It’s sometimes thought by laypeople that User Experience (UX) design is primarily concerned with visual design – the selection of images, the colours of call-to-action buttons, the placement of key navigation elements, and so on.
However, the written content is as much a component of UX as anything else, and the wording of any given website or app can make a big difference to the quality of the visitor’s encounter with your work.
So how can we ensure that our prose and messaging work to the benefit, and not the detriment, of our overall project? Let’s look at some essential tips…
1. Keep it brief
Simplicity is at the heart of almost every great piece of design, and writing is no different – the fewer words used to express a concept, the more easily it can be understood.
Sometimes, this can be a matter of eliminating redundancies from your text and not using ten words where three will do. It may also be a matter of taking the time to clarify ideas before writing to ensure that you are absolutely focused on the point you are trying to communicate.
Brevity can also mean keeping your text restricted to shorter sentences and paragraphs of modest length – essentially trying to make sure passages and ideas are broken up into easily digestible chunks.
It’s sometimes unkindly asserted by UX designers that the average user has an attention span comparable to a goldfish, but there is some truth behind the cynicism. It’s a fact of life that everybody skim-reads content by default; in fact, Nielson Norman estimated that only 20% of a webpage’s content actually gets read by anybody. You’re probably skim-reading this article right now.
The only way to guarantee that your essential messaging comes across loud and clear is to strip away any extraneous elements, leaving you with lean copy that gets right to the point.
2. Avoid jargon
All industries have their jargon, and most UX practitioners don’t expect anybody outside their profession to necessarily know what’s meant by wireframing, gamification or breadcrumbing (to pick three terms at random).
Jargon isn’t limited only to usability experts, however – all industries have to be careful not to speak to the customer using their internal language. Don’t tell the visitor that your business provides ‘hyperlocal solutions developing employee core competencies’ if what you mean is that you offer HR consulting.
The key questions are always: who are we talking to, how do they communicate and what will they respond to? If technical terms aren’t going to make intuitive sense to your target audience, it may be best to swap them out for simpler language.
3. Crunch your numbers
It’s been a long-held tenet of various classic English style guides that certain numbers should always properly be written out in full (as in ‘I saw two dogs’ instead of ‘I saw 2 dogs’).
It may be contentious among language purists, but the fact is that numerals are simply easier to understand than written-out numbers. This tip doesn’t apply to novelists, journalists and other writers for whom adherence to the rules of writing is good professional form – but for UX practitioners looking to communicate efficiently with users, numerals are often the better choice.
Larger numbers, in particular, are much easier to understand in numeral form, as in written form they might necessitate the use of multiple words to invoke (for example, ‘two hundred and fifty-three’ is simply slower to interpret than 253).
After all, UX writing is all about allowing easy navigation and comprehension, and complicatedly expressed numbers can interrupt a user’s flow and present a barrier to immediate understanding.
4. Don’t invent language
Making words up is an unfortunate but occasional habit of novice writers and over-eager marketing people.
English is perhaps the most word-rich language in the world, and unless the branding actually hinges on a clever neologism (such as Bud Light’s use of the coined word ‘drinkability’, or the classic example of Dodge cars inventing the word ‘dependability’) there is generally little need to deploy fictional words when there already exists a wealth of other great possibilities.
Sometimes this may be simply a matter of poor language skills on the part of the writer – perhaps promising that their product or service may help a ‘participator’ to ‘conversate’ when they might more correctly say that the ‘participant’ would be better able to ‘converse’.
For visitors who do have an excellent grasp of written English, these types of mistakes are distracting and can interrupt their comprehension of the copy – which is all too avoidable, when free tools such as Grammarly exist to help writers quickly catch and correct errors of this nature.
5. Develop a clear voice
All UX copy must be consistent with the established character of the brand in question.
Whether the business is best represented by a chatty, informal tone or a no-nonsense and trustworthy attitude, this personality should inform everything that appears on the page or app – both in the visual presentation and in the content of any written material.
It’s also a good idea to ensure this voice is consistent across all areas of the site – so that the Contact Us page and the blog posts all have the same character expressed by the homepage. This can help the visitor to enjoy a coherent, continuous experience throughout their entire session.
At the end of the day, good UX writing is essentially about ensuring that the heart of the message comes across as clearly as possible – with minimal distractions and interruptions that could get in the way of the reader’s comprehension.
By limiting extraneous wording and other distracting elements, using clear and simple language and ensuring that a clear voice and personality comes across in the writing, you can help your users to quickly understand your messaging and make informed decisions about the navigational journey they’d like to undertake.