In Part 1 of this series, I defined UX strategy, described some typical skills of UX professionals who fill UX strategy functions, and posited some reasons why it is becoming increasingly important for large companies to bolster their UX strategy skills as they evolve their solutions, orienting them more toward SaaS (Software as a Service) and the cloud. In Part 2, I took a similar approach with service design, another skillset to which companies should pay closer attention, which also necessitates improving the employee experience.
Now, in Part 3, the final part of this series, I’ll turn my attention to UX writing, which is another UX skillset that is becoming increasingly important in the ever-evolving, cloud-based world of SaaS companies. Unifying all the various elements of the modern customer experience requires creating consistent, clear user-interface content and messaging, so these companies need to develop their teams’ UX writing skills. Plus, UX writing should be in close alignment with the UX design process.
“UX writing is the art of crafting the texts that appear throughout the interface of digital products…. Just as in the world of traditional publishing, this text is referred to as copy. But UX writing differs from copywriting in that it aims to guide the user through the interface in an intuitive manner.”
Many associate UX writing with the microcopy within a user interface (UI), focusing on the labeling of buttons, hyperlinks, and menu items, as well as the title text and descriptions for error messages. All these instances of microcopy can help guide the user through the user interface. However, as Keshtcher also points out, UX writing does not begin and end with microcopy. It also plays a role in helping to unify a brand or product’s voice, which, in turn, makes the user’s overall experience feel more cohesive.
If you consider the many user experiences that pervade your daily life, you’ll notice that your exposure to companies’ content through the various omnichannel marketing messages that drove your awareness of their products and services persists. Marketing content is one thing, but there is plenty of other content with which users interact through a company’s Web sites, apps, and digital communications—whether they receive them via email messages, chats, or notifications to their Apple Watch—including those they receive after becoming a customer.
The line between a user interface and digital communications—whether their purpose is marketing or customer support—is now blurrier than ever. An email message might have buttons, labels, or other instances of microcopy that feel reminiscent of a Web site’s user interface. In a chat-support feature, call-to-action buttons (CTAs) could appear in line with the copy. These might triage the existing chat experience by routing the user to an appropriate customer-support representative or link to a different experience altogether. Everything is rapidly becoming connected, so any user-interface content must work synergistically with the marketing and lead-generation content that initially drove the engagement of a prospective customer, support and Help content that is part of a customer’s troubleshooting experience, and any other content whose purpose is retaining a customer and nurturing a prolonged customer engagement. For a customer’s end-to-end experience to be efficient, effective, and satisfying, we must give as much attention to user-interface copy as we do to marketing or support copy.
UX Writing Versus Similar Content Functions
So where does UX writing fit into a company’s content-creation process? UX writing should be part of the design process, which is what makes it slightly different from the other functions you might think of when considering the authoring of user-interface copy. As the Coursera article “What Is a UX Writer? Writing for the User” states:
“There are several jobs that might overlap with UX writers, [such as] content strategists, copywriters, and information developers. Generally, these other writing jobs are not part of the design process and take place either before or after the design team plans the product.”
Let’s consider the following potentially overlapping functions and examine how they differ from UX writing:
Content strategy is the planning and creation of content on the basis of the overall business strategy and need. For example, think about the scheduling of content and messaging depending on a company’s strategic-marketing campaign and how it could bring value to their customers. Via what channels and when would that content reach its intended audience? How would a company govern the content from specific channels? To yield the biggest return on investment, it is necessary for companies to plan and align all their content. For instance, if users visited the Web site of a major US insurance carrier such as Allstate, Progressive, or Geico, they would likely see strong messaging about saving money or protecting what they value most. The themes of such messages would pervade much of the user experience for their Web site or mobile app.
Companies’ content strategies typically demonstrate what benefits would accrue to their prospective customers by showing how they would either save them money or protect their valuables—also appealing to their emotions. However, what if an auto-insurance company had just acquired a new partner who is a provider of life or home insurance? If an insurance company that customers have historically viewed as solely an auto-insurance provider wanted to grow their business organically, it would make sense for them to show customers savings messaging about bundling plans to get bigger discounts. The company would need to plan and align all their content to the growth strategy they’re trying to achieve. In such a case, they would both want to foster greater attachment with existing customers and attract new customers through more comprehensive offerings.
Content strategy is another important skill in which companies should invest to ensure that their content is consistent, is available at the right points in a customer or user journey, and aligns with their business goals. However, such content is typically more marketing oriented so it doesn’t always push its way into the deeper parts of a customer or user’s interactions with a Web site or application. UX writing could unify the marketing messaging with the microcopy in a user interface to ensure the overall user experience is harmonious, on message, and tonally consistent.
Information development focuses on translating complex information into language that is accessible and inclusive. The technical-writing function typically involves writing copy for instruction manuals—which have become rare in software contexts—and online Help pages. Although UX writers and information developers share similar goals, UX writers focus more on the copy within the user interface—the context in which users are attempting to complete their tasks and navigate an application or Web site. Progressive onboarding text and coach marks, which explain specific UI elements, are increasingly becoming the means by which users learn or obtain help using a Web site or application. These important communications fall within the UX-writing wheelhouse.
Copywriting might require a copywriter to create copy for ads, write social-media posts, or come up with marketing slogans. They often work within the marketing or branding team in large companies. Similar to UX writers, copywriters keep the company’s brand voice in mind. However, copywriters usually focus more on acquiring customers and spreading awareness of an organization and its products and services. Similar to content strategists, much of the copywriter’s work revolves around maintaining alignment with the company’s overarching messaging and any current marketing campaigns, helping to guide those messages into the proper channels, while maintaining the appropriate tone.
Some Examples of UX Writing
Of course, one example of UX writing is creating the microcopy in a user interface. For example, users see microcopy when they trigger the display of a ToolTip by hovering over an error message or an icon in a user interface. They see microcopy in modal dialog boxes and banner notification messages. Microcopy is everywhere.
Well-executed microcopy can help users avoid the need to access a Help system to look for instructions on how to perform certain tasks. Consider the Poshmark microcopy that is shown in Figure 1. The company has woven how-to information into the content on their home page, eliminating the need for the user to seek out the basics on how the platform works. In their “How It Works” content, the use of active voice and a verb-based parallel structure for the subheadings unifies the content. Short blurbs of text support the LIST IT, SHARE IT, and EARN CASH labels, which are also in active voice and focus on what’s in it for a Poshmark seller—convenience of use, sales generation, and ultimately, earning money. Could a copywriter have created this content? Sure, but copywriters can’t be everywhere and write everything.
The labels for the tab UI elements, I Am a Seller and I Am a Buyer, also fall into the realm of microcopy, which should align with the content the user sees after selecting either of these tabs. User-interface copy, brand voice, and company messaging are converging in such a way that it is becoming more difficult to distinguish to whom content-authoring responsibilities should fall.
Beyond the authoring of solid microcopy, UX writing can also appeal positively to users’ emotions, potentially adding a human touch to a benign or even a frustrating experience. The subtle use of humor could keep users motivated and encourage them to achieve success with a user experience. For example, consider Figure 2, which shows a 404-error page on the Star Wars Web site. Of course, the Star Wars brand is well known, so using a character’s line from one of their popular movies, “This page is not fully armed and operational,” reinforces the Star Wars brand and layers some humor onto an otherwise frustrating experience. Plus, in problematic situations, the best examples of UX writing should also encourage users to “Try something else,” as the copy on this page advises. Plus, this page takes things further by providing a clear call to action to search the site.
Why UX Writing Is Becoming Increasingly Important
I’ve already touched on a few reasons why UX writing is becoming more and more important by contrasting this function with other similar, overlapping functions. To reiterate, UX writing fills the gaps that information development, copywriting, and content strategy leave behind because it gets into the nitty-gritty of the contexts in which users perform their tasks and, ultimately, helps them achieve their goals in using a user interface or completing a workflow. The other functions that I have described are further removed from the UX and UI design process, so they often do not have visibility into the nooks and crannies of the user experience.
The rapid pace at which companies are moving toward cloud-based technologies and leveraging partnerships with other vendors increasingly necessitates a skin-in-the-game approach to content generation and alignment. This should take place nearer to the UX design process, which favors agility and close alignment with the product-development and release cycles—which, with the advent of the cloud and SaaS, are becoming more rapid and iterative. Although taking a waterfall approach and defining copy and messaging during up-front requirements definition, prior to engaging the UX team, could help in some cases, it can be difficult to anticipate all the various microcopy needs of a user interface or workflow before the design process begins in earnest. Tack on the more rapid, iterative development of a feature-release process, and it becomes even clearer that the writing skillset should work in concert with design to help companies create coherent, harmonious experiences.
We’ve all seen copy that feels as if a robot wrote it—or whatever developer or designer happened to be working on a feature—despite the best intentions of the author. A team might not have had the opportunity to engage a UX writer or even a professional who has copywriting skills. Such experiences are everywhere, and you likely encounter them daily if you use any type of enterprise software. We can do better. We should do better. High-quality UX writing enables the creation of superior user experiences, which, in turn, lead to quality user outcomes.
In many companies, UX writing is a missing skillset and would be a worthy investment going forward. Modern digital experiences are becoming more ubiquitous and highly dependent on having clear, impactful content. Moreover, the types of debt that product teams accrue don’t necessarily have to be of the development or design variety. Having a customer experience with conflicting or incongruent content, whether in ToolTips, error messages, toast messages that appear briefly, or on a 404 page—can be just as damaging. A UX writer can help drive down that debt by partnering with design and development teams—closer to where the work actually happens—and remedy issues before a product’s release. This drives efficiency into the product-release cycle and enables teams to more quickly meet the needs of customers and users in an increasingly cloud-based world.
Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Jon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell. Read More