UX: Designing with Words
By Josefine Valle and Lennard Kok
You know the words you see on websites, apps and digital products? All the buttons, labels and affirmations? These seemingly tiny words are a crucial part of helping users effortlessly navigate digital services. It’s called UX writing, and is considered a fairly new discipline.
Putting text in tech
Although writing for UX is as old as the Internet itself, the words have often been left for designers or developers to craft – people for whom language is not their primary field of expertise. Now that more and more companies are realising the power of the written word on digital platforms, UX writing is at the exciting stage where we get to define, develop and design the role of text in tech.
Language has evolved in order for people to understand each other. In the absence of body language and other social constructs, the written word helps us decode meaning and understand the world around us. A UX writer’s mission is just that – helping users extract meaning from their digital surroundings. This is why UX writers have to work closely together with developers and designers in order to communicate a coherent expression of a product’s character. Together, we build communities and provide them with meaning, guidance and a sense of identity.
Language as design
The way we see it at BB, UX copy is an extension of design. We are basically all designers, or content strategists. Whether you write code, design components or create brand identities, you produce material that will eventually reach users. The written content you see on your screen might be the final piece of the puzzle, but it still needs to be aligned with the communicated message and its overall aesthetic. On a subliminal level, the words we choose are as important as the way content is structured, articulated and designed. And if the text indicates something different than what the overall user experience seems to suggest, you’ll get frustrated users. As content creators, it is thus essential that designers, developers and UX writers work together from the outset.
As UX writers, our main task is to identify who are writing for, and how we can do so in a clear and effective fashion. We have to know every little detail of the product and, more importantly, its users. At the start of each project, we deep-dive into a product’s market and its target audience. We ask questions about their background, the language they use, and the difficulties or hindrances that might occur during their interaction with the service. Based on research insights, we develop a tone and a voice for the brand, and a content style guide for the product. These tools are based on user needs, the brand identity and the technical requirements of the app functionality.
Naturally, the style guides will differ for every project, depending on the product itself, when it will be used and by whom. The process of selling your first apartment with Samsolgt is a very different experience than booking a medical appointment for your sick child with Dr.Dropin. That is why those scenarios — and the digital services created for them — need different tones, styles and appearances. Every project is different and every product requires a unique voice, both visually and verbally.
Why a designated UX writer?
Language is infinitely tricky as we don’t all speak the same languages, lead identical lives nor experience the world in a similar manner. We do our best to craft our writing with regards to the fact that we all have different abilities, references and communication styles. All good microcopy starts with getting to know our audience and asking what motivates them to use a given product or service.
These insights, in addition to many others, enable us to understand the diversity of people we are writing for. When gathered with curiosity and care, they form a foundation for clear and inclusive communication. Although some designers and developers skillfully consider these aspects, doing so inevitably distracts them from their core work. That is why we see a definitive need for dedicated UX writers.
But back to those little words
UX writers thrive on context, and our job is to untangle the messy web of user insight, strategy and functionality. We have to merge all these important pieces of information into simple labels and sentences that the user ideally doesn’t even notice. If we have done our job well, reading should feel effortless: words will lead you where you want without having to think about it.
Having this pragmatic approach to the wonderful world of language sure feels good when you see your text helping the users the way you imagined. If your audience actually feels included and guided, without hiccups along the way — that’s where you want to be.
There are a million things that go into the process of writing the small excerpts of text you see everyday on digital platforms. The writing itself is a relatively small part of the work we do — the challenge lies in decoding everything that goes into creating a good user experience. In a way, we are trying to figure out the common denominators of the human psyche, while leaving room for our inherent differences. Not to manipulate or to sell you useless products, but to enhance communication and make our digital lives a little more inclusive and friendly. Think about that the next time you press Read and sign.
- Lennard Kok (visuals)