Article No :1733 | March 27, 2020 | by Stephanie Blucker

Imagine you want to text a coworker that you picked up a cup of coffee for them at their favorite shop, but it’s getting cold, so you’d like to meet up with them in the next 15 minutes. How would you say that in five words? That’s kind of what UX writing is like: choosing just a few words to describe something when you could easily use 30.

There’s a strong relationship between perfectionism and UX writing — and for good reason. Choosing those words is something we writers obsess over. Which is clearer: remove or delete? They mean slightly different things, and it depends on the context.

Unearthing those perfect five words isn’t a matter of mining your own brain until you find the gems; it’s a process that requires the participation — and criticism — of others. It can be painful at first, but successful UX writers know the importance of seeking out the right words through trial and error.

Here are some ways to approach that process, from initial creation all the way through collaboration.

Your starting point for any UX writing should always be the same: ask questions. All of them. Even the ones you don’t think need to be asked.

Some of my favorites include:

  • What happens before and after this?
  • If someone has setting A, B, or C turned on, does it affect this?
  • What are people trying to accomplish here? Are we empathizing with whatever frustrations they might be experiencing?
  • Are we expecting people to recall information they’ll need in the future? (i.e., how heavy is the cognitive load?)
  • What assumptions are we making, and are we sure they’re correct?
  • Will this experience still be successful and enjoyable for someone who has low vision, has trouble walking, can’t hear, etc.?

It’s easy to put on blinders and just focus on one screen, one sentence, one button. But — huge spoiler alert — UX writing isn’t really about words. It’s about when and how to communicate something so that your experience creates positive feelings for the person engaging with it.

When you start drafting, write down the entire message you want to get across first. In the coffee example above, that’s something like:

I picked up a cup of coffee for you at your favorite shop, but it’s getting cold, so I’d like to meet up with you in the next 15 minutes.

Then, highlight the most important elements:

I picked up a cup of coffee for you at your favorite shop, but it’s getting cold, so I’d like to meet up with you in the next 15 minutes.

Notice that there’s an implicit goal here: to get your coworker to meet with you before their coffee gets cold. Every element you’ve highlighted should support that goal in some way. “Favorite shop” is great information, but it doesn’t convey as much immediacy as the other pieces of information.

Now, break these elements down even further — and maybe combine or leave out some altogether:

  • Cup of coffee → coffee
  • Getting cold  This conveys urgency, but a timeline like “next 15 minutes” will achieve the same thing.
  • Meet up  meet
  • Next 15 minutes  soon

Add a verb, a pronoun, and some punctuation, and your original 30-word sentence turns into the five words you need:

Got you coffee! Meet soon?

Instead of starting long and refining, first define the pieces of information that you want to communicate, and then write each of those pieces separately. As much as I’d love to keep talking about coffee, let’s look at a real-life example.

For a project I was working on last month, the actual information we wanted to communicate was that:

  1. Turning on a particular setting in Windows 10 gives people who are blind or who have low vision more information about the fonts in the document they’re working on.
  2. They might want to turn on this setting if they’re editing a document.

Let’s label these two pieces of information:

  1. The information the setting provides to the customer when it’s turned on.
  2. The primary use case for that setting (i.e., when the customer would likely want to turn on the setting).

Then, write out them out individually, as well as how they could be combined:

  • Option 1: The info the setting provides
  • Option 2: Primary use case
  • Option 3: The info the setting provides + primary use case

In real words, that might translate to:

  • Option 1: Get text formatting details like font and italics.
  • Option 2: Best for advanced editing.
  • Option 3: Get text formatting details like font and italics for advanced editing.

Now, go to town: How many ways can you say Options 1 and 2? How does that impact how Option 3 sounds? You’ll likely find combinations you hadn’t thought of before, especially when you’re working with more pieces of information.

If you really want to take this approach to the next level, make each of your labels a column header in Excel, write your content in the cells below them, and use the CONCAT function to combine them.

This hard work and careful thinking haven’t produced a solution — they’ve produced a recommendation. The best time to throw it out into the world is now. Yes, now.

We have a philosophy here: fail fast. It’s a necessary one, too: if you wait until something is perfect, your opportunity to get it in front of people will have long passed you by. Even then, you’ll be deeply disappointed to find out that it wasn’t so perfect after all.

Collaboration and criticism are the cornerstones of writing that resonates. Testing and getting reactions to your ideas is part of learning, and sending unfinished or unpolished work out into the world is a chance to understand how people who aren’t you will react to and interpret your work.

We hold biweekly UX writers’ workshops with this goal in mind. Does this word mean the same thing to different people? Is it clear what someone’s options are on this screen? Will someone know what UI element to select, even if they don’t know what a toggle is?

I’m captivated by the quality of the conversations and questions that come from these meetings. They’re filled with “why didn’t I think of that?” moments, and that’s OK. You’re only one person, with one perspective. You can’t come up with every disclaimer, caveat, and loophole that will help you define a great UX.

At the same time, always remember your primary audience. If your audience is mostly people who use a screen reader, who probably know what a toggle is because they regularly hear that UI element read out to them, it’s OK to use “toggle.” Just make those choices intentionally.

Lastly, listen for imperatives: we have to do it this way, or we have to say it this way. These are almost never true.

Ultimately, even if you are just writing five words, those words are part of a larger end-to-end experience. If that experience is broken — if it makes false assumptions about someone’s knowledge, enthusiasm, goals, or anything else — there’s nothing your words can do to fix it. Don’t write to cover holes: start conversations with the right people about how the experience can be improved. That collaboration is exactly what preserves technology’s humanity.