fact, dated. UX copy isn't micro. It's essential.
Written well, and someone will intuitively use your product or website without even thinking about the microcopy. Written really well, and your user might smile and share a screenshot of it with their friends. Our goal in this series, whenever possible, is to write UX copy really well.
As every article ever written on the subject will tell you, good microcopy is clear, concise and most importantly, useful:
Clear - UX copy should be simple and easy to understand at a glance.
Useful - UX copy helps people accomplish a task, reach the “aha!” moment and successfully use your product as it’s intended to be used.
If you know your copy is useful, it is likely as clear and concise as needs to be. If it’s clear and concise, that doesn’t necessarily mean its useful.
Put simply, microcopy is the content people see while using your product. The length, tone and style of that content depends entirely on the brand, the product, the context and the task at hand.
How does UX copywriting differ from other copywriting?
The main difference: Where other types of writing may seek to inspire, create intrigue or stir an emotion, UX copy’s main goal is to help. It cannot usually afford implied meaning, mystery or other complexities. If your microcopy makes someone laugh or stop and think as a side effect, that’s great. But your main goal is to help someone understand your product, use it the way it’s meant to be used and have the best possible experience doing so.
That said, UX copy isn’t all that different from advertising copywriting. An official UX copywriter will tell you otherwise, but think about it:
Advertising copy sells something – a product, an idea or a belief system.
UX copywriting sells the product in a more nuanced way. In providing an enjoyable experience for a person and helping them understand the product, the microcopy solidifies the relationship between the brand and that person. It makes them want to keep using it and share it with others. It continues selling the product long after it’s been sold.
Looking at most tech products from the last ten years, you might assume UX writing cannot be creative. When we think of system messages, we think of sentences like “Error: Can’t find object.” Nobody said our products had to sound like robots, but given the rushed nature of these projects, the limited space and the fact that the developer is often the one writing the copy right before launch, that became the norm. UX copy can in fact be creative, and constraints like limited space make the creative challenge all the more satisfying.
Who is supposed to write UX copy?
We are slowly starting to see UX copywriters pop up the way UX designers have, and it’s nice to have someone on your team dedicated to the job. But you don’t need to be a UX copywriter to write good UX copy. Your standard copywriter can do it. Designers can do it too. They should.
As we’ll discuss at length soon, creating a great user flow with effective copy is a team effort. And great copy works in tandem with the design to accomplish its goal.
The truth is that, in a fast-paced industry, anyone on the team might be composing the UX copy as they work to meet a deadline. Which is precisely why we can all benefit from learning how to write good microcopy, whether we are a writer, designer, engineer or strategist.
It’s our hope that this series inspires you to do so, helping you learn to not only write and recognize great UX copy, but also make your products more fun to use. If you haven't already, you can read our first article in the series right here. And more is coming soon!
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!