UX writing explained in 5 F words
My writing business changed when I started using the F word more.
No, not that one—though I won’t deny it has also been of great use to me during some particularly trying projects.
What I actually mean is F words.
As one of Israel’s leading English language UX writers, I’ve had the opportunity to consult companies like Intel and WeWork on projects large and small, from creating the very first style guide to delivering workshops for entire departments. While collaborating with product people, designers, and other writers, I’ve developed a system that I like to call The Five F’s of UX Writing.
It’s centered on five words that begin with the letter F, each included in a question you should ask yourself.
Let’s get right to them, shall we?
As I often say in workshops and my work with clients, friendly (user-friendly, that is) doesn’t necessarily mean cute or funny. For your brand it might, but in general, being friendly goes deeper than that.
It’s about being clear and helpful (think of road signs that tell you where to go and what to look out for—yes, even in the era of GPS) and, ultimately, giving your users a good experience.
In other words, it’s totally possible to be friendly while remaining professional and formal if that’s your brand’s voice. Your copy can also be cutesy, clever, and sarcastic, yet totally flop on user-friendliness.
“Friendly (user-friendly, that is) doesn’t necessarily mean cute or funny”
Friendly in UX writing means:
Plain, simple, conversational language
Yes: Non-technical error messages explaining what went wrong and what the user can do to fix it (see the two printer examples below). And, if you have to include an error number for customer support purposes, don’t make it front and center—it won’t mean much to your users.
Evernote skips the technical terms in favor of a simple explanation for why uploading isn’t working.
Not: Eye-roll-inducing industry jargon or technical language
Clear and concise language that’s accessible to readers at most, if not all, levels
Yes: Straightforward language without nuances or room for interpretation
Venmo uses the common “Terms & Conditions” at the top of the screen, but then it brings it down to Earth by explaining it with “The legal stuff you’ve been waiting for…”
Not: High-level, ambiguous wording
Helpful and guiding
Yes: Kind and understanding. After all, who hasn’t forgotten their password?
“Forgot your password?”
Not: Blaming, shaming, or otherwise disrespectful.
“Forgot your password again?”
The difference may seem minor, but the latter is judgmental while the former asks a simple question.
Don’t talk too much
Yes: Bite-sized texts focusing on what the user needs to do right now
“Choose a password comprised of 8 characters, including a capital letter, a lowercase letter, and an Egyptian hieroglyphic.”
Not: Walking the user down the whole road before they’ve gotten started
“Choose a password. On the next screen, you’ll provide your birthday, favorite color, and horoscope sign.”
The first step in any UX writing project involves defining the voice and tone (and style—but more on that below).
That means defining who you are as a brand, understanding your users, and establishing how you speak with those users—particularly how you want them to feel while they interact with your brand and product(s), especially in positive and negative situations that may arise. Negative here doesn’t mean bad UX; it means bad news, like what you would need to be phrased gently in a bank app.
Capital One, like many other banking/finance/credit card platforms, shows you a popup when your session is ending for security reasons.
Just like friendliness, that doesn’t necessarily mean overly personal, sentimental, or tugging-at-the-heartstrings. It does, however, have to make users feel that they understand and connect with your brand and, conversely, that they feel that you understand them.
Therefore, it’s crucial to think about where on their “journey” (day, life, etc.) you’re meeting your users. What do you want (or need) them to do, and what might be holding them back from doing it?
This is particularly important for digital interfaces that may involve sensitive subjects, such as health and medical issues, finance, family matters, and more. For example, a banking or credit card interface should feel trustworthy, so that users can rest easy that their money or investments are safe.
Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s payment page makes medical payments—a notoriously cumbersome and non-transparent process—easy, and even offers financial wellness to ease the burden of healthcare costs from the start of the payment process.
A hospital app may seek to strike a balance between warmth and professionalism, letting a patient feel cared for emotionally, but also confident that her medical records are safe and results are reliable. A weight loss app should encourage without fat shaming.
Fitbit asks whether you want to lose, gain, or maintain your weight in a totally straightforward and non-judgmental way and then it relates its feedback in terms of your goal.
When writing, ask yourself: How do I want my users to feel? And no less important: How do I want my user not to feel?
Notarize reassures you that you won’t be charged until later in the process.
Friendliness and feeling are all well and good, but if your UX writing doesn’t tell the user what they need to do, then it misses the mark. Above all, UX writing has to be clear and useful. Otherwise, users won’t know what they need to do and why they need to do it.
“Think about where on their journey you’re meeting your users. What do you want (or need) them to do, and what might be holding them back from doing it?”
For example, you can—and should—use your copy to instruct users on creating a new password or filling out a form.
Zeplin’s hint text tells the user how to create a username and password.
Likewise, use your words—active verbs in particular—to guide the user through different processes in your interface (e.g., Type for a field, Click for a button/call to action, Send for a form, etc.).
Pro tip: Here are some verbs you can use to better guide your users through different types of elements:
“Great copy sets the scene: it sets expectations, keeps things moving, and offers solutions when things don’t work out as planned.”
UX writing is rarely about writing content for a single, standalone screen. Usually, it involves flows, with users actively engaging with your website, app, or platform.
That means they need to know where to start and where they’re going, including what’s about to happen, and what’s coming up ahead.
Since the TunnelBear screen doesn’t have a left-to-right flow, they use arrows and copy to tell you what you can do at the top and the bottom.
Great copy sets the scene: it sets expectations, keeps things moving, and offers solutions when things don’t work out as planned.
“UX writing is rarely about writing content for a single, standalone screen. Usually, it involves flows, with users actively engaging with your website, app, or platform.”
When you’re writing, the trick is to stay focused on what the user will be doing in that moment, and what’s up next. Think form-filling, button-pressing, setting-toggling, and so on.
GoDaddy’s “timeline” at the top sets expectations and lets you know what comes next.
As part of the voice and tone process, I always include a section on style, addressing:
- Terminology (e.g., words we do use vs. words we don’t ever use)
- Templates and examples of screen and messaging structure (e.g., error messages, push notifications, etc.)
- Guidelines for capitalization and/or punctuation
“The first step in any UX writing project involves defining the voice and tone.”
Here’s what my style guides usually look like:
Here are Shopify’s guidelines for buttons (just one tiny part of their comprehensive style guide)…
…and Monday.com’s guidelines for their buttons (from their shorter style guide):
Pro tip: Rarely will you find a person who will be bothered if you used “Delete” in one place and “Remove” in another. For the hawk-eyed ones who do notice, however, your consistency and attention to detail will communicate professionalism and instill confidence.
Tumblr uses title case for “Get Started,” but sentence case for “Log in.” Hmm…
Beyond looking good for your stakeholders and clients, though, defining your style and setting rules makes things easier for you and your team.
When you take the time to set these rules early on, they become a natural part of your process—letting you hit the consistency nail on the head on the first try every time (and thus zoom through this F).
So go on—give the five F’s a try!
And if none of them work, well, that’s when you can pull out that other F word…