A UX Writing Crash Course

I came to UX writing from the world of content marketing and had to learn as I went. This is the learning plan that I wish I had when I started. It would have saved me a lot of trial and error along the way!

UX Fundamentals

Don Norman is the person who invented the concept of user experience. Thus the Design of Everyday Things is a logical place to start for a high-level overview of the entire field.

Nearly every conversation I’ve had with designers revolves around concepts that Norman either invented or popularized: affordances, discoverability, feedback and mapping. Every product needs to have these. The question is whether to use text or other elements of the interface to convey them.

Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is more practical, but the ideas are the same. This will also give you a crash course on usability testing.

These two books are so foundational that it’s hard to grasp how revolutionary they were when they came out. Now they read like common sense. Putting them into practice gets you 90% of the way there.

Information Architecture

Even small products and websites are packed with information. Getting the right content to the person who needs it at the right time falls on the shoulders of content strategists and UX writers.

Do you use interface text, a tooltip, an error message or a knowledge base article to explain how something works? This is information architecture.

The best introduction is Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Marquis. Some of the issues that I deal with everyday are covered in the book:

Reduce Cognitive Load

We have a tendency to create little Tolkienesque worlds. Writers and designers make up new words and terms that people have to learn in order use our products. This is cognitive load.

We already have an ample vocabulary to describe what our products do. Our first instinct should be to describe what things do using existing words. Make up new names only as a last resort.

Andrew Schmidt’s talk Designing like a writer: how language can elevate your work should be required viewing for every new UX writer. He starts with Google Wave, a product that required users to learn a whole new vocabulary. Then he walks through practical examples of resisting the urge to name things in his own work at Slack.

Accessibility is Usability

Accessibility has a reputation as being little more than adding alt text to images. That’s a good start, but there’s more to it.

Making products that are accessible to as many people as possible is good usability for everyone. As writers, we contribute to accessibility by using plain language.

Sarah Richards’ talk Accessibility is Usability offers a solid introduction.

One of my key take aways is that accessibility isn’t an all or nothing thing. We don’t use apps in a vacuum: I often have to use my banking app (which is in my third language) while sitting in a meeting in my second language — all before I’ve had my morning coffee. The app’s plain language lets me do it. That’s accessibility.

In the real world, people use apps while lugging around a suitcase, juggling kids and stressed out. We need to write with that in mind and use plain language.

The Interplay of Words and Visual Design

Most of what I’ve written so far is about general design principles rather than strictly writing. If text is well integrated into a product design, it writes itself. Getting there requires you to think of yourself as a designer with words instead of a writer.

To jumpstart your ability to think like a designer and a writer, I recommend Writing is Designing by Michael Metts and Andy Welfle. This is the most hands-on guide to UX writing I’ve come across with tons of real-world examples.

To that end it’s also worth brushing up on the basics of visual design for interfaces. I often debate about removing or adding text with the designers I work with. I come from a purely text perspective, they are coming from Gestalt Principles. To see these in action, head over to UI Patterns.

Balancing content and visual design in an interface isn’t always easy. Creating good products requires an open discussion between designers and writers to find something that works both visually and textually. This usually means lots of iterations, critiques, testing and tweaking. Check your ego at the door.

Emotional Design

Almost two decades after the Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman had a change of heart. Usability is only part of the picture. Products also need to be beautiful and incorporate Emotional Design.

You can write interface text that’s technically perfect but mirthless. Add too much voice and character and you get something annoying (remember Clippy?). Good UX writing has to balance being light but not flippant, informative but not overwhelming while still having a human voice. Being easy to localize makes it even more difficult.

This is the one part of UX writing that’s purely instinct and creativity. You can get better by saying things aloud, getting mentored by senior writers and keeping at it.

Working as a UX-Writer

The majority of my job is approaching text as design:

  1. Figure out the larger information architecture for a product and the content strategy of communicating with users.
  2. Go through individual flows with a visual designer so that content is serving the overall UX.
  3. Do an accessibility check to make sure I’m using plain language.
  4. Add a bit of life to my texts so they are on brand and enjoyable rather than just usable.

None of this is hard, but it does require being methodical. When I started out, there were far fewer resources for writers. I mostly learned through trial and error (heavy on the error). Thankfully, our profession is evolving, and now anybody can make a strong start.