Fighting Techniques of UX Writing: Examples of useful and useless copy

When I started putting my thoughts on UX writing together, I had a hard time connecting the “principles” and the ways they can be demonstrated on real-life cases. Whenever I learned about a new editing technique, I immediately looked through my projects trying to find a place in the text to test this new technique. What a dumb thing to do.

It took me a lot of time to let the understanding brew. I attribute a lot of it to the methods of the new wave of editors and writers adopting the informational style. Techniques do nothing unless they are backed by rules. I only see two rules: care for the reader and respect the reader. Everything else stems from them. It’s easier to understand how to address people you don’t know once you accept those two rules.

So the following is the list of techniques I’ve learned from writers and editors that I find especially useful.

Fighting techniques of UX writing

Most guides put persuasion on top of the UX writing pyramid. However, persuasion is not something you can achieve by stringing powerful words. It can have the opposite effect because we are all experts in falsehood due to the number of cheap marketing copies on the internet.

At the same time, persuasion is what the clients pay for. The copy has to work. This makes all the psychological principles of UX writing look like they are aiming at persuasion only. In reality, how persuasive you are does not depend on how many facts you fire off. It is about how much these facts resonate with people and their mood.  

Persuasion without honesty is falsehood waiting to be exposed. Here’s how to maintain persuasion without a risk of falling into falsehood:

Easing

We ease off the bait by letting people know why they should not use the product or what the downsides of it are.

It’s important to find the balance between the client’s urge to hook a lead and a writer’s desire to have dignity. Easing is a display of people’s right to hear the opposite point of view. If there is no opposite side, we should create it for validity.

Now, this can be a tricky thing to suggest to a client, but when done right, easing helps create a balance of honest qualities that would otherwise be uncontrolled. Instead of saying how good your product is, add why it also is bad to tint the good:

Deafinition guitar amps won’t satisfy street performers unless 63.5 lbs is a reasonable weight to carry.

We are intentionally cutting out a chunk of customers that might not be satisfied with the product anyway. Then we come back with a reasoning which is more friendly.

We should not overextend on this either:

Don’t buy Deafinition guitar amps if you hate rock’n’roll and can’t pick a dog up.

Another salesy pitch:

Today, Holdma Beer is the leader of the industry with a strong, insightful vision and a dynamic, efficient organizational structure.

Doesn’t make you want to crack one open. What about this one:

Making traditionally-brewed beer. Barrel-aged, expensive, and hard-to-find, our Holdma Beer is a challenge not all can withstand.

People are used to pitches, that’s why product reviews are so popular. They give an unbiased perspective and care. Easing allows you to emulate that and build more trust for the product you are writing about.

Illustrating

Writing with no connection to life is empty. All the accolades don’t mean shit unless backed up by proof. Contextual illustrations work the same way images do. Without them, it’s just lorem ipsum reborn:

For decades, ImmaTure has built a reputation for supplying the best quality products, high value and service to satisfy our clients’ needs. The challenges our customers face in their own pursue of a quality product are our challenges as well. With low-cost imports and outsourced competitors, it becomes even harder to build strategic productive partnerships vital to your business success.

Even though there is no falsehood in this statement, it does nothing in terms of value for a user, a client, or a company itself. This type of text is only a placeholder. Here’s the fix:

In 2018, the rates of imported parts reduced by 3%. American companies are looking for reliable suppliers within the country. We find partners for them and transition the deals with all financial risks on us.

Now, the statement starts to look like it has some substance to it. The numbers add specifics. Innovation is not what people will look for. They want the services to be named loud and clear. The more realistic the naming, the better.

Specifics are good but they should not overreach. There is no need to illustrate what needs no illustration:

We take the finest high-protein baker’s flour wheat and pure artesian water for our dough to make every bite of our signature bread heartfully delicious.

Sometimes there is nothing to illustrate. In that case, we should resort to something unusual like an emoji code or a meme. A UX writer’s paycheck does not depend on the number of words strung. It depends on the effect produced.

Animating

As much as illustrations help describe a product in the customer’s world, animations help bring dynamic into the writing. Animation in UX writing means adding characters–the people.

Impersonal:

Our academic programs are aimed at forging a unique ecosystem of knowledge capable of producing versatile professionals.

Personal:

We teach battleworthy young professionals. Our students got jobs at Balenciaga, JPMorgan Chase, and Disney.

The first string is nothing but a machine-gun burst of high-profile words that are so detached from reality, it makes me yawn. In the second piece you feel the energy of those young pros dismantling the big ones.

I love stories about real people. People create instant context. If I’m writing for a highly-specialized product and there is no obvious person to relate to, I relate to the reader. If someone can read the copy, they can be a part of it.

However, a situation described should not be put on a reader. God forbid us sounding like a home shopping commercial:

Are you exhausted by aching feet and legs?! Do you suffer from swollen ankles and calves?! Now, there’s Miracle Socks!

Even I am suffering from swollen calves, I don’t want to admit it. This kind of stuff looks like an invasion into a private space. If you have to write for the miracle socks, add a persona whose life got better because of them. People want to identify themselves with other successful people. If they recognize themselves in the personas, they will look at the products these personas use.   

With that, we should stay away from creating preposterous situations. If the persona you create is rare or unique, people won’t feel relatable to them:

Our bluetooth connection booster is like an RSSI to old telemetry receivers.

Finally, we should avoid dumbification. One thing is creating attachment to real life, another is wasting a reader’s time by chewing over something that is easily understandable on its own:

An automobile is a horse of the 21st century. Likewise, it requires food, care, and shoeing. Food is gas, care is care, and shoes are tires.

Leveraging

A writer knows more about the subject of their writing. A simple way to tell if they don’t is when after reading a phrase several times, it still makes zero sense. If a sentence is filled with mind-bending words, the author is hiding something, perhaps their lack of knowledge or interest. More on that in the style part below.

Author’s ability to navigate their topic includes leveraging certain parts of it to reach goals. I  see leveraging as a technique of surprising the reader. Surprise can make an impression and become a memory. If a reader remembers your copy because there was “this cool thing about something”, it means the leverage was good.

A leverage is the opposite of meh. But words are not enough to kill the meh, we have to use facts and writing to get the leverage. This is the Flash app that I found of Product Hunt. Like most modern apps, Flash does not have a flashy interface, it is about reading and there’s nothing but reading.

Fighting Techniques of UX Writing | Shakuro

The leverage here is the demo. You can go deep into the mechanism of speed reading but to a user it doesn’t matter. What matters is the immediate effect the app has on a user. Flashing words you can’t help but try to keep up reading, and a tone which makes the copy sound like a chat with a friend. I’m obsessed with speed reading now.

When writing for a complex product with a variety of features, leveraging one can derail another. In that case, we can generalize. People using one feature might not even be aware of the other. As writers, we can leverage the big picture. Think of the table of contents. We might not read every part but we know where we are. This requires consistency and a deep understanding of the product or the topic. In this case, we navigate a user through the “white noise” of technical terms.

This is Backroom Coffee Roasters, a great company with amazing coffee. Here’s their introduction:

Backroom Coffee Roasters

We feel at home where wrenches spin and the scent of roasting coffee wafts through the air. Born in the “Backroom” of a bicycle shop in 2010, we quickly outgrew the space and now roast our small batch coffee in a former airplane hangar.

We are tinkers by trade, and we fine-tune each coffee we roast until it meets our standards of quality over quantity. Coffee is the fuel that feeds us and is our catalyst for inspiration.

Here’s to coffee fueled inspiration!

And here’s what we can do to their bio to leverage the knowledge of the process instead of only stating the fact that the company is cool:

Backroom Coffee Roasters

Roasting traditional and signature blends of coffee.

Coffee is a magical product that needs a complex process to reveal its flavor. We roast beans to give people best-tasting coffee.

Whole bean coffee is at its best within fourteen days after roasting, then it goes stale. We hand-sort the beans for a specific blend, develop roasting profiles, and preserve the flavor in packaging.

Coffee roasting produces chaff and smoke that’s why we base in a former airplane hangar. We outgrew our original place in the backroom of a bike shop but did not lose our small batch culture.

Another thing we can leverage is metaphors. Metaphors help connect the subject of the copy with the reader’s world:

Legal paperwork is the kryptonite for a small business.

The danger of metaphors is in their flexibility. If a metaphor does the same for every product, not just the one you are writing about, it’s weak:

At Jigsauce, we are like a crew of a spaceship. Everyone has a job to do.

Metaphors work if they are surprising but not caricaturish:

                 No                                                                Yes

The messengers of digital progress                  Tech bloggers

A footage montage guru                                      A video editor

A team of stargazers riding into the sunset      Marketing managers

A hard pill to swallow for writers is sometimes it’s better not to write. When there is no decent leverage, it’s better to not invent one. Sometimes writers resort to mediocre humor and weirdness under the client’s pressure. There is no place for lolz in UX writing no matter which audience you address. Honesty is a leverage on its own.

Written by Moses Kim
February 02, 2019

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