Why Choosing The Right Words is Important

Imagine this scenario...

You're using an eCommerce app for the first time. You mistakenly placed a wrong order and now you want to cancel it. You go to that little bin icon to click it, and then you see this message.

Confirm cancellation message

Okay, what now? What are you supposed to click on? Does the "OK" button mean, "Okay, confirm the cancellation" or does it mean "Okay, continue with the same order"? What about the "Cancel" button? Does it mean "Cancel my order" or does it mean "Cancel this message and go back to the previous page"?

This is a prime example of really bad UX copy. It's meant to demonstrate how important good copy is to making your product's UX smooth and seamless. Choosing the right words can make or break your product. And that is what we're going to discuss in this article.

Here are some of the top lessons in UX writing from Google!

How to Approach Content Strategy

"Focus on the user."

As is the case for many decisions related to your product, your UX copy should also be informed by keeping the user's needs in mind. UX copywriting is different from general copywriting as it is focused on helping the user achieve specific tasks at hand. On the other hand, general copywriting has traditionally meant writing promotional material aimed to make the viewer take a particular action, whether it is to buy a product or to start a free trial.

But one shouldn't think of these as two completely separate disciplines. In fact, if your team has separate people filing in the roles of copywriter and UX writer, they should definitely be working together alongwith your designers and researchers. A great UX is created when your team follows a holistic content strategy.

How research, content strategy and design are connected

UX writing is one specific thing within your content strategy that deals with helping the user achieve their goals through the right language. But good UX writing by itself isn't enough to help the user. It must always be a part of your overarching content strategy, which includes not just text, but layout and imagery as well.

What this means for your team is that regardless of whether or not you have separate people working on design, content, research, and other domains, it helps to think of content strategy holistically.

How good UX writing can help users

Okay, enough chatter about strategy. I need some specific examples of good UX copy and how it helps users, you must be thinking. Let me show you some.

1. Surfacing the right info at the right time

PayTM Wallet balance screenshot

If you've ever used PayTM, you must have seen this screen. I'm sure this isn't unique to PayTM but let's consider it for the sake of example. Look at the wallet balance shown at the bottom, just above the "Pay" button. This is an example of surfacing the right information at the right time. Imagine how annoying it would be if the user decides to enter a payment amount more than the wallet balance and clicks on the "Pay" button, only to then be greeted by some sort of error message. Preemptively showing the user how much they can pay directly out of their PayTM wallet helps them save time and make an informed decision.

2. Providing helpful cues to ease the user's journey

Let's consider the example of Notion. When you create a new document in Notion, there's this cue right underneath the title that says, "Press Enter to continue with an empty page, or pick a template (⬆️⬇️ to select). And then under that, you can see some popular options available as well as a "Templates" option where you can see all available templates.

Notion new document screenshot

This introduces users to the power and versatility of Notion right from the get go. If the default option was to start with an empty page, many folks would probably have to find the options manually (possibly by using slash commands, which many non-techies aren't familiar with), or worse, they might miss these features entirely. Considering this versatility is one of the biggest draws of Notion in the first place, I think introducing the user to templates right at the beginning is a great call.

3. Using language to help the user go where they want to

One of my absolute favorite tools to use in my day-to-day work is Canva. I have been using it since 2015 and I still love it to this day. One thing I've noticed about Canva is how their UX copy always feels simple and direct yet never dumbified. When you log into your account, you see the big, bold text that says, "Design Anything." I'd say that's very fitting for a brand like Canva. It's aspirational, but doesn't sacrifice clarity, as there's a search bar right under the text which lets you search amongst hundreds (probably more) templates!

Canva welcome screen

Not only that, the "Create a design" button on the top right is refreshingly straightforward. When you click on it, it shows you many popular templates (and their exact sizes when you hover) and a "Custom Dimensions" button that - no surprises - lets you easily specify your own design dimensions in pixels, inches, etc.. Canva uses language really well to help their users where they want to go!

Measuring the impact of language

So it's pretty clear that good UX copy can help you solve problems for your users and help them achieve their goals. But how do you measure the business impact of language? Well, here's an example directly from Google.

In their Hotel Search, they used to have the words "Book a room" at the top. They realized that the user might not be that committed to booking a room in their mindset yet, so the "Book a room" prompt was too early in the journey. Most people were still considering the availability of rooms and tentative prices, and they were not quite ready to book yet.

Google Hotel Search screenshot

When the folks at Google changed the prompt to "Check availability", they registered a 17% increase in engagement. I don't need to tell you how much business value that means for a giant like Google.

So it's pretty evident that language plays a big role in the success of our products, both in their ability to solve users' problems and to create tangible business impact.

So how can you make sure your product has great UX copy? Let's dive into it.

3 Principles for great UX writing

One of the greatest challenges of product writing is using language that can be easily understood by anybody. As writers in product teams, we get exposed to a lot of technical lingo that our audience might not be familiar with, and it is our job to convert those technical words into something human. For experienced writers, this becomes intuitive as we think about the technical context and the people using the product, and then sound out different words in our heads to see what feels right.
But this might not be as intuitive for many of you. There are ways, however, to still be able to write good copy that follows best practices, even if you don't have trained writers on your team. Here are the three principles you should use to guide you through UX writing process for your product.

1. Clear

Let's start with the most basic but also the most important one: clarity. If your product copy lacks clarity, the engagement will take a huge hit. This is why we emphasize using human language in all our products. And this doesn't disregard special contexts. If your audience is specialist and you're trying to sell them a technical product, of course the writing will be specialist as well, e.g. a cloud infrastructure company. That's totally fine because your writing keeps your users at the forefront. What's not fine is using technical jargon where simpler words would do.

Take, for example, the case of a user who entered the wrong password when signing in to your product. If the next message on the screen is this, you're doing it wrong.

Authentication error message

This sounds awful, because "failure", "system error", "authentication issue" are all software problems. They're not a big deal for the user, so tone down the language and make it more human. Another thing that adds clarity is paying attention to your verbs. Switch passive, less powerful verbs that define a state of being ("has occured") for active, direct verbs that define what the user is doing.

improved copy for sign-in message

So much better, right? This is the power of a clear message.

2. Concise

The next principle is concision. Just making your text clear isn't enough, you need to go a step further and make it concise. And this is not a gut-feeling thing, it's backed by data. Several studies have shown that most of the time, we don't read a page, we scan it. This means that writers should front-load the copy, i.e. write in a way that ensures the important bits come first.

In the same vein, we should also make sure every world has a distinct job and the enough context is available. In the above example, there's an obvious redundancy. Can you spot it? It's the header. If we remove it entirely, it doesn't affect the message or the context at all.

This is a common problem with a lot of design, because when the mockups are created, there's a lot of superflous headers and subtexts and other fields that writers later feel compelled to fill in.

Mockup with placeholder text

The solution to this is practising content-first design. Work with your designers to create visuals that are tailored to your copy and avoid jamming your messages into boxes not meant for them.

So if at the end of this exercise, we're left with something like this, it's fine.

extremely simplified copy for sign-in error

It stands on its own without additional context and provides sufficient information to the user. Obviously, this is just one very specific example and you won't always be able to make your copy so brief. But this principle will always be helpful when you're writing UX copy.

3. Useful

Let's talk about the last principle, the principle of usefulness. You want your copy to always help the user get where they want to go. We've all seen dead-end screens in apps and websites, right? This was especially common in the early days of mobile apps. You'd get to a dead-end screen and then have no idea what to do next or how to get out of there.

Common dead-end patterns: Usability Tip: No Dead-Ends, Please

That is an annoying situation, isn't it? In our sign-in error example, we're currently in the same boat. The CTA just reads "OK", which is not helpful in the least. CTAs should always be guided by what people actually want to do in the moment. So if you put yourself in the user's shoes for a minute, you'll know that the CTAs should look something like this.

Useful CTAs for sign-in error message

Conclusion

I hope it is clear to you why choosing the right language is important for your product and how much impact the words can have on your product's success.

Summing up the three principles, this is what we have:

  1. Clear: jargon-free, offers context
  2. Concise: economical, front-loaded
  3. Useful: directs next action

"But Utkarsh, doesn't this sound lifeless and boring?" I hear you ask.

Why, yes, it does. The principles, as you must've noticed, aren't in perfect harmony with each other, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions here. UX writing is an art, and one needs to find the right balance by looking at the user's context as well as the brand voice.

Brand voice is what injects personality into your product writing. We'll delve deeper into the subject of brand voice in a follow-up article!


Note

This article is an abridged version of the UX Writing panel from Google I/O 2017, which I absolutely loved and have since shared with many of my peers. I think it's absolutely packed with value, but a lot of people don't want to watch a 39 minute long video, which is why I wrote this in order to distill the learnings of the video in a blog as well as solidify my own understanding of the subject. After all, the best way to learn is to teach. 😉

Anyway, here's the full video if you want to check it out:

Cheers,
Utkarsh


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