UX stands for user experience. So when we think about UX writing, we’re thinking about the words that guide people through a digital journey. Think notifications, error messages, buttons and live chat copy. When UX writing is good, you don’t notice it. When it’s bad, you’ll be left feeling frustrated and at a loss for what to do next.
The difference between UX writing and other crafts
Traditional copywriting is all about advertising and selling a product. There’s an element of creative storytelling behind the words in order to appeal to a particular consumer mindset or need. In the advertising world, copywriters create words for:
social media advertising.
Web content writing is about creating long and short form copy for websites. It also has the intention to advertise and sell, however it is generally less creative than traditional copywriting and more focused on providing specific product details and incorporating keywords and phrases for SEO.
UX writing is less about marketing and more about providing practical instruction and guidance to a help a user navigate through a digital journey; such as through a website or app. Many UX writers start out as advertising copywriters or content writers.
More and more these days people are referring to these different forms of writing interchangeably – however it is important that we recognise the different intentions behind these crafts and the skillsets that underpin them.
My advice? Try and develop your skills across all three. Practice being imaginative. Practice being technical. Practice being informative. The more skills you have, the better the writer you will become, and the more appealing you’ll be to prospective clients or recruiters. After all, the common thread between all three of these crafts is that we’re writing for humans. We want it to be clear, inspirational and bring value to a reader no matter what touchpoint they are at in their journey.
The basics of UX writing
When it comes to UX writing, less is more. You have to be brief and informative all at once, so it takes a bit of mental gymnastics to ensure instructions are simple and clear but still meaningful.
Sometimes, it's easy to start with a long sentence and slowly chip it further and further back until it is super concise. Be patient with yourself and the more you keep at it, the faster you'll get. Here are some tips to help you on your way:
Keep it short
Use as few words as you can to deliver a clear and compelling message. By avoiding long passages of text, you’re helping your reader quickly scan and understand information without needing to think too hard or too long about the action. This helps create a seamless transition from one page or experience to the next.
Do say: Enter your password to login
Don’t say: In order to login you need to enter your password
Start with the action
When providing instruction, it’s best to start with the objective and finish with the reason. This is because users will generally skim read and the interest will taper off once they know what they need to do.
Do say: Click the button below to confirm order
Don’t say: To confirm your order click on the button below
Focus on the positive
Tell users what they can or should do rather than what they can’t. Good vibes only, fam.
Do say: Upload a JPG or PNG file
Don’t say: PDF files are not compatible
Don’t beat around the bush. The more informative you are, the easier an experience will be. Be purposeful and precise with what you’re asking someone to do.
Do say: Enter your email address in the following format: firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t say: Incorrect email address
When numbers are involved, numerals are clearer and quicker to read than words.
Do say: You have 3 notifications
Don’t say: You have three notifications
Avoid technical jargon
Ain’t nobody got time to Google what ‘system error 500 occurred’ means. Tell people the actual problem and what they can do about it.
Do say: Network error: Check your internet connection and try again.
Don’t say: Network error: there is no connection.
Use the passive voice for error messaging
The active voice is speedy, concise and to the point and should be used as often as possible. The exception is generally error messaging. This is because the phrasing is less direct so it comes across as less accusatory. Remember, UX writing is about helping people, so we don’t want to put the heat on a user if they’ve made a mistake like a typo or incorrect selection.
Do say: The password entered is incorrect.
Don’t say: You entered the wrong password.
Consistency is key
Language and lexicon guides should help with this, but in the absence of one, always remember to use familiar language consistently and ubiquitously across your platform to avoid confusion. If you say ‘login to your account” don’t say “sign in to your account” somewhere else.