UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1129 October 30, 2013

Five Principles of Writing for Users

Writing for users is a deeply intuitive and technical trade. As with web design, digital writing needs to resolve the user’s existing knowledge and instincts with an interactive product.

Digital writing encompasses elements of content strategy: building information architectures, determining content requirements, and finding ways to solve UX problems with things like videos and tools. Our job is to model, structure, and create information.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some principles that underpin and define how we should write for users.

1. The green light principle

The words you use need to be as easy to understand as a green light—at least, this is the goal. Make your copy so simple, intuitive, and brief that users don’t notice it. “Less is more,” an old boss used to say. This truism of writing is especially true when it comes to writing copy for an interface. After all, interfaces need to be digested and used quickly.

Users can’t be expected to ponder long sentences. People start reading things without realizing they’re doing it, so get in and out before they notice you were even there.

2. Be briefer, and briefer again

The concept of progressive reduction is core to our trade. It’s the idea that users should need less and less “hand holding” as they spend more time with a product. Good products will quickly become second nature.

Look at how copy cascades across your user’s journey. Find ways of making it even more economical once your users have had their first few interactions. Try not to need to re-explain a concept in detail when it reappears (unless it’s rare or complex, of course).

People don’t need their fingertips labeled, so why should we label UI elements?

3. Be forgotten

With many products, we serve instructional content during the first use and then never show it again. But why stop there? As a writer, I dream of interfaces where all my words can cascade away during the journey.

It’s the end game of progressive reduction, and it’s a paradoxical aspect of the job. You want your users to be able to wield your product without even thinking. This means you need to help them move beyond the words you write. People don’t need their fingertips labeled, so why should we label UI elements?

This may be an extreme example, but it serves as a reminder to look for opportunities to replace a copy-based element with an icon that’s easily and quickly understood. Work with designers to create smart copy-icon pairings. If this pairing is done right, you can retire copy and let the icon work its semiotic magic.

4. Content doesn’t exist, only experiences do

You need to keep this in mind when you work on the content strategy side of things. Remember that you’re building something that needs to be used by someone. Your job isn’t to glue together a bunch of disjointed things. You’re building an experience, and that’s all that matters. Users won’t remember any single word or piece of content—they’ll just remember if your product was useful, fun, and beautiful, or if it wasn’t.

5. Work in teams

Advertising agencies have been putting their creatives into teams for decades. We need to do the same. Great UX comes from the same place as great ads—a mixture of art, copy, and insight. Teams allow us to build more complete concepts from the ground up. No more replacing lorem ipsum, no more retrofitting content strategies to completed designs.

It also helps us test an experience more thoroughly. The UX designer examines function and interaction, the writer can inquire about new and better language and structures. We shouldn’t just test half the experience—test the whole thing, art and copy together.

UX writing vs content writing

Broadly speaking, there are two components to what we do: UX writing and content writing. What I’ve described above is what you’d call UX writing. Like UX design, it’s focused on ratifying a user’s needs with a technical product.

Content writing is more about the form of a product than its function. Users need to connect with content, relate to it, and enjoy it. UX writing, on the other hand, should meld with your product, and go unnoticed.

With that said, these principles form a good basis for all web writing, and help us build products that our users can wield like extensions of themselves.

Image of pencils courtest Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Ben is Content Strategy Lead and UX Strategist at Proximity BBDO in Melbourne, Australia. He's previously worked for TBWA/DAN and DTDigital on clients as diverse as McCain, Qantas, American Express, and Honda. Ben also works with ClickFork, a startup that brings great online experiences to the restaurant industry. Outside of that, he's written for The Guardian, Thought Catalog, B&T and a few others. Check out some of his stuff at benbn.me.

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Comments

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Great article, thank you!
I have just one concern about icons: they are not symbol, they can be nterpreted in many ways depending on many things like culture, context, past experiences, etc..
Once we tested a website on smartphones and on desktop. The group that first used the smartphone, they couldn't find the main menu because they didn't recognize the hamburger icon as a menu btn. We used bootstrap to prototype without changing the frame too much. I'm sure the hamburger icon will be recognized at the first glance by everyone, but only because it will always be related to the same function in every websites and in the same context. The fact that a large community of users and designers accepted that as the menu btn makes the humburger icon a symbol, not an icon anymore.

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All well and good. If only your diatribe wasn't so clunky and typo-infused.

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People don’t need their fingertips labeled, so why should we label UI elements?

There are some concepts where an icon won't do on its own. Also, not many apps are being used constantly by people. It really depends on what kind of application you're creating and how often people will be interacting with it. A travel application for example would possibly need icons with labels as most people don't take trips every day and can forget the interface because they've been away for a while.

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Totally agree! I put it forward here as more of an 'aspiration'. We want our users to be able to digest and use an interface with as much ease as possible. In some cases, this is achievable by cascading copy away and just using visual elements. Though you're totally right – this isn't always possible, and it doesn't always make for a better experience.