No Magic Words: How to write for the web

Design is about using a visual language to communicate the usefulness of something in an aesthetically pleasing way. However, design’s most vocal part – words, has nothing to do with visuals. Words are more than just the shells for fonts. They are design’s secret weapon that carries the meaning that visual elements fail to represent. Words are not magic but they can work some. To follow, are just a few principles of UX writing and how they can be applied.

Text is the second oldest way of transferring information. Text is responsible for the evolution of science because it has given immortality to ideas that otherwise would be sealed in an infinite loop of discovery and rediscovery. Meaning has become the biggest value and for the longest time, text remained the main transport for meaning. Up until the point when the digital media took over.

People started using images and sound to bypass textual interpretation of meaning and cut straight to the notion. However, what seemed like a natural progression towards unmediated conveying of ideas, turned out to be just a snapshot of the time and context it was created in. 

No Magic Words. Fixing Design With UX Writing | Shakuro

This early Macintosh interface is based on the designers’ newly-found crush on metaphors. Twenty-five years later, we don’t know what these metaphors mean which calls in a question whether textual mediation was redundant after all. The image that might have been a perfect match for a phenomenon in its time, dies with that phenomenon. The acknowledgment that visual language is rigid and finite is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of designers.   

Unlike visuals, words are not born with meanings.

The reason why natural languages only die when the people who speak it die is because they are not bound to a specific time. Language lets us address things in the past, present, and future. It is capable of describing the potential actions and outcomes that are not available in the tangible UI form. Words are actualized by the context they exist in. The same word can name a simple notion and encapsulate a complex group of notions at the same time. 

Good writing

The machine-to-machine interaction is dreadfully perfect and unambiguous. In the early days, it was thought that the future of humanity will be that. However, human-computer interaction has more human in it. We speak in vague statements, not premeditated queries. Visuals can’t handle that the way words can. Still, there is no magic in words. It’s the context they are used in that does the trick.

According to Ben Burns of Blind, UX started as a discipline of “influencing controllable variables to cause a positive emotional response when a person interacts with a product, environment, or brand.”

If we think about emotion, it is triggered by strong motives which are either aesthetically pleasing or relate to you personally. Design has a lot to deal with the first motive and for that very reason, it is often deemed decorative. However, relating to a user personally is also a design task. Since we are using words to communicate the value of our products, we need to be good with them. That means being able to describe things aptly and concisely, express care and respect, and beware of the narcissistic graphomania. This is UX writing. I took a lot of these ideas from a Russian editor Maxim Ilyahov and he took it from William Strunk Jr. and Nora Gal.        

Always about a reader 

A common misconception design copywriters have about users, or as we call them, readers is that they actually care. They came to your website, bought your product, hence they want your content and your information. So the task of your copy is to inform a reader.

No one:
Business: We offer disruptive innovation that will revolutionize the way you …

Forget informing. Regardless of what you do and what the product is about, it is never a good idea to:

  • Notify a user
  • Communicate to a user
  • Teach a user
  • Inform a user
  • Tell a user about …

A reader does not want to be informed or taught about an unsolicited subject. When someone informs you about something, they automatically imply that you are inferior to them and neglect them. Due to the toxicity of commercials and ads which have zero concern about whether a user wants to see that ad, everything a business produces meets resistance. A writer’s job is to overcome that resistance by paying attention to the context, the form, and the meaning.

When you inform: “I don’t know who this is for, probably not me.”
When you inform: “What do you mean I do it wrong? I’ve been doing this for years. Who are they to say …”
When you inform: “Yeah, you just want my money, why don’t you come over and try …”

This happens when the writing is concerned with its business goals rather than its real value. Or as Jason Fox puts it, when the copy loves itself too much. Every product and service on the market competes against each other for attention. How much of people’s attention can we get if we promote ourselves instead of promoting how we can help them?

Everyone with a smartphone is a couple of touches away from all the information they need. Unfiltered, clickbaity, low-quality but still more relevant than whatever pitched without asking. So instead of stating what you can do and how, say what you is that you can do for them. Everything a product does has to come in the user realm.

Company realm
We are ethical and trustworthy.
User realm
We don’t allow leaks and never share data with anyone.
Company realm
Efficiently utilizing the power of AI reshape the way you do business and private accounting and record keeping. We created an algorithm that uses big data to analyze the weak points and take measures before fiscal deficits happen.
User realm
Most third-party accountants don’t have enough data to prevent fiscal gaps. We help our clients automate their budgeting based on history. For example, we plan and calculate payrolls and taxes in advance, so that no expenses come unexpectedly.
Company realm
In this world of diluted responsibility, we are the beacon of reliability and resilience. When no one stands behind the initial principles of binary options, we thrive on piety.
User realm
Binary options do have a bad rep. We know it’s murky waters but for the past two years, we’ve helped traders get back on track with binary options. John Mayers used to …
Company realm
We win awards, have an environment-friendly office, write for BI, and do charity.
User realm
We know about your problems and we know exactly what to do to reduce your pain.

This does not mean you have to forget about your business goals, personality, and SEO. All of these can flourish in a good text if they come from a genuine desire to help a user. A more complicated question is why would a user want to read your text and pay attention to your product. Let’s address that.

Defines useful effect 

A UX copy of a website is a consistent message and an identifiable voice of the brand people are interacting with. It goes into everything the brand does – the product, the packaging, a website error message, and an Instagram bio text. Ideally, all of these are written by one person and shared across the entire brand. This is impossible because even the writer who wrote a text might disagree with it a year later. 

UX writing supports the brand through useful wording, not shameless pitching.

The core of being useful is being helpful. Help can come from a lot of angles but it has to be desirable, relevant, and respectful. Because a lot of companies see their use through the lens of their revenue, they never get to establish a connection with the people that reaches further than a one-time purchase.

To build that connection, the product has to speak of its useful effect. Informing that you are out there is not a useful effect. Watch the highlighted pieces:

Back Door Roasters makes unique blends of coffee and runs them through endothermic and exothermic roasting processes at 175ºC which guarantees perfect acidity. Our sources come from a reliable supplier and a complex automated roasting control system accessible through multiple devices.

Hubanero uses custom data filtering algorithm to track employees’ activity in a distributed system. Our smart integration tools make sure no byte goes under the radar.

The Bonobo creative design consultancy collective was established in 1993. Building wireframes and prototypes, writing copy and designing interactions for progressive web applications and hybrid mobile apps.

The problem with all of these is they focus on what makes sense for the business and not the user. These details can only be given if the client is looking specifically for them, for example when it’s important if the beans are roasted at 175ºC. With that, these specific cases are not the ones to focus the design copy on.

Some might say these details prove your expertise. Words without proof don’t. The expertise shines through the way you provide value, not speak about it. Show care right away. Leave the details for later:

At Back Door Roasters, we buy single-source coffee from a family-owned farm in Columbia, ship them to the US and roast traditional and designer blends. We are combining automated and hand roasting depending on the batch. Selling blends to Starbucks since 2014.

Hubanero tracks the time your employees spend on work. It works with desktop computers, mobile devices, and offline. You can integrate it with any task management system and …

The Bonobo collective designs software, websites, and apps, creates motion graphics and brand strategies. We make brands look and feel good and teach employees to maintain that.

It’s not always necessary to explain what is it exactly that you do and how your product works. Every brewery follows more or less the same technology but they are all different in the way they make you feel about the brand. In that case, make sure you are relatable.

With that said, there are times when a client needs technical details. In this case, cut to the chase:

Converting multiple 3dm, 3ds, cd, dae, dgn, dwg, emf, fbx, gf, and gdf files into editable 3D models.
Pypelaier Inc. is a California-based plumbing company. Designing and planning industrial hydrologic systems. Using Milli-Q-System and percolation beds for conduits.

In short, the useful effect of the copy has to come in first and depending on the goals and specifics, can be highlighted by technical details afterwards.

Respects boundaries

Another wrong path to follow when writing a UX copy for design is user manipulation. It might not even be obvious for a writer but people feel it right away. Everything that concerns their decisions, doubts, desires, will, and fears is a banned substance of UX writing. There is a mere chance of nailing it but far more probable is a writer missing a shot and alienating a user.

Remember home shopping videos making people look like morons doing regular tasks? Imagine that person in the video had your face. That’s what a copy does when it creeps into your head. 

No Magic Words

Here’s that in a copy:
Bet you didn’t know what this cream can do to your face!

First of all, there should be no direct ‘you’. Then, what if they actually know? What if they have a Ph.D. in cosmetic medicine? Any misalignment with user thoughts is a direct way to bounce. Observing boundaries means not meddling with the user’s thoughts.

Violated
Are you feeling hopeless beneath a mountain of debts lasting from your student loans? Enough is enough. You will learn how to get out from under it in our new course Undebt 101.
Respected
Debts might chase us for years, even after the goal has been reached. Through our Undebt 101 course, we help people get out of debt of up to $100K in 12 months.
Violated
New to the MakerBaker website and don’t know where to start? It’s okay, click here for a quick tour.
Respected
Welcome to MakerBaker! It’s a lot to grasp here but people say this quick tour through our website is helpful and fun.
Violated
Holy smokes! How can I say no?!
Respected
Subscribe/Sign up/Register.

What might seem like a way to bond with a user by showing how much you know them, is familiarity. Except for making personal assumptions, a writer has to show there are options that a user might find helpful. UX copy doesn’t claim to know what people think. But it’s vocal about what it sees.

Simplifies introduction

A business is a complicated structure with multiple assets to it. The more a writer knows about the company, the harder it gets to define it in simple terms. However, people look for patterns they can recognize to form an initial attitude. This is a tricky part because clients are usually biased towards their brand and their perception might not align with that of a user.

It’s important for us to take a step back from the business goals and think of a user first – do they like the design they see? Do they understand what the business does? Are they ready to take action? The design might be great but if it does not simply state what the brand is, it puts further interaction in danger.

Sometimes a beautiful website says something like this:

We are Flexa. Stop selling, start earning. Empowering through culture, sales, and referrals.
IntroSpective unties creative knots and instigates effective solutions.
Welcome to Pursery. We unearth and unleash effective financial strategies.

None of these give a clear perspective of what they actually do. A home page is not a place to engage and strike a user with uniqueness. This is the first contact and it doesn’t have to require a further explanation. A writer has to capture the essence of a business with real simple words.

We are Flexa, a marketing agency
IntroSpective is a brand design consultancy
Welcome to Pursery financial advising

A client might say that they don’t want to be defined by a certain cliché and they are bigger than a plain ‘agency’. In that case, a writer and a designer have to address the fact that a reader comes from a totally fresh perspective and looks for the familiar traits to make sense out of what they see. So we shouldn’t fear using a term that is understandable and extrapolate further along the way:

We are UX writers. We write and edit texts for the touchpoints of users and brands. We work with interfaces and experience designers to make sure the texts in the products are clear, informative, and cause delight.

Sharp definitions and memorable titles are good for recreational reading but business writing must not take a reader for a ride. The more flowery the statement, the harder it is to prove. And we need proof because there are no magic words.

Text in the interface

Interface text is often treated as a formality. That’s how you end up with technical terms in user-facing pieces which makes the copy dry and careless. That’s because developers have their mind set on different goals. They might not know how to contract a text without losing a zest. That’s where they need UX writers. A website has to be consistent across multiple devices and screen sizes. The textual content has to be responsive as well.

A user does not draw a distinction between the UI and the content. 

The button text is as important as the tip under it. That’s why writers do both. Otherwise, the product might end up with this:

No Magic Words

This is a service message that the writer did not have a chance to edit. Either because this state was not in the design prototype or a writer did not have access to the document. No matter what, every text in the interface has to be cleaned up by a writer. This is what the same error might look like with a little bit more care and respect.

No Magic Words

This principle is called “let the machine sweat”. A computer knows exactly what is wrong and how to fix it. So it should never put pressure on the people to figure out the solution. Most times, all it takes from a writer is to ask a developer what the error means in simple terms and then wrap it into a respectful and helpful UI message. 

A designer is concerned about interactions, transitions, states, illustrations, overall look and feel, and they might get carried away by designing solutions that have nothing to do with the actual user task. In that case, a writer’s perspective can help reduce the number of design tasks by sharper wording.

If we are designing a financial assistant app, it has to be able to figure out the best options to save money based on what a user spends money on, compare that to the same demographic’s average, and develop a plan.

By putting some of the features in the back of the system, we can cut down user decision points and the design for them, and instead focus on what really matters for both the client and the customer.

Listens, not commands

An easy trap to fall in when writing the interface is assume that a user’s task will put them under the authority of the website. It’s best visible with the button text when it starts commanding a user other than helping them. The imperative mood should be avoided to ensure a friendly tone.

Wrong
No Magic Words– Yes, website!
Right
No Magic Words– Yes, user!

It should always be a user giving orders, not the machine, so the interface has to be a control device rather than an instructional manual. If the explanation is inevitable, it should still be a helpful message, not an order:

We immediately publish important updates. Read through our Rules to stay in the know.

Adding tips and notices is easy, however, designers try to avoid them and they are right. A useful button is the one that does not require any further explanation.

Reports, not cheerleads

Every word in the UI has to have a meaning and be necessary. To convey the meaning, we should stay away from subjective values which translate through things like modal verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. The problem with subjective values is you can’t stand up to them. No matter how good your intentions are, there will always be someone expecting better.

Success! Upload complete → Upload complete → Document uploaded
Congratulations! Account created → Account created → DoneNo Magic Words
Good job! Your document has been sent → Document sent → Sent

We can still use some descriptive words when appropriate to reassure a user they are doing right. Too much fluff is not helpful:

Yo yo yiggidy yo! It worked → You’re all good. Continue
Ahh, snap! We failed → Our bad. We’re fixing it

If there is an error, it’s not enough to state the fact that there was an error. The purpose of the error message in the UI is to guide a user back to what they wanted to do. A machine always knows what the problem is, thus it has to able to explain it:

Authorization error. Wrong password or email → We don’t know this email. Have another one?
Incorrect data format → We don’t recognize that. Please, use Roman script

Any problem becomes less frustrating once you explain it, give the reason why it occurred, and show how you are fixing it.
No Magic Words
– Try and fail again?
Process failed. Try later

Upload failed. The system is not responding. Try later

Upload failed. The system is not responding. Try again in 15 minutes.

Couldn’t upload: system overloaded. Check back in 15 minutes
Too many people are uploading files at the moment, which slows us down. To avoid the overload, upload your documents a couple days before deadline.

The only thing that matters to a user is whether the problem they face is being fixed. It’s our job to let them know we are on their side. In case of a third-party error, make sure you don’t leave a user on their own:

Payment declined
The payment system we are using to process your order does not accept your credit card. We don’t know why but we are working on it. If urgent, try another payment option.

Errors are huge UX problems on their own and it’s not enough to just technically fix them. We must design them in a way that protects the user, in which case everything about that message has to come in handy. Takeaway, avoid titles like Error 504, Caution!, and all the likes of Uh-oh.  

The outro

Language is an infinite design system. Whether you are designing for attention, fulfilling a complicated technical task, or just doing it for the love, the way you communicate with the audience of your product defines the success. If you could personally deliver a message to your every customer, would it be the same? 

The power of words is not in their complexity or simplicity. It’s in the motives behind them. No word has magic behind it unless backed by a story. If the matter is empty, the manner won’t suffice. And if the manner is weak and deceitful, the matter will suffer. It is about writing, but more it is about the experience that this writing accompanies, which goes beyond copy. That’s how we turn from copywriters into UX writers.

Web & Mobile UI/UX Design
Not a programmer design. Pretty, efficient, and fully implementable
Written by Moses Kim
September 09, 2019

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