It’s hard to talk about UX writing without mentioning content strategy and content design. The roles overlap – so before I go too far, I’ll quickly share my definitions.
Content strategists decide what to say and how to say it in order to help users complete tasks, find information, or make a decision (it might also include when and where to serve the content). This could be anything from defining how we speak (tone and voice), the format, the substance and the structure of the content. They also work out to how we get the content live, govern it, and what best-practice looks like (content creation, roles and workflows, guidelines and tools).
Content designers define how we format, structure or phrase our content in the right way for the user. Content designers may also be defining strategies and frameworks, or they might work to predefined ones (often created by a content strategist).
The terms UX writer and content designer are often used interchangeably because the roles are really similar.
UX writers often focus more on the copy we use to interact with users – and therefore the experience we provide through the customer’s journey. The role is sometimes known as product writing, which stems from the tech world where the software UI often is the ‘product’.
As you’d expect from the job title, they are writing the copy to create the optimum user experience. But this isn’t just in the UI, it could cover emails, web pages and any other user touchpoint. The goal of a UX writer is to make sure an end to end experience feels like it’s in the same voice throughout – the voice of the brand.
Copy might seem like something that could be picked up by a product designer or UI designer. But creating copy that’s concise and consistent, provides support, sets user expectations, and compels users to progress through their journey (while all feeling like it’s from the same brand), is really hard. Even for a UX writer. This also has to be done in as few words as possible – a button label, for example, may be just one word.
I’m glad you asked me this. In an ideal world, they’d be co-designed. As Jared Spool said “Our users don’t separate our design from our content. They think of them as the same. So why don’t we?”
Knowing what you need to say and how to say it before creating a user interaction makes sense. UX writers often think about the natural conversation you’d have if no graphical interface existed, in order to determine what the copy should be (and how it might sound from the brand they’re writing for). Here’s an example:
When you need to know someone’s name, in real life you’d just ask “what’s your name?” and you’d get an answer – simple. But for an onscreen interaction there are so many other considerations:
We need a field for the user to supply their name but we also need to think about:
That’s a lot of copy considerations for just one piece of data, and in fact that’s why UX writing is more akin to design than to copywriting. A lot of what UX writers do is problem-solving. When a UX writer works alongside a UI designer, it means the writer can think about the words in the context of solving this problem, then the designer can focus on what the interaction looks like and how it will work.
When a UX writer and UI designer don’t work together and the words are ‘put in later’, the UX writer becomes restricted by the interaction that’s been determined. The best efficiencies (and end results) come from co-designing.
At Clearleft’s recent mini-conference, I spoke a lot on this subject, in fact, I named my talk ‘taking your content from zero to hero’ because the benefits that writers bring are so important. Here are the main ones:
Often prototypes are built with placeholder copy and then tested with users. Sometimes the purpose of testing is to validate the usability of a design, and sometimes it’s to test a product concept. Either way it’s unlikely that you’ll get realistic results with placeholder copy or copy that might contain typos or mistakes (trust me, participants get really hung-up on typos!).
A UX writer makes sure your copy is accurate and reflective of the product and brand before you run these tests.
Visual design is always elevated by great content. When the copy reflects the brand values and the brand voice, it builds trust for users as they move through their journey. John Saito from Dropbox explains why this is important.
John Saito - Dropbox
With UX writers ensuring everything they write reflects the voice of the brand – it’s one less thing for the UI designer to worry about.
Good copy also makes sure you get high quality output – stakeholders reviewing designs don’t get hung up on typos or bad copy, and will actually focus on the design as a whole (you’d be surprised how many stakeholders are frustrated writers and use any mistake they spot as their opportunity to shine!).
Getting the tone right
The tone you use at certain points of the journey is probably even more important than reflecting the voice of the brand.
An error message is no time to dial up your brand ‘voice’, it just needs to be simple and helpful. A welcome message, on the other hand, can be much more enthusiastic and punchy. UX writers know when to dial tone up and down – making sure it’s appropriate to the scenario. Language might seem like a ‘fluffy’ thing, but how a brand makes the user feel can be the difference between a sale or a repeat purchase.
The final (and some would say) most important role of a UX writer is to make sure that the copy they write sells products or retains customers. They want to build trust, reduce friction, and compel the user to do what’s intended. Often when a company has conversion problems, simple copy tweaks can have a huge impact, avoiding the need for expensive redesign projects.
Great brand experiences often come down to how you feel about a brand, and that’s because they speak to you in a way that’s relevant, have simple and easy-to-use digital products, and compel you to buy from them. From AirBnB, to Boden, to Facebook or Headspace, successful companies are those that realise the importance of content and copy. Great content is tricky to achieve, and why it’s so important to employ a UX writer.
If you don’t have a UX writer on your team, here are five quick tips for designers to think more about content:
If you have any questions at all about content or UX writing, I'm always happy to discuss a challenge so get in touch.