Five things about UX writing that make it hard to get right.
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
“It’s just a few words – how hard can it be?”
The answer: very.
Microcopy might be just that – micro – but those tiny words have a huge impact on user experience. That means that when it’s bad, it’s really bad. And when it’s good? Well, it has the potential to transform a user journey. But with small words comes great responsibility, and getting it right isn’t a guarantee.
Here are five things about UX writing that make it so hard to get right (and why you should probably bring in the professionals).
1. There’s nowhere to hide
This one might be kind of obvious, but when a piece of copy is only a few words long, errors are easier to spot. Jenni McKinnon is spot on when she says that a good UX writer is an unabashed pedant. In the world of UX, spelling and grammar slip-ups are blisteringly obvious. Even worse, they’re likely to have a far greater impact than just the effectiveness or clarity of a particular prompt or button etc. Let the fundamentals slip here and you risk damaging trust in a brand as a whole.
2. You need to balance form with function
“Edgier”, “funnier”, and “I want a profound, near religious experience”. This is a small sample of feedback that I’ve received from clients (okay, so that last one isn’t a direct quote, but it isn’t far off). Sometimes this is a justified part of the iterative process. But often this kind of feedback betrays a lack of understanding. It’s important for a brand to be able to incorporate its voice, but clarity in UX copy should always be the number one priority.
There’s definitely a time for whimsy, but brevity is crucial too. To prioritise the former at the expense of the latter is to risk turning any interaction with the platform into a conversation with the Mad Hatter. Whimsical yes, but also pretty frustrating.
A lot of it comes down to choosing the right design tools for job. At the points where clarity is absolutely essential, visual design elements can be used to get the job done. Guy Ligertwood says that tone exists on a spectrum with the choice of words depending on where in the user is in their journey, how they might be feeling, and what you want them to feel at that moment.
Avoiding confusion isn't always easy
The English language is great. There are so many different ways to express the same idea. And as a writer, there’s a temptation to use it all while trying to keep our prose engaging. But this isn't necessarily an advantage in UX writing. Users can get confused if different terms are used to reference the same thing, especially when it comes to instructions or buttons etc. These are things that users really need to grasp in order to understand how to interact with your platform. Inconsistency only serves to overcomplicate. There is room to play with different types of words, but again, there are times when this is more appropriate than others. Generally, if you’re expecting a user to interact with an element of copy, like a button, the outcome should be represented with the same terminology throughout your platform. Anjana Menon uses a great example: if you’re trying to make it easy for someone to reserve a table at your restaurant, switching between the term “reserve” and “book” will not help.
5. A joined up experience is essential
It’s not just the choice of words that you’ve got to keep track of. A good UX writer, just like a good UX designer, must constantly be considering what led a user to a particular moment. You have to remember that the more a user interacts with an app or website, the better equipped they will be to navigate their way through it. By asking yourself how much exposure the user had to have had with the idiosyncrasies of the UI to reach a particular point, for example, you’ll be able to avoid deploying redundant and distracting copy that adds little to the experience.
So UX writing isn’t so short and sweet after all, eh? To nail the complexities of those tiny words, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.