UX Writing: Creating Microcopy That Speaks to Users

August 26, 2019

“The words we write may be tiny at times, but have a big impact and convey a lot.”—Roxanna Aliaga, UX Writing Manager at Dropbox

Words are important, but as obvious as this statement might seem, this fact hasn’t always been evident in the design of product user interfaces. Twenty years ago, the pop-up error messages of the Windows operating system were full of jargon, and the user interface was so unattractive that people would sometimes just click an Accept or Exit button without even reading the message text.

Today’s writers, marketers, and designers know that a single word in combination with the right visual design can make the difference between a user who engages with your brand and a user who never comes back. UX writing is about emotion, accuracy, and strategy. Let’s explore this fascinating, new field.

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Getting Rid of the Confusion

UX writing is still an emerging field. Thus, there is some confusion about what the term UX writing actually means. Not long ago, UX designers were in charge of writing the words for product user interfaces. Today, UX writing has evolved to become a discipline in itself. Terms such as content strategy, microcopy, and copywriting are now part of the business landscape. But what is the difference between these terms?

Think about the messages that appear in an application or on a Web site—for example, when a user has completed a purchase, the page a user is looking for no longer exists, or a user enters the wrong password. UX writers are the authors of all these messages. They are responsible for speaking to users and choosing words that enable their journey through a user interface to be as smooth as possible.

You’ll find UX writing in calls to action (CTAs), menus, and payment instructions, on navigation tabs, and in a whole host of other areas of a user interface. UX writers refer to such words as microcopy, which must be aligned with a company’s values and strategy.

One of the most important points to understand about UX writing is its role in the design of the customer journey. There is a tendency to believe that microcopy and UX writing are just the cherries that decorate the top of the cake. However, in fact, these ingredients are an integral part of the process of baking the cake. Microcopy is the result of an exhaustive process—creating a hypothesis, conducting research, gathering data, and building prototypes. UX writers work hand in hand with UX designers to understand the needs and painpoints of the target audience. To create meaningful, coherent microcopy, they need to think like designers and understand the dynamics and structure of user interfaces.

What about copywriters? Can UX writers be copywriters? Yes, they can. But UX writing and copywriting have different goals and require different skills. UX writing is product oriented and helps ensure users have an enjoyable experience when they interact with a user interface. Copywriting belongs to advertising and marketing, is sales oriented, and its objective is to attract potential customers or clients.

So how do UX writing and copywriting relate to content strategy? As Figure 1 shows, both are part of a company’s content strategy. Content strategists manage the development of content that accords with a company’s identity and value proposition. While there are content strategists for both copywriting and UX writing—bear in mind that the former are sales oriented and the latter are product oriented.

Figure 1—UX writing & microcopy within a company’s strategy
Where UX writing and microcopy sit inside a company's structure

How UX Writing and Microcopy Fit into a Company’s Broader Strategy

UX writing is also about business. As I stated earlier, UX writers must align with a company’s values and identity and play an important role in the UX-design process. UX writing is not an isolated task. The UX writer is involved in mapping and building the customer journey—work that has a tremendous impact on attracting new customers.

Therefore, UX writers should be aware of customers’ expectations, needs, and backgrounds, as well as their current stage in their user journey. Based on this information, UX writers plan a strategy to provide a coherent, consistent narrative throughout the product journey.

UX writers also develop a tone that aligns with the story the product intends to tell. What is the feeling that this language evokes? Is it engendering curiosity, relief, or trust? How does it help customers in their journey? Is the language intuitive? These are the questions that UX writers must answer to ensure they create compelling, clear microcopy that benefits the business.

As a result, UX writing plays a key role in generating the results of a company’s overall strategy. The right words in a headline or call to action can make the difference between a customer who engages with your product and one who leaves after three seconds of interacting with your user interface. When UX writers are able to reflect a company’s mission and identity, this can translate into a big difference in revenue.

UX writers also bridge multiple areas of an enterprise. While the creation of microcopy occurs in a company’s UX design department, UX writers can also assist in other areas such as communications, marketing, and public relations, enabling a company to communicate effectively with their target audience. Also, since UX writing is a relatively new field, UX writers typically have diverse backgrounds that provide a variety of perspectives and can enrich the process of product ideation and development.

What Is a UX Writer’s Skillset?

What are the skills UX writers need to understand a target audience, align with a company’s strategy, and write compelling text? Let’s explore their skillset.

First, they must be observers. Paying attention to their surroundings is a quality most people take for granted. But could you tell me how many columns there are in your workplace? Or would you be able to draw the ceiling lamps in your office? Even though we look at things, we don’t always observe them. We hear, but we don’t always listen.

Being as curious and amazed about the world around us as a child is the quality that makes the difference in writing microcopy. The mind of a UX writer should be prepared to catch inspiration even in the least expected moments. Charles Baudelaire, a French poet, wrote about the flâneur, a person who wanders the city, learning about behavior and social dynamics. Baudelaire said, “His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.” The flâneur is a great observer and communicator, just as UX writers are. UX writers learn about and understand the user’s behavior and can share this knowledge with their colleagues and synthesize it into words.

UX writers are also great listeners. Listening to people’s conversations at work or in public spaces gives important clues about how they relate to products. Even listening to their own conversations with relatives and friends can be a valuable asset in UX writing. Listening enables writers to see what is out there that a company might be missing internally.

What Is Good UX Writing?

UX writers must have the skills that are necessary to choose words that speak to an audience in a compelling way. But how does the UX writer do this? If you want to improve your UX writing, you should do the following:

  • Write simple, accurate words. Don’t try to sound smart. You don’t need fancy words. In fact, the accessibility and clarity of your words is the best indicator of your expertise in UX writing. Write copy that a six-year-old child can understand.
  • Avoid user frustration. Be kind to users who might encounter situations that could be frustrating to them. Examples of this are the 404 pages that appear instead of the page a user wanted and the messages users get when they type their email address incorrectly or choose a user name that already exists. Don’t make the user feel frustrated about having made a mistake. Instead, focus on providing a solution or turn the situation into a fun moment that encourages the user to keep navigating through your Web site.
  • Be creative, but remember the importance of patterns. One challenge of writing UX microcopy is choosing appealing words that align with a company’s brand identity while maintaining the use of language that users can easily recognize and understand. According to Jakob Nielsen: “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” Therefore, good user interfaces employ standard visual structures to enhance the experience of users. The same applies to UX writing. There are certain words that users recognize when filling in a form on a Web site or signing into an application. If you harness the potential of familiar words and patterns in creating microcopy that is, nevertheless, creative and unique, your users will want to come back to your app or site.
  • Make your microcopy invisible. Microcopy helps guide users through a user interface. But it should be so clear and enjoyable to read that users don’t notice you’re guiding them. In filmmaking, an invisible montage shows such a fluid sequence of events that viewers are not even aware that they are actually watching fragments of recorded images and sounds. Ideally, they perceive a fluid, coherent story that makes them forget they are in a movie theater. The same can happen with good microcopy that supports a fluid journey. Customers need not spend much time reading text or understanding button labels. They just follow the visual path that UX designers and writers have created for them.
  • Make your writing personal. Good microcopy is about establishing a conversation with users and enhancing personal interactions. Because you are talking directly to users, use you in your sentences to get their attention and show them there is a human behind the screen—one who cares about them. Sometimes you’ll also need to use I in your user interfaces—for example, in microcopy such as “I want to know more” or “I accept the privacy policy.”

Harnessing the Power of Words

Gone are the days when product teams added microcopy at the end of the design phase or thought of UX writing as a task that any member of the team could easily complete. Choosing the right button label—just one, two, or perhaps three words—can be harder than writing big blocks of text. But that single button could make the difference between users engaging with your product or leaving your Web site. Most companies are realizing the complexity and importance of choosing the right words to communicate with their customers and ensure a compelling user experience. Harness the power of words! 

Copywriter at Belatrix Software

Bogotá, Colombia

Alejandra RodriguezAlejandra is part of the Marketing team at Belatrix Software and works hand-in-hand with the Experience Design Center of Excellence. She is responsible for conducting UX research, creating workflows, mapping customer journeys, and documenting processes. She creates compelling content for digital user interfaces, choosing the right words to address users and, thus, providing meaningful experiences. She has conducted extensive research in UX design and service design, exploring concepts such as the role of psychology in visual design and the key elements of an omnichannel experience. Alejandra studied at the Javeriana University, in Bogota, and is the author of a book about the relationship between our bodies and the places we inhabit and many short stories.  Read More

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