UX Writing
UX writing

The importance of good UX writing

Language is part of design. On displays of all shapes and sizes, people take in language subconsciously, considering its placement, size, style, structure, white space, and relation to other elements to orient themselves.

As such, UX writing deserves to be tested and tweaked throughout the product development process so that ultimately, together with design elements, it creates an experience that helps associates effortlessly achieve tasks and walk away feeling comforted.

Often a thankless and overlooked process, thoughtful UX writing is the secret star of your experience—and it’s often the difference between a good product and a great one.

What is UX writing?

UX writing is the text on an interface that guides users through your product—you know, buttons, instructional text, error messages, etc. If you think about a product you use and enjoy frequently, the UX writing is probably strong, even if you’ve never noticed it before. And if you think about the products you’ve hated, there’s a good chance that weak UX writing was a culprit of your painful experience.

UX writing is a pretty new discipline within content strategy (which is a relatively new discipline within UX). But since product teams don’t often have the resources for a dedicated UX writer (or content strategist), the responsibility often falls on product owners, developers, or designers.

What’s the difference between marketing copy and UX writing? Marketing copy (or copywriting) is about attracting eyeballs and selling a product. If you find yourself doing writing for UX, however, your focus doesn’t need to be on selling your product because your users are already using it! Save the sexy words, sales pitches, and gimmicky phrasing and stick to simple on your interfaces.    

General tips to keep in mind

  • Clarity is queen, but context is king. When using your product, UX writing should always be guiding associates so that they’re able to answer:
    • Where am I?
    • Where did I come from?
    • Why am I here?
    • What can I do next?
    • Where will I go?
  • Strive to make your UX writing clear, concise, and helpful. Then find moments to inject personality where it's appropriate. 
  • Edit, edit, edit! Shorter is often better, not not at the expense of clarity.
    • Example:
      • Good: 
        • Cannot determine location. Please verify that Location Services are enabled on your mobile device or browser. 
      • Better: 
        • Enable Location Services. Check Settings on your mobile device or web browser.
      • Best: 
        • Enable Location Services to see jobs near you. Check Settings on your mobile device or web browser.
      • Masterful: 
        • Turn on Location Services to see nearby jobs. Go to Settings on your mobile device or web browser.
  • Feeling unsure about your UX writing? Run a quick test! No need to be formal—simply ask a few people around you if what you’ve written is clear or confusing.

Structure & style

Use structure and style to help associates prioritize and make choices. 

  • The most essential words on your screen should have the most prominence.
  • Make use of headline sizes and formatting to help associates scan and identify key information.
  • Avoid body text that spans longer than five lines on mobile. When text needs to be longer, employ paragraph breaks, bulleting, and bold styling (used sparingly) to make the screen less overwhelming.

Buttons

Small words have a big impact, and can make or break the success of a product.

  • Keep button text under XX characters.
  • Use sentence case on buttons.
  • Carefully consider the difference between button text options. “OK” is different from “Submit” is different from “I agree.”
  • Strive to be precise. Buttons should indicate where a user will be taken to next.
    • Example: "Build my profile" not "Dismiss"
  • A quick trick to evaluate your buttons: If an associate only read the buttons throughout your experience, would they understand the purpose of your product?
  • Include a verb on your button when pointing to a feature.
    • Example: “Visit Grand Rounds” not “Grand Rounds”
  • When choosing between synonyms, pick the simplest word.
    • Example: “Turn on” not “Enable”

Labels

  • Avoid jargon-y, insider-UX names for labels and navigation points and try to make them as specific as possible.
    • Examples: 
      • "My Rewards Overview" not "Dashboard"
      • "My Benefits" not "Catalog of Benefits"

Taxonomy

Just as developers may have a back-end taxonomy for how they categorize things, it's useful to have a front-end taxonomy so as to not confuse associates. 
  • Decide up front how you will refer to things and use that naming consistently throughout the experience.
    • Examples: 
      • This: Remove this benefit. --> Are you sure you want to remove this benefit? --> This benefit has been removed. 
      • Not this: Remove this program.  --> Are you sure you want to remove this benefit? --> This resource has been removed.
      • This: Total amount saved: $95 --> Congrats, you've increased your total amount saved!
      • Not this: Total amount saved: $95 --> Congrats, you've increased your total money made!

Instructional text

  • Instructional text should appear in-context, near the action users will be asked to take.
  • Avoid robotic, fragmented sentences and instead use complete sentences.
    • Example: 
      • This: You’ve already completed this quiz. Here are your results.
      • Not this: Quiz result available
  • Lead with the goal—not the method—to coach associates along
    • Example: 
      • This: To remove a skill from your profile, drag it to the trash.
      • Not this: Drag a skill to the trash to delete it.
  • Be transparent, but not to the point where it overcomplicates.
    • Example: 

Error states

Poor error state messaging—or no error messaging at all—can be one of the most frustrating parts of a product experience. Since they’re often tied to complicated back-end logistics, it’s important to consider them early and often throughout the product development process.  Don’t forget about these.  

  • Avoid vague error messaging whenever technically possible and instead provide messages that help associates understand how to avoid it in the future.
    • Examples: 
      • This: Oops, looks like your Wi-Fi is spotty. Please reconnect to continue.
      • Not this: Sorry, something went wrong.
      • This: Please use a password that meets our security requirements: <insert security requirements>
      • Not this: That password isn't valid.
  • Don’t forget empty states, 404s, lost wi-fi connection, in-form field errors, and unyielding search results. 

Punctuation & casing

Remember, every choice you make with your UX writing either detracts or enhances an associate’s ability to prioritize information. In this way, capitalization should be reserved for words that are of greater importance than others.

  • Use sentence case for all header, label, and button text. 
  • Use title case for proper branded features names or programs, but not typical product features.
    • Example: “Mentor Match” would be capitalized; “My profile” would not.
  • Avoid ALL CAPS.
  • Use exclamation points sparingly. If there’s a crucial point you don’t want associates to miss, make sure design and text are working together to express the importance.
    • Example: 
      • This: “[alert icon] Are you sure you want to proceed? You’ll lose your data if you close this window.”
      • Not this: “You will lose your data if you close this window!!!” 
  • Omit colons from labels.

Tense

  • For pages that are dynamically personalized, like a dashboard for instance, use a first-person perspective (me/my/I) where it makes sense to imply the personalization.
    • Examples: 
      • In a section where an associate’s professional experience is prepopulated, you might use the label “My experience.”
      • On a page where an associate can get an overview of their personalized Total Rewards package, you might use the page title “My Rewards.”
  • Generally, use first-person when the associate is telling the system what to do, such as in an opt-in toggle.
    • Example:
      • This: “Would you like to receive a printed copy of your benefits?” --> “Yes, mail me a printed copy” or “No, I don’t need a printed copy”
      • Not this: Would you like to receive a printed copy of your benefits?” --> “You will receive a printed copy” or “You will not receive a printed copy”
  • Use second-person (you/your) when guiding associates along.
    • Example: 
      • This: “If you already have an account, please sign in.”
      • Not this: "I have an account already, sign in."
  • Choose carefully when to use “we.” It's generally okay if you're informing associates of a system update, or injecting a little personality into the product. But, it can be distracting when it's used in situations where privacy and data are in question.
    • Example:
      • This: “Your information has been saved.” 
      • Not this: “We’ll save this information so we remember you next time.” 
  • Carry out your tense choices consistently across the experience.

Voice & tone

Remember, our associate brand voice is genuine, inclusive, confident, and upbeat—and although your tone will vary throughout the experience to meet the user where they are, your UX writing should never feel like it’s in opposition to those qualities. Here are some examples of how the brand voice might be represented:

  • Genuine: 
    • This: “Would you like to update your preferences? You can always do so at a later time.” 
    • Not this: “Update preferences now.”
  • Inclusive: 
    • This: “This number represents the amount you may have saved in your 401k, Stock Purchase Plan, or Health Savings Account.” 
    • Not this: “$ saved in 401ks, ASPPs, etc.”
  • Confident: 
    • This: “One minute while your account information loads.” 
    • Not this: “Loading…”
  • Upbeat: 
    • This: “Looks like you haven't created any surveys yet. Get started now and gather all the info you're looking for!" 
    • Not this: “You haven’t created any surveys yet.”

A tone mapping exercise, like the one below, can help you identify the right moments for being playful, cautionary, celebratory, or reassuring. Generally, confirmation screens, empty states, and toast messages present opportunities to be “fun,” whereas tooltips, instructional text, error messages, and buttons should be straightforward.

Chatbots

Guess what—chatbots are a form of UX writing, too! Here are some tips to keep in mind if you’re creating a chatbot personality. (A full chatbot voice & tone guide will soon be available, too.)

  • Keep the dialogue conversational and refrain from full sentences. Try reading it aloud to check for anything that feels too formal.
  • Punctuation and grammar don’t have to be totally proper, so long as it’s not distracting. For instance, you might use commas in place of periods or question marks to maintain a more informal feel.
    • Example: “What do you think, shall we continue building your profile?”
  • Use contractions to convey a casual and friendly vibe. 
  • Take the opportunity to dynamically integrate the user’s name occasionally (although keep in mind that overdoing it will come across insincere).
  • Don’t forget to use a tone map like the one above to make sure your chatbot is empathetic.