You awake to the sound of an alarm and open your phone’s email app. The color scheme, layout, and icons are unchanged, but strangely the interface contains no words. Could be a glitch.

It’s payday, so you open your banking app. Again, the interface looks like it always has—minus text. Each subsequent app reveals the same. “Must be an issue with the operating system,” you think, “I’ll update on my way to work.”

After a shower, you sit down for breakfast, open a browser on your laptop, and head to a well-known eCommerce site. “Weird…”

The site contains photos, but navigational text and product descriptions are nowhere to be found. In rapid succession, you visit all of your favorite pages, and every last one is devoid of text.

Amazon UI without UX copy

Amazon without UX copy is an online shopper's twilight zone.

Blank buttons, forms, and drop-down menus abound.

Every decision is a guess, each interaction a painstaking process of elimination.

This is a world stripped of UX copy, a world where user-facing touchpoints are entirely open to interpretation.

Clarity is extinct. Frustration reigns.

What is UX Copywriting?

UX copywriting is composing words to provide people with decision-making clarity when interacting with a product or environment. This sounds simple, but effective UX copy doesn’t settle for mere functionality. In today’s crowded and consumer-centric digital landscape, it isn’t enough to say, “Click here. Sign up. Submit.” Choices must entice. Decisions must delight.

Think of UX copy as a brand’s digital ambassador, customer service liaison, and top sales closer all rolled into one. It’s a guiding voice that leads users through a product’s most important interactions and infuses digital experiences with brand personality and cohesiveness.

Like all worthwhile design efforts, writing effective UX copy requires skill, experimentation, and iteration, so let’s take a closer look at why it matters and how to do it well.

UX writing tips

Here, a mundane confirmation message is improved by a subtle dose of humor.

UX Copy + Marketing Microcopy

When it comes to digital products, all copy isn’t necessarily UX copy. In fact, there are two kinds of writing that users encounter most frequently: UX copy and marketing microcopy. Admittedly, there’s significant interplay between the two, and it can be tricky to determine one from the other.

Georgina Laidlaw is a Melbourne based writer/educator specializing in brand communication and digital product experiences, and she has written extensively on the topic of UX copy in her weekly newsletter Word Design Doctor. Here’s how she sums up the differences between UX copy and marketing microcopy:

  • UX Copy “almost exclusively works to identify context the user is in and define the next act they must make in order to reach their consciously chosen goal.”
  • Marketing Microcopy “focuses on benefits and pain points, and the resultant value proposition. The pain points may be subconscious; the user may not even have a clear idea of them in their own mind.”
  • “In summary, UX copy talks primarily to the user’s rational mind. Marketing (micro)copy talks, more often, to their emotional mind.”

Ideally, UX writers would write UX copy and marketers would write marketing microcopy, but a clear division of duties between the two roles isn’t always possible in the real world. UX writers, especially freelancers and those working on small teams, are often responsible for writing every instance of a product’s interface copy.

Regardless of who writes what, UX copy and marketing microcopy should work in tandem to enhance digital products and improve their UX. In many cases, the two exist side by side or even merge. With that in mind, we acknowledge that differences exist but continue our exploration of the topic using the umbrella term UX copy.

Good UX copywriter

In this example, UX copy and marketing microcopy blend into a simple and cohesive message.

UX Copy Bridges the Gap Between Design and Content

Designers are renowned for their ability to express complex concepts in simple, yet stunning, graphic forms. We powerfully embody ideas through color, typography, and visual hierarchy, but sometimes we treat words as little more than Lorem Ipsum. This leaves a gap between design and content.

UX copy bridges the gap, and when implemented as part of the design process, it provides distinct advantages. How so?

1. UX Copy Interprets Research into Actionable Language

During user research, UX writers help product teams understand customer feedback and leverage insights for brand messaging that resonates with a product’s target market (i.e. Baby Boomers vs Gen Y).

For instance, a product team may find that its app is underperforming during onboarding because of confusion over how to register as a user. Rather than trying to solve the problem with a bigger and brighter button, a product team that values UX writing will look to better entice users with an improved call to action.

2. UX Copy Ensures Message Cohesion Within Diverse Teams

Make no mistake—designers aren’t the only ones concerned with a digital product’s success. Marketers, engineers, executives, and investors all have strong ideas about what works, but their respective visions don’t always align.

UX copy provides product teams with a way of unifying the business interests of disparate parties through a cohesive brand voice. This prevents users from encountering confusing themes and off-brand messages that disrupt the product experience.

3. UX Copy Humanizes Digital Products by Appealing to Emotion

The clunky product control panels of the past are trending towards extinction. Today, great care is taken to endow user interfaces with a high degree of clarity and aesthetic intrigue. Unfortunately, when it comes to UX copy, many digital products have failed to evolve, and words continue to be treated as technical components meant only to describe or direct.

UX copy is written to be felt. It solves the experiential letdown of technical jargon by invoking human emotion and creating compelling opportunities for users to seize.

4. UX Copy Has a Crucial Role in the Future of Design

The interface landscape is expanding. Voice user interfaces, virtual reality, augmented reality, architecture, and environmental design are all loaded with user touchpoints.

Voice user interface UX writing

Google has heavily marketed its voice-operated 'Assistant' across multiple products—one of many examples where UX is breaking away from screen-based devices.

These types of informational transactions aren’t natural to the human experience; they are learned. UX copy aids the learning process by guiding initial product interactions and giving users the confidence to navigate via intuition—as designers intend.

Big Brands Believe in the Effectiveness of UX Copy

Innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As designers, it’s important that we are exposed to the work of other creative professionals, and there are well-known brands that do a great job of guiding users through digital experiences with UX copy that is inventive, authentic, and on-brand.

Blue Apron

Blue Apron is a meal delivery service that aims to make meal prep quick and easy for their subscribers.

UX writing best practices

Blue Apron uses UX copy to help potential subscribers envision the simplicity of their order process.

What they do well:

Blue Apron uses UX copy to develop a vision of an easy, enjoyable, and healthy mealtime experience. Partnered with that vision are action-oriented invitations to “Get Cooking” or “Choose Your Plan.”

How the text feels:

“This will be easy, tasty, and healthy. I can sign up quickly, choose what I want, and they’ll take care of the rest.”

Gusto

Gusto provides a full range of online HR services like payroll, benefits, onboarding, and compliance.

UX writing examples

Gusto's use of UX copy is quite clever. In its free product demo, to-do lists, reminders, and other fields come filled with example text that is clear, concise, and cheerful. This helps prospective customers imagine the product working to its highest potential.

What they do well:

Gusto offers a fully functional demo mode where all features (like upcoming events and reminders) come pre-populated with UX copy that is concise and perfectly aligned with the brand’s cheerful visual identity.

How the text feels:

“This product will totally help our business and employees stay organized, efficient, and content. We can communicate important HR information, and everyone will be on the same page.”

Slack

Slack is an online “platform that connects teams with the apps, services, and resources they need to get work done.”

Design UX writing tips

Slack offers practical written hints within its UI to help users confidently access and operate key features.

What they do well:

There are a lot of features packed into Slack. Most are intuitive, but when uncertainty arises, Slack does a great job of providing information backed with context in a voice that is both confident and helpful.

How the text feels:

“Ah, that makes a lot of sense. I understand how that feature works and feel like I’ve learned something valuable.”

10 Principles for Successful UX Copy

Now that we know why it matters and what brands do it well, we’re ready to examine UX copy principles that lead to greater user engagement. Use these principles as a rubric when incorporating UX copy into the UX/UI design process.

  1. UX copy should be considered during the earliest phases of design and development. Don’t treat it as an afterthought.
  2. UX copy isn’t written in stone. Test, improve, and evolve your product’s messaging over time or it will stagnate.
  3. UX copy must provide a choice and move users towards a decision. Ambiguous pandering doesn’t win people who aren’t sure about your product, and it alienates those that actually do want to use it.
  4. UX copy needs to be concise and original—but never obscure.
  5. UX copy may take cues from gamification and psychology principles like Scarcity, Social Influence, Ownership, and Epic Calling.
  6. UX copy should be written for the customer. It’s less about listing “What we do” and more about painting a picture of “How we help improve your life.”
  7. UX copy must be well positioned within an interface’s design hierarchy. Don’t hide or diminish it for the sake of eye candy design.
  8. UX copy implements humor strategically and sparingly. Getting a laugh in person is hard enough, but it can be nearly impossible when delivered without verbal or facial cues.
  9. UX copy scrutinizes each word in an effort to maintain a brand’s tone. Poorly chosen words can jolt users from the expected brand experience.
  10. UX copy is written to be felt. If your product’s UX copy only informs, an opportunity for ongoing user engagement is missed.

    Creative copy interface design
Webby nominee GlobalXplorer° uses UX copy to motivate site visitors with gamification principles like Scarcity, Ownership, and Epic Calling.

Bonus Principle

If you belong to a product team looking to hire a UX writer, realize that the field is still developing. Strong candidates may see “UX” in the title and feel unqualified, so make sure that the job description doesn’t come across as overly technical.

Likewise, don’t be afraid to interview and hire candidates from a wide range of creative writing backgrounds. Look for someone who can tell a good story and appreciates the economy of words.

UX Copy Elevates the UX/UI Design Process

Words matter in digital product design. Well-crafted words impact the way people feel when they interact with a product, and they provide users with decision making certainty. As brand and product encounters increase, so does competition for attention. Functionality isn’t enough. Products and experiences must engage to compel—and compel to convert.

For this reason, hiring talented UX writers will be a top priority for any company seeking ongoing engagement with its customers. Ultimately, the true value of UX copy is found in its absence. Without words, digital products devolve into ambiguity. Clarity vanishes, frustration abounds, and the user experience crumbles.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the Basics

What is UX copywriting?

UX copywriting is composing words to provide people with decision-making clarity when interacting with a product or environment. UX copy is a guiding voice that leads users through a product’s most important interactions and infuses digital experiences with brand personality and cohesiveness.

About the author

Micah Bowers, United States
member since January 3, 2016
Micah is a brand designer and illustrator who aspires to elevate design to the level of a story. To reach people and forge lasting engagement, Micah believes that design must identify a need, stir a desire for change, and shed light on a path that is uniquely helpful, hopeful, and human. [click to continue...]
Hiring? Meet the Top 10 Freelance UX Designers for Hire in November 2018

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About the author
Micah Bowers
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Micah is a brand designer and illustrator who aspires to elevate design to the level of a story. To reach people and forge lasting engagement, Micah believes that design must identify a need, stir a desire for change, and shed light on a path that is uniquely helpful, hopeful, and human.