How to Design with Copy as a Tool
Even if you are not a writer, by any means.
Start with a script.
A user interface cannot exist without functions, otherwise what is the point? Define what those are by writing a script, and creating a system for how words will be used in the app or website. From headers, all the way to the body copy, it needs to be thought of precisely because the user experience depends on it.s
Make it instructional without sounding like a manual.
A copy’s job in a product is to instruct and help people do their tasks well, and efficiently. Scope out the tasks and jobs that needed to get done, and tailor the UX copy to that purpose. Familiarize yourself with the different scenarios, cases in which the software is being used, and make sure you meet the user there by providing the necessary help.
Lay low on cleverness.
By default, the copy should be clear, precise and easily understood. Apply humor when it is necessary, and consider the use cases for it. Take for instance a bank application: You open your mobile app to conduct a transaction. Maybe you’d like to deposit a check. Maybe you have already been doing it for quite some time now. But things happen. Systems break and you just so happened to catch it right when you least expect it. The last thing you’d want to see is some vectored cartoon trying to make light of the situation, instead of providing you with actionable steps. Good intention but not in any way, an ideal execution for it.
When in doubt, go for simplicity and clarity. It’s not often as easy as you think.
Keep it simple but significant.
Aim to decrease software complexities and help your users get to the bottom of everything: the primary tasks. There is a lot to be learned from advertising here as well. Tastefully done copy and writing is the secret to making the product work.
How does one achieve that with UX writing? Write with plain, understandable language, to start. Study the user’s mental models. Familiarize yourself with their language, not yours. Test often, and include copy with it.
Design with content in mind.
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” — Zeldman
Be conversational, if necessary.
The heart of interaction design is service. It exists help people manage and fulfill a set of tasks in any software. From the buttons they choose, to the modals that pop up in the experience, copy is on the frontline of it all. Arguably, it is absolutely a part of the design, whether or not a designer worked on it.
If products are meant to be human-centered, so should the interaction design be. What it means for the UX copy is that it is should not just be task-driven, it should also be human-like as possible: polite, trustworthy, consistent, competent, efficient and empathetic, most especially in unfavorable scenarios and uses cases. Part of meeting user needs is providing a clear and concise path for them every time they are in the product, in both words, and visuals.
“First, imagine and write the conversation you would have with the user if there were no interface. Then use this conversation to guide the rest of the design. This includes the selection of the medium of interaction, the visuals, and the interactions.” — Erika Hall, Conversational Design
Augment the brand through the experience.
In her talk, “How to make brands sound human”, Slack’s Director of Communications Anna Pickard said it best: “And choosing the right words, because words are powerful. But we have to do the work to make sure that when we’re using them, they have the most power they can, and that means meeting people where they are.” Put the user needs in mind as you design interfaces, and allow the words to guide them as much as the UI itself.
Brand experience in 2021 is lightyears away from the era of static brand style guides, brand social media guidelines and similar, graphic design-oriented deliverables. They are still useful, for sure but when you’re talking about Product and overall Experience Design, you have to think bigger. It is not enough to limit design in the walls of a pixel. UX Writing is a huge part of this shift.
It’ll be extremely challenging to tackle and improve the brand experience without great UX Writing.
Don’t be afraid of being boring, for once.
UX writing serves a prime purpose: to help users accomplish tasks successfully. It is more functional than entertaining, clear than clever, direct-to-the-point than metaphorical. Designing for usability isn’t always exciting and loud. In fact, the more invisible it is, the better for the user experience. Remember, design for the user, not for your fellow designers. It is not about you, it’s about them.
Walk the talk with your copy on this one. Your users will thank you.
Learn from the best in the industry.
Books: Conversational Design by Erika Hall, Writing is Designing by Michael J. Metts & Andy Welfle and many others
This article is a part of the accidental series called “Design Literacy: How-To’s Edition”. In an effort to increase the visibility of UX and Design to any one who needs it, I started formalizing my notes and insights. I believe in the power of design through education. We learn better together. Writing is a great medium for this.
About the author
Nikki is a Sr. UX Designer working for a data company in New Jersey. In the last 2 years, she has helped design & build a holographic platform, contracted for a research team inside Fidelity Investments, worked in the Design Operations side of an e-commerce company, mentored brilliant design students/career-changers, advocated for UX best practices at RookieUp, have co-taught UX courses at General Assembly and have also contributed directly to the growth of the Mentorship program on UXPA-New York. Designing for a better world is her life. She also runs her own newsletter, working title, about her thoughts on the future and more.