UX writing is a specialized type of writing that forms a key part of creating great user experiences. Learn more about UX writing and what a UX writer does in this guide.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
UX writing is the process of creating user-friendly microcopy that helps guide users through a digital product, such as a website or mobile app. The UX writer's role is to help users accomplish their goals while using the product. Clear language that tells the user what to do next and provides them with a menu of relevant options and (ranked from most relevant to least) is essential to ensuring users can complete tasks with minimal friction. Friction and frustration make people leave the app or site, abandon their cart or buy from a competitor.
Microcopy for the user interface includes landing page text, buttons, error messages, menu labels, security notes, terms, and conditions, as well as instructions on product usage. Unlike marketing copy, which is designed to convert leads into customers, UI copy is simply meant to facilitate the user flow (the path taken by a user towards a particular outcome) in a logical, intuitive manner.
In the early days of software development, graphic designers or software engineers would write the copy. However, given their heavy involvement in the product’s development, the copy was often rife with industry jargon or internal naming conventions that confused users. Sometimes, user prompts like calls-to-action, menu items and buttons were unclear or missing a logical progression because they were written by someone who knew the product inside and out.
While UX writers need a similarly thorough understanding of the product, their main job is to have empathy for the user. User empathy means understanding the user’s pain points, needs and wants. Different user personas have different motivations for using a product. UX writers must be able to write copy for users with different levels of prior knowledge, technical proficiency, education levels, language proficiency and a host of other factors that affect how and why a user interacts with a product or service.
UX writers look critically at screen designs and flows and think about how to make them easier to understand. Today, it’s no longer just the FAANGs that hire UX writers. Tech giants and even smaller companies are realizing the importance of designing a better user experience through optimized UI copy.
UX writers create copy for:
This is not an exhaustive list of items a UX writer might work on. UX writers do everything from designing buttons on a website to writing conversations for voice assistants.
Trends in UX design show that UX writing has gone from a luxury to a core design role. In a 2017 article, Fast Company hailed UX writing as “design’s unicorn skill,” meaning that writing has been underestimated as a key design skill. Users depend on copy to interact with products, for everything from onboarding to technical troubleshooting. If designers can’t write well, the final product suffers.
“A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios,” designer Susan Stuart wrote in a blog post. “These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.”
Writing personas and use case scenarios are key research tasks in the preliminary stages of UX writing—imagining characters, actions, scenarios, and general “what ifs” to anticipate edge cases.
Trends in UX design emphasize clean lines and fewer words, giving language more weight. Consequently, a UX writer is like a poet: every word must achieve something. Superfluity is the enemy. With chatbots and other conversational interfaces growing in popularity (and being expected to handle increasingly complex tasks), copy becomes an increasingly important conduit for user experience design. In fact, the trends towards AI-driven UX design (design that is personalized for the user) increases demand for a good UX copy as it involves building an interface that anticipates a customer’s needs, preempts their frustrations with proactive help and assists them in making the right selection. In addition to generating new copy, UX writers may also need to do analysis and health checks on the existing copy.
Unlike copywriters, whose job is to write copy after a product has been developed, a UX writer is a full-fledged member of the product team. Professional UX writers should be involved in the software development process and work closely with engineers and UX designers to craft UI text and shape product experiences. This is because writing problems often reveal design problems, such as missing logic or a confusing interface. Consequently, UX writers are often involved in the UX research process.
UX writers also need to be aware of the limitations of the interfaces they’re designing for, such as screen size and user intent. For example, writing an onboarding conversation for a smartwatch app versus a voice assistant or chatbot are very different tasks.
All product-related documentation created by the product managers should be shared with the writers and designers. Companies with advanced UX maturity will even distinguish between time allotted for ‘visuals’ and ‘copy’ in the design process. Most importantly, the writer should complete their work in the design tool directly rather than a Word processor so they can work within actual interface constraints.
1. Understand the user and the context. UX writers need to ask and answer numerous questions about the user and their motivations. Questions include: who are the users? What problems are they facing? Why did the problem occur? What should they do to overcome the problem? How can the product solve user's problem? At the same time, you must consider the business context. What are the business implications of the project? What is the business goal for the product? What are the design implications?
2. Define the problem. Every product is built around a problem statement. A problem statement helps you define the outcomes or objectives of the UX copy, such as getting users to complete an onboarding survey or use the app at regular intervals. Problem statements are usually jointly defined by product managers, UX designers, and engineers, so you won’t be responsible for coming up with this on your own.
3. Research. A lot of preliminary research needs to be done before you write any UX copy. Read through user stories, study user personas, and get a feel for the use cases and edge case for the product. Meet with UX researchers to get more insight about the user and the issue. It also helps to do a competitor analysis to see how other companies tackle the problem.
4. Ideate. Iterate copy options on wireframes. Fitting copy where it belongs adds context and allows you to size it up from a user perspective.
5. Refine. Check copy for comprehension, conciseness, clarity, and accuracy. Eliminate typos and grammatical errors (eg: passive voice, subject-verb confusion). Also check copy for technical/functional accuracy and cut out any industry jargon. Final reviews may be done by key stakeholders like engineers, marketers, sales reps and product design teams.
6. Prototype and review. Designs are reviewed again during QA testing. Typically, a pre-dev link is shared with the entire team. QA testing is the last chance to make fixes before the design goes live with real customers. Any errors that are found are typically rectified by developers at this stage.
When Amazon Prime Music was launched in 2014, its goal was to be the best-value music service for Amazon customers. Rather than offering an exhaustive catalog of songs, the focus of the service was to help customers discover music they’ll love. Prime playlists were designed to take the work out of finding and managing music so that customers can spend more time listening. Simon Pan, then a designer at Amazon, determined that thoughtful music curation meant not only offering personalized playlists, but crafting a story behind each playlist.
Stories help group songs according to a common theme or mood, enabling users to select a playlist that fits their current activity or emotion. According to user research, genre and mood were two of the most important factors impacting people’s music choices. Pan designed the Prime Playlist as a single filter list to reduce upfront decision-making, with categorizations beyond conventional genre labels, such as “Classic Rock for Runners” or “Driving Beats: Electronic Road Trip.”
Everything from the smallest button labels to the welcome message has an impact on the user experience. Here are some general best practices for how to be a good UX writer.
1. Be clear and concise. Good UX writing is unambiguous; the reader should know exactly what to do next. Keep sentences short and leave out technical jargon. Tighten up your sentences by finding ways to rephrase them without losing meaning. If a word has a simpler synonym, use it. Omit excess syllables—”use” is better than “utilize.” Think more about what the user needs to know than what the company wants to say. Exceptions: If your product belongs to a specialized niche with a narrow target audience (eg: accounting software for lawyers) then it’s alright if the copy is not accessible to everyone.
2. Make your writing useful. The point of UX writing is to help the user move forward in the user flow. Anticipate the user’s needs and concerns, as these can be barriers to completing a task. Concerns include things like: will you spam me with marketing emails? Why do you need my credit card details if the trial is free? Dispel their qualms by explaining things. Tell the user how many steps are in the flow when they’re onboarding so they know how much time it will take. Error messages should clearly explain what went wrong. Nothing is more frustrating to a user than receiving a generic error message that doesn’t tell them why a particular task can’t be completed.
3. Follow the principles of progressive disclosure. The steps involved in onboarding or accomplishing a task should progress naturally, from simple to complex. This mimics the way the brain processes information: we build upon prior experiences as we learn, gradually adding to what we already know. More specifically, this means only displaying the necessary or requested information at any given time. The principles of progressive disclosure are essential to helping new users manage complexity without feeling overwhelmed. Try to hide or truncate extraneous information while giving users the option to see more if they want to.
4. Create copy in context. Don’t write in an Excel sheet or Word document; work directly in a wireframing tool. UX copy belongs on a screen together with different fonts, images, videos, links, buttons and so on. Also, bear in mind that the copy must embody the voice of the organization. If your company is very corporate, don’t use humor. Just be conversational and to the point, and write like a human. A more laidback brand can take some liberties with brand voice and inject some personality into UX copy.
Always remember your audience. They are the people who are using the product or service. They can come from many walks of life, with many different levels of experience, prior knowledge, language proficiency, and even literacy levels. In addition, they have different problems they’re trying to solve and different reasons for using your product. You are writing for the user experience, and your goal is to guide the user through the user flow, reduce abandonment, preemptively answer questions and address concerns, and make it easy for the user to find what they need and achieve their intended tasks.
Aside from the end-user, you are also writing on behalf of an organization. You need to know your company's content strategy and tone of voice inside out to deliver UX copy that is genuine, accurate, and on-brand.
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