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.

Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnell
19th July 2019

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.

A screen asking - how much do you think about content?
How much do you think about content? Is it an after thought?

So what comes first, the copy or the UI?

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:

  • Do we capture first name and surname separately or all in one field?
  • Do we also need their middle name and title?
  • Should this be a simple data field or can we maybe capture it inside a conversational form? How would this brand do it to build rapport?
  • If the user doesn’t answer we’ll need a way to prompt a response
  • If they do answer but they provide numbers instead of letters we need a way to tell them that their entry isn’t correct
  • What if there’s a system error and the page submission fails? We’ll need to tell the user what’s happened and what to do next

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.

Two examples of Slack's instantly recognisable brand voice
Your brand voice that should be instantly recognisable as you (like Slack here). But the tone you take will depend very much on the situation.

How UX writers add value to teams

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:

Realistic testing

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.

Elevating designs

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.

…if an actor does something that seems out of character, your audience will immediately notice and it breaks the scene. It’s the same way with writing. If your user suddenly reads a line of text that sounds unlike anything else in your product, it breaks the experience and makes your user start doubting you.
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.

Improving conversion

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.

A framework for deciding how to flex your brand's tone
If your brand has a very distinctive tone of voice it’s good to use some kind of framework to help you recognise when to dial it up or not.

Five quick ways for designers to think more about content

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:

  • Have a purpose: what are you trying to get your user to think, feel or do?
  • Think about tone: Does your copy sound appropriate to the situation and how your user might be feeling?
  • Consider accessibility needs: make sure your sentences are short, you write in plain English and you format your content simply.
  • Think conversationally before you start designing: if you didn’t have a graphical interface how would you sell your product or service?
  • Consider your word choices: think nouns for navigation labels, and verbs for call to action labels. They should all be clear and unambiguous.

If you have any questions at all about content or UX writing, I’m always happy to discuss a challenge so get in touch.