UX writing is the practice of crafting user interface copy that guides users within a product and helps them complete their tasks much more easily. UI copy includes microcopy (buttons, menu labels, error messages, security notes) as well as macrocopy (content on product pages, instructions, terms and conditions, etc).
The primary aim of UX writing is to enable communication between users and a digital product. Here, you will learn the importance of working on UX copy early on in the design process as well as some key practical recommendations on effective UX writing.
16 Rules of Effective UX Writing
- Be concise.
- Avoid long blocks of text.
- Avoid double negatives.
- Begin with the objective.
- Use specific verbs whenever possible.
- Make the copy consistent.
- Avoid jargon.
- Write in the present tense.
- Write in the active voice.
- Use numerals.
- Avoid showing all details upfront.
- Identify interactive elements appropriately.
- Be careful when using humor.
- Use language that’s consistent with the user’s platform.
- Use “today,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow” instead of a date.
- Use graphics if they will help you to communicate.
Crafting Text Is an Integral Part of the Design Process
All too often, product creators think of UI text as something that belongs to the final phase of product design. They assume, ”First we’ll finish screen layouts, and then we’ll hire someone to write a decent UI copy.” Such assumptions cause a lot of harm because critical UI issues can go unnoticed until the later stages of the product development process. Working based on this assumption usually leads to a situation wherein content containers used in UI aren’t designed to fit the actual text or some important states such as error states aren't designed at all. That’s why you need to work on the text earlier in the process.
UX writers should work together with UI designers and software developers to craft the text right from the beginning of the design process. As a part of this activity, they should participate in product design discussion and ask questions if some design decision seems to be invalid. If a team has trouble explaining a design, it is often the design and not the text copy that needs improving.
Tips on Writing UI Text
Writing the copy that becomes part of the UI design is both an art and science. Although providing universal rules for writing UI text is impossible, following some general rules can help you create a better overall UX. The recommendations here are based on tried and tested writing guidelines created by Apple, Microsoft and Google.
1. Be Concise
“Less but better” is a universally applied recommendation that works for any part of your UI, including copy. Concise doesn’t mean limited, however. Rather, it means efficient. Use as few words as possible without losing the meaning. When writing concisely, we make sure every word on the screen has a job. This rule is especially true for contextual instructions.
Don’t do this: You must log in before you can write a comment.
Do this instead: Log in to comment.
2. Avoid Long Blocks of Text
When interacting with a product, users aren’t immersed in the user interface itself but in their work. Consequently, they don’t read text on the screen — they scan it. Help them scan the text by writing in short, scannable blocks. Chunk text into shorter sentences and paragraphs.
3. Avoid Double Negatives
Double negatives make it harder for users to comprehend the meaning of the text. As a result, users have to spend extra time decoding the message.
Don’t do this: I do not want to unsubscribe.
4. Begin With the Objective
When a sentence describes both an objective and the action needed to achieve it, start the sentence with the objective.
Don’t do this: Tap on item to see its properties.
Do this instead: To see item’s properties, tap on it.
5. Use Specific Verbs Whenever Possible
Specific verbs (such as “connect” or “save”) are more meaningful to users than vague ones (such as “configure” or “manage”).
6. Make the Copy Consistent
Inconsistency creates confusion. One typical example of inconsistency is replacing a word with a synonym in a different part of the UI. For instance, if you decide to call the process of arranging something “scheduling” in one part of the product, don’t call it “booking” in other parts.
Another common pitfall is combining forms of address. Don’t refer to the user in both the second person and the first person within the same phrase.
Don’t do this: Change your preferences in My Account.
Do this instead: Change your preferences in Your Account.
7. Avoid Jargon
One of the significant characteristics of effective UX writing is clarity and simplicity. For clarity, you need to remove the technical terms and use simple language that everyone can understand. Avoiding jargon in error messages is especially important because unclear error messages lead to user frustration.
Don’t do this: System error (code #2234): An authentication error has occurred.
Do this instead: Sign-in error: You entered an incorrect password.
8. Write in Present Tense
Avoid using the future tense to describe action.
Don’t do this: Video will download.
Do this instead: Download.
9. Write in the Active Voice
The passive voice makes readers yawn. Compare this sentence in both voices:
Don’t do this: The Search button should be clicked when you are ready to search for an item.
Do this instead: Click the Search button to find an article.
10. Use Numerals
Numerals can save you a few characters of text. Use them in place of words for numbers.
Don’t do this: You have two missed calls.
Do this instead: You have 2 missed calls.
11. Avoid Showing All Details Upfront
Sometimes providing additional information or supplemental instruction for users is helpful. Too often, though, such details are all presented up front. Too much information can quickly overwhelm users. Hopefully, there is a simple solution to this problem— reveal detail only as needed. Use a mechanism of progressive disclosure (revealing more information on demand) to show more details. In its most basic form, this mechanism can be implemented as a “Read More” link to the full content.
Progressive disclosure is especially good for mobile UI where designers have a limited screen space to work with.
12. Identify Interactive Elements Appropriately
Users don't like surprises. They hate situations when they expect one thing and end up with another. This principle is especially true for users who want to take some action or navigate to another page. So, you should design UI elements in a way that tells people at a glance what they do.
For instance, when designing a button, we can rely on a few properties — size, shape, distance from other elements and label. Choose labels that communicate and differentiate what the object does. When labeling buttons, use action verbs like “Connect,” “Send,” or “Subscribe” instead of vague ones like “Okay” or “Submit." Active verbs tell users precisely what element does.
13. Be Careful When Using Humor
A lot of designers say that incorporating humor in a product makes it sound more human. Just as with any other component of UI, however, humor should be thoughtfully designed. People are likely to read the text in your interface many times, and what might seem clever at first can become irritating over time (especially if you use humor in error messages). Also, remember that humor in one culture doesn’t necessarily translate well to others.
14. Use Language That’s Consistent With the User’s Platform
The terms we use when describing interaction with a desktop app do not necessarily apply to mobile platforms. For example, if you design an iPhone app, don't say “click” when referring to the action. Say “tap” instead.
15. Use “Today,” “Yesterday” or “Tomorrow” Instead of a Date
People don’t use the date when they refer to the day before the present day. They say “yesterday.” The same principle can be applied to UIs. Instead of giving a date, say “today,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” This principle prevents users from having to consult a calendar each time they want to know when the event happened. But do remember that these terms can be confusing or inaccurate if you don’t account for the current locale.
16. Use Graphics if They Will Help You Communicate
Human beings are incredibly visual creatures. The ability to interpret visual information is hard-wired into our brains. In some contexts, saying something in plain words might be nearly impossible. At those times, images can support and make text comprehensible.
Step Up Your UX Writing
Writing effective UX text takes a lot of time. But believe me, it is worth it. Design is communication, and every word in your app is part of a conversation with your users. Your goal as a designer is to make this conversation effective.