Why Product Designers Must Write
Is writing part of a product designer’s job? Let’s answer that question with another question: How many of us live within the limits of our job title? Sure, our expertise is designing products with engaging experiences — whether it’s researching, understanding audiences or creating wireframes. Our work also includes providing development specs and creating high-fidelity UIs. But to write? Someone else will do that…right?
You’re more than a designer. You’re a communicator.
Here’s the truth: The best product designers understand that every experience we create hinges on the reconciliation of words and product. An experience without thinking of its words is like trying to find a house using only relative landmarks; you might be on the right path but a street address sure helps you get there.
The words, sentences, and paragraphs that encompass an experience have a profound effect on a user’s feelings and whether they can accomplish what they set out to do. The call-to-action of a button can excite or confuse. Well-thought-out text placement may provide timely information, preempting rash decisions. The microcopy in an onboarding flow has the power to delight. But when it’s ill considered, it can turn people away. If you’ve ever thought writing is something only a copywriter can, or should do, imagine every project you’ve ever done or will do urging you to think again. Product designers can write. We must write. Here’s why.
Copywriting vs UX writing
As product designers, we need to understand how writing impacts the user experience. This will help us better guide and inform them as they navigate the products we help create. However, there’s a difference between writing in the traditional sense and writing for better, more engaging experiences.
Copywriting is the skilled process of writing to advertise, market, or sell a product or service. This type of writing can be short or long form, and it’s what we think of when someone mentions copywriting. Often we use placeholder text in lieu of copywriting while an experience progresses from wireframe to launch.
As UXers, while we have our focus set on optimizing products from an experiential perspective, copywriting complements them. When done seamlessly, it can make a banal interaction delightful. So while we don’t need to take on the long-form copy or the witty headlines, we do need to spot the places where the right copy will make all the difference in a user’s experience — and either provide that copy or let the team know we need it. And we should be comfortable taking on some UX writing where it makes sense.
UX writing (UXW) is all about the words that help facilitate interactions. Compared to copywriting, UX writing is more documentative and transactional, although at times it can be more far reaching than that. This doesn’t mean UXW has to be boring. UXW is the intermediary between traditional copywriting and complicated technical jargon a developer might write off-the-cuff in its absence. These pieces of text can strengthen, clarify, or even entertain.
UXW isn’t new — it’s a growing discipline related to product design. As new products and services are launched, users are becoming more and more sophisticated. Their expectations for simplicity and clarity are ratcheting up at every touchpoint, and their expectations extend to the words that facilitate them.
As product designers, most of us don’t have a formal background in writing or literature. Luckily, that doesn’t matter. Because in a large sense, we’re perfectly positioned to write for experiences. We’re already good at putting the needs of our users first. We may not think of ourselves as writers, but as you know, we’re excellent communicators. So as we’re working, we should think critically about how the language we use can add important context to interactions.
Product designers must be able to write for experiences.
UX writing can help prevent worst-case scenarios.
As product designers, we’re always striving to consider and put first the needs of our users. And in certain scenarios, it can be disastrous if we don’t — most notably in the financial and healthcare industries. These industries impact the health and well-being of users, so the product design process should treat them that much more carefully.
A cautionary tale from the financial industry
In what has become a black mark on the industry of product design, the story of 20 year old Alexander Kearns comes to mind. Alexander was new to stock trading and had performed what’s called an options trade; typically performed by investors with substantial trading experience. Options trades can result in temporary negative cash balances that don’t reflect an account’s actual buying power. After Alexander performed the trade he noticed what appeared to be a negative cash balance of nearly $1,000,000. Alexander panicked, worried he had incurred an insurmountable debt, and tragically committed suicide as a result. His parents would later find a note next to his computer where Alexander lamented he had “no clue” what he was doing.
That was an extreme example of what can happen in the absence of clarity. And, the blame cannot be placed on UX writing alone, or lack thereof. From a product design perspective, there are likely many ways to mitigate disasters like these. For example, Fidelity’s trading app restricts certain types of trades based on level of experience, and requires an approved questionnaire to do so. Traditional copywriting could have also played a stop-gap role. Without more intimate knowledge of the specific circumstances, it’s impossible to say definitively what improvements could have been made; the point however, is that words matter.
Again, we must write for experiences.
A smart heads-up by a healthcare app
Healthcare is another arena where UXW can make a lifesaving difference. The healthcare app My Chart takes steps to keep users informed, relying heavily on words and less on UX patterns. In this example, bright red text relays the important message that the user may be about to see life-changing test results. This execution skews more toward traditional copywriting (and it appears that it may have been a hastily but wisely added afterthought), but the UX can recognize the importance of displaying such information and allocate the necessary room for it during the wireframing phase.
Use your skills to help get the right words in place.
As product designers, we need to keep our users’ best interests top-of-mind and keep them informed as best we know how. Both UX writing and copywriting play an important role in that process, and the extent of the role you play can feel like a balancing act.
You may be perfectly at home copywriting paragraphs of content where needed. Or you may just plug in key phrases here and there, leveling up the UXW for the optimal user experience. Whatever your skill and comfort level, it’s all good — the important thing is, when the time comes, that you use your communication skills to know where writing is needed.
UX writing, for better experiences.
By now it’s crystal clear writing factors enormously in product design, whether it’s traditional copywriting or UXW. We’ve also seen how getting UXW wrong can have horrific consequences. But even when UX writing is not a matter of life and death, it still matters. Proof? Coming right up. Let’s take a look at some examples of where UXW is done right…and not so right.
Search, and results
In what seems to be total lack of consideration for the user, searching for content inside of the xFinity app can have a bad ending. In the next example, a search for “Superman” returns no results, and that’s precisely how bluntly the message is communicated. Compare that to what Netflix does in the same scenario; a cheeky message is displayed that informs the user in a humorous way.
Even better, on the desktop experience, Netflix takes things one step further, showing options that are related to a search when there is no content that matches the query. The “Explore titles related to” microcopy thoughtfully and succinctly conveys the message.
Coinbase does a great job of taking every opportunity to show users their helpful, proactive side. Even down to the language in their search bar. Instead of standard, lackluster wording like “search,” they added warmth and personality. “How can we help you” is both conversational and professional. It reinforces brand tone and voice. Small opportunities present themselves to incorporate UX writing, and taking advantage of them can separate the average from the delightful.
This next example is one of my favorites. Webflow uses UX writing and microcopy to draw attention away from the time it takes for their application to load. When a customer logs into their account, the interface doesn’t just display a progress bar. They turned the moment into an opportunity to include instruction on what’s happening, interspersed with messages that anyone using their application will recognize. “Adding lens flares,” and “Making it pop” adds levity while the experience loads — time that is commonly wasted. Moments like these can easily fall outside the purview of traditional copywriting and are great for incorporating UXW.
Negative vs neutral opt-out language
Online shopping is fraught with what most people describe as annoying interruptions. Pop-up windows, chat box notifications, cookie policies opt-ins and more disrupt our users’ intentions. Case in point, a pop-up on the CB2 website entices viewers to enter their email address to get a discount. To dismiss the pop-up, the user must click on the anchor text labeled “I’ll pay full price.” Negative opt-out language like this can make a user feel resentful or even angry. In fact, it’s used so ubiquitously in product design we’ve given it a name: confirm shaming. When writing CTAs it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t offend or irritate more than the initial disruption. Simple language like “no thanks” in the example by GQ accomplishes the same result in a friendly way.
UXW should never confuse
Creating interfaces that collect basic information is something we do every day. So, it’s surprising when interfaces get it wrong. Take this next example by CNN. For a website that’s all about the written word, the labels on their email capture form take a bit of effort to understand. Here, a visitor can sign up to receive the newsletter by clicking the “Summarize The News” button. Or confusingly, they may opt out by clicking the “Reject My Briefings” button.
A better label might read “unsubscribe,” as that’s one visitors will be familiar with already. Even better is Spotfiy’s UX writing as they prompt listeners to sign up for email updates. “We saved a spot for your email” replaces what would normally be something along the lines of “enter your email.” Clear, concise and a great illustration of why an appreciation for and an ability to write for experiences is key.
Finally, let’s talk about error pages. It’s not uncommon for a web page to vanish into thin air. In this example, when a visitor hits Flinto’s 404 page they’re greeted with a blank screen and sterile message that reads “Page not found.” Not optimal.
In contrast, Stocksy’s 404 page jumps on the opportunity to add some personality to the experience. The headline and visual turn the 404 page into a moment of discovery — and even the CTA that reads “Go home” subtly ties into the overall visual and written concept . It’s clear that the UX designer considered this scenario, and it’s likely that the designer brought in a copywriter to help craft those words. Whether it’s you or a copywriter composing the words, it’s up to you to identify areas like a 404 page that will need attention and plan a strategy to give users the best possible experience.
The examples I’ve covered here are some of the ways UX writing impacts product design. Our users deserve and expect thoughtfulness at every turn and tap. We may not write copy in the traditional sense, but we can definitely add value to an experience’s language as we craft the screens and flows that comprise our work.
To add a sharp point, UXW is more than writing witty pieces of text. Its main objective is to add clarity and fill in the gaps that traditional copywriting may miss. As product designers, it’s incumbent on us to recognize these cases and take appropriate measures.
That said, check out this microcopy generator — a handy thought-starter when you’re exploring ways to communicate different pieces of UXW and microcopy. And, for those of you interested in taking your writing skills even further take a look at Hemingway.
I hope I’ve given you some inspiration and knowledge about ways you can use words to plus-up the user experience in the work you do. We’ve all got writing chops to some extent. Even me — a senior full-time product design generalist. I’ll have more copy coming your way soon, so let’s stay in touch. You can find me on Twitter @jon_patterson, or reach me via my website at www.jonathanpatterson.com with any product design inquiries or questions.