UX Writing Basics

What is UX (copy)writing?

This post was originally published on my personal site way back in 2017 when I wondered “Is UX copywriting what I’ve been doing all along?” This is an updated version which reflects some of what I’ve learned since then about UX writing as a profession.

You’ve heard about UX Design.

And you also know about copywriting.

But what about UX copywriting? Is that even a thing?

More and more, jobs for UX copywriters are popping up. And it’s not just the big tech companies that are hiring UX copywriters. Plenty of smaller marketing agencies, tech startups and SaaS companies are looking for them.

So what exactly is a UX (copy)writer?

UX stand for user experience and it’s most commonly attached to job positions like designer or web developer. A UX specialist will focus on, you guessed it, the user’s experience when working with(in) your product.

A copywriter is a writer who focuses primarily in conversion and sales copy. With new marketing trends that favour the creation of quality content, copywriters are also now getting hired to create quality user experiences via the words a person will see when they use your site, your app or your software.

You see, a copywriter’s special talent is to put itself in your ideal customer’s shoes. So they’re the perfect fit not only for making sure that your sales copy will attract more eyes and convert prospects into customers, but they’re also in the right frame of mind to think about what steps those customers go through to buy your product, use your product or even connect with you when there’s an issue.

Basically, a UX copywriter is a person who will not only focus on the words you use to represent your company, but also how your process match (or not) your product’s main goals and your company’s mission. It will ensure that your users have the best experience possible with the words you use to guide them though your site, product, software, app, etc.

In other words, while a copywriter focuses on conversion for a page, the UX writer will focus on micro-conversions for specific bits of text on the functional parts of a product like buttons, forms, instructions, notifications and error messages.

The chicken and the egg debate

One of the big debates about whether UX copywriting really is a thing or not probably comes from the fact that there are plenty of arguments about what comes first. Design or words?

Copywriter Glenn Murray explains it very well (in my opinion) in his article about the difference between a web designer, UX designer and a copywriter. And as much as I agree that a copywriter needs to be involved as early as possible to work alongside a designer and a web developer, hiring a UX copywriter may be the best of both worlds.

Furthermore, people will also argue that UX copywriters and UX writers are different kinds of people. I think that they are simply synonymous, and the people who call themselves copywriters (vs simply writers) usually have an extra set of copy skills that allow them to write longer formats of documentation that support the microcopy bits most users see and use.

What does it take to be a UX copywriter?

Even though there is only a handful of UX copywriting course out there (as of 2020), there are still plenty of common themes in what people hiring UX copywriters look for. Skills that can make a UX copywriter stand out from a crowd of writers and UX designers are:

A focus on solving problems

When I studied Visual Communications, the focus in our theory classes was to show us that a designer’s #1 job is to help solve a problem. It’s to help a person do something more simply without having to overthink it.

So when a UX copywriter comes along, he needs to focus on how the words he chooses and where he decides to place them will make the user’s experience easy, simple and effective. The focus is not just on selling a product and convincing someone of an idea, but it’s to take a person on that journey in a way that feels almost too easy.

A special knack for tiny words

Some of the best UX copy comes in small packages. It’s things like the text on the button in an app. It’s deciding whether it should say “sign me up!” or “subscribe”. It’s writing a good 404 page that will not make the user feel lost, but rather help them get back to where they were heading.

Because a vast majority of the copy done in a UX context focuses on the words that make up an interface, it often needs to be short, concise, precise and convincing all in the space of very few characters. This is where good microcopy comes into play.

A concern for space

Along with being able to write concisely and precisely, when a UX copywriter works on projects that have repeating elements, they have to take into account space given by the designer. They have to think to ask the questions such as:

  • how many characters can this button accommodate?
  • how many lines do we want this paragraph to be?
  • do we really need to have a word here? Can an image transmit the same message?
  • and so on…

Being able to ask these questions usually means a UX copywriter will also have an interest in the visual placement of the information and he might be a bit of a closet graphic design nerd.

Some technical background

A UX copywriter needs to have an understanding of how websites, apps and software are built. This will help them anticipate the copy that’s needed, think up of all the possible scenarios a user may embark on and make that whole experience make sense.

Some technical knowledge is good to have to be a well-rounded UX copywriter whether it’s knowing how to code, understanding how developers test and re-test all the time, or anticipating the different scenarios a user can be taken through.

What’s the future of UX copy?

When the article was first published in 2017, I said:

I have a feeling that in the coming months, UX copywriter job will become more common and this will create a need for more information on the topic. Many, as I have, will be hired as copywriters who are later asked to make UX design decisions. Or the opposite. Designers are asked more often than not to come up with the basic copy of their product designs that a writer *might* re-write when the time comes.

Past me, November 2017

What I’ve seen in the last couple of years is that my prediction was pretty spot on. But I’ve also seen many companies, teams and products embrace UX writing as a vital part of the design process.

Not only that, but UX writers are also helping make headways in the AI space by helping design tools that use predictive text, by writing chatbots that make for better online experiences, and by designing scripts for voice command tools that are more useful and functional than ever before.

The rise of UX copywriting will keep going. For some people, it’s still a bit unclear as to whether a UX copywriter should be sitting with the marketing team or the development team (even now, in 20202).

Personally, I think UX writers should be the link that bridges the gap between images and words so that websites, software, apps and platforms of all kinds can be easier, and dare I say, pleasant to use. No matter which team they sit on.

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