Could UX copywriting be for you?

Is 2020 the year you look to enter the UX copywriting market? Nicole Whitton, who has headed up copy teams in a range of corporate organisations, shares her top tips for transferring your copywriting skills to the UX market…

Could UX copywriting be for you?

We have a range of clients that need talented, focused and dedicated UX copywriters to bring their brand to life, and the great news is that even writers without direct experience can often transfer their skills and/or rapidly adapt to work in this vital and growing area. Indeed, you may find that you already have more of the requisite skillset than you realise.

So what is UX copywriting? Could it be for you? And how can you develop your skills further?

UX copywriting: a skill that’s growing in demand

When you’re writing UX copy, you’re essentially providing signposts that must be clear and easy to follow for users who are carrying out common but important online tasks, such as managing a bank account or completing an application process. Successful UX copy can reap significant rewards for companies – it can, for example, make the difference between potential customers completing a sign-up journey or preferring to stay with their current bank.

UX copywriting is a specialist area of the copy landscape that’s becoming increasingly important as more and more customers do their business online – and companies look to reduce the amount of calls to their customer services teams.

If you’re a talented copywriter ready to turn your hand to UX copy in financial, medical or other technical subject areas, here are some of my top tips.

  1. Plain English is the gold standard

Make sure you understand plain English and can keep jargon out of journeys. It’s important to flag up in your CV examples of times where you have worked in plain English.

If you’ve not worked with UX copy before, it can be a real challenge to ensure that one-word calls to action (‘CTAs’ – or buttons, to most of us) are clear but also fit the journey and capture the brand.

Brands such as Monzo are breaking the mould when it comes to using plain, direct English. They’re also overtly drawing the link between incomprehensible Terms & Conditions and how much you can trust the company that serves them.

Monzo’s Cookie policy is actually worth the read – for the joy of witnessing legalese that’s been crafted into readable copy.

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Pay attention to your own journeys online. How easy is it for you to complete purchases, sign up for things or complete processes?

We’ve become used to slight inconveniences so we often don’t notice the odd hiccup – but increasing our sensitivity to pain points can make us better copywriters. If you encounter an error message online, is it clear what the problem is and how to solve it? How many times do you end up calling customer services, or give up altogether? All these instances could be down to poor copy.

Look at other examples of micro copy (small amounts of copy in tight spaces), such as Instagram and Twitter. How do some companies do it better than others?

Taking screenshots and building a collection of journeys that are really unclear, as well as those that are really excellent, can help not only to inspire you in future, but to provide examples for training or guidelines you might develop in your new role.

Lastminute.com’s ‘timed-out’ error message tells the user what the problem is (timed out), why the problem matters (the offers could be invalid) and what the user needs to do (refresh the page) – all while maintaining tone of voice.

  1. Tone of voice

Just because UX copy is short in scope and very functional doesn’t mean that tone of voice should be cast aside altogether.

Tone of voice is hugely important because it’s how copy can help project the brand. When companies develop tone of voice, it’s usually with the ambitious aim that wherever a customer may be in the world, if they see some form of communication – whether as an ad or an email – they’ll know that it’s from that brand. Along with design guidelines, brand colours, logo, font and all the rest, it forms the ‘brand experience’.

UX copy often lacks tone of voice. It’s all too easy to argue that user journeys should be generic (everyone knows what ‘continue’ and ‘cancel’ mean, after all). It can also be difficult to think up exciting copy that is nonetheless clear to the customer and can fit into a small space. Add to this the challenge of translations, if you’re working for a global brand, and it’s easy to see why our digital journeys are so … vanilla. 

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Compare different brand websites within the industry – challenger banks with the big traditionals; established make-up brands with recent celebrity launches; car brands that appeal to vastly different audiences, etc.

Instagram can be a particularly useful platform for experiencing different brands through micro copy. Comparing, for example, Fenty with Estee Lauder makes it clear how tone of voice builds a brand – even in tight copy spaces.

Estee Lauder and Fenty Beauty may both operate in a similar space, but their messaging and tone of voice couldn’t be more different. Even in tight spaces, both brands are able to differentiate themselves.

Fenty Beauty is sassy and direct in their Instagram. This tone of voice is carried through to its product descriptions on the website, as well as its product names. But the CTA (‘ADD TO BAG’) is clear and functional.  

Australian brand OTAA have a quirky, over-the-top ‘country gentleman’ tone of voice. It’s carried out through the entire website – from ‘sign up’ messaging to the basket.

  1. Work with designers – and the rest of the project team

A copywriter who can suggest solutions to unfeasibly tight copy spaces immediately stands out from the rest. Knowing when to request a tooltip, for example, or flagging up an unclear part of the journey, is of huge benefit to the entire project team.

That said, depending on where you work, and how intuitive the company is when it comes to combining copy with design, copy is often more of a bolt-on, or an afterthought. Often, we get designs already prepared, and we have to shoehorn copy into them and hope for the best. We might not get the opportunity to talk with the design team, let alone the product team, so suggesting a tooltip so that you can better explain a required entry on a form might not be possible.

As a result, there is some evangelical work to be done to promote the benefits of working alongside the full project team to ensure that user journeys are the best they can be for the customer. Where collaborative work isn’t in place formally, seek it out informally by building relationships with designers and the rest of the team.

After all, the entire team wants the kudos of a brilliant customer journey. You’ll only be helping them to get there.

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If you’re not a natural at networking or can’t imagine anything worse than building relationships with strangers, dedicating time to it in your work diary can help you get better at it.

If you’re in a new role, setting aside a half-hour coffee chat with one new colleague each week really helps.

  1. Understand the user experience

Crucially, you need to be interested in what it is your customer is trying to achieve through their journey.

UX copy can appear dry to many copy newcomers. After all, it’s not about telling a story, or conveying an emotion, or shouting about something new. But it’s the copy we’re likely to encounter most often, so you have an opportunity to make someone’s day that bit easier – potentially hundreds or thousands of times over.

Wherever possible, seek out the product team and ask about the customer, the product and what it is you can do to make the journey better. Writing with a customer in mind is still key – even if it is ‘just button copy’.

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There are some great books on behavioural economics, which can help to shape how we understand our customers and their relationships with our websites and products.

These books are excellent for better understanding the space in which we operate – and deserve to be re-read from time to time.

There are also some insightful titles on UX and digital copy that are well worth keeping close to hand as a constant source of reference.

Reading list:

  • Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
  • the classic Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  • Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age by Jonah Berger
  • Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold And Others Come Unstuck by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • Strategic Writing for UX by Google’s Torrey Podmajersky
  1. Increase your skillset

If you’re not already familiar with WebEx, Confluence, Jira, Invision, Intralinks and Sharefile – brush up your skills. At the very least, have a look for some video tutorials on YouTube. None of these platforms are particularly difficult but walking into a new role with an understanding of them will help you to integrate far easier and become part of the project team that much quicker.

Understand the interplay between copy and other project disciplines: accessibility, analytics, and UX (user experience), for example. Each of those disciplines depends on good, clear copy to some extent.

Although it’s unlikely that copy will often be the point of failure in the accessibility of a product, unclear copy can certainly make life more difficult. Small shifts in perspective, such as understanding that directional copy needs to be clear to all users (for example, ‘press the green key’ is unhelpful to blind users) can go a long way in making a product that everyone can use.

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Accessibility in particular is becoming more important as companies strive to make sure all their customers can use their online products. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is the international standard for accessibility. You can explore how copy can support accessibility through their tutorials.

  1. Understand the dialogue between consistency and improvement

Consistency can be a double-edged sword. If you’re not careful, your cries for consistency can be turned against you, with project teams that are in a hurry to go live claiming that ‘we can’t make improvements – or the new copy will be inconsistent with the old’. Never mind that the new copy is vastly improved – right?

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First, understand what it is you mean by consistency and why it’s important, or these debates will suck you in like any respectable rabbit-hole. Copywriters aim for consistency to avoid confusion. This is particularly important when it comes to technical concepts that may have more than one acceptable term, such as ‘account ledger’ and, more simply, ‘your transactions’. Having both these terms used interchangeably throughout one journey is likely to result in confusion and customers inevitably contacting Customer Services to confirm there’s no actual difference.

Second, accept that improving copy will likely lead to some level of inconsistency – and analyse the risk for confusion. I’ve had all sorts of wonderful pushback before – even on contractions: eg ‘we can’t say “we’ll”, because we said “we will” elsewhere and now it’s inconsistent’. Is it inconsistent? Well … perhaps. But actually, it’s in line with the tone of voice, and it’s more personable, and, importantly, the inconsistency won’t lead to customer confusion. So improvement wins the day.

  1. Have fun

Have fun? In a dry and creatively barren landscape, such is UX copy?

Yes! Actually, one of the reasons I love writing UX copy is that it can be a pretty significant challenge to achieve great UX copy. Obviously, just as you wouldn’t want a trombone in a wind quartet; you don’t want the customer to notice the copy in a digital journey. Unnoticed copy can often be the best kind. But even so, it’s satisfying when you’ve offered up something a little more relevant and confirmatory than a ‘continue’, or when your error message is particularly helpful.

Every piece of copy is an opportunity to connect with the customer, and remembering that can make UX copy a particularly rewarding challenge to crack. There’s a special skill and satisfaction in crafting copy that no one notices – or only for the right reasons!

Seek out chances to provide more emotionally engaging copy, too. For example, where the copy for a credit card application must remain clear and functional – and in that way, perhaps a little dry – the ‘success’ message at the end could be more celebratory and enthusiastic. Ramping up emotional engagement at points of success is an easy way to really connect customer to brand.

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What other ways are there to inject some emotions into UX copy? While you’re scrutinising your own digital journeys, have a look for opportunities to engage emotionally that companies have missed – or perhaps have achieved with aplomb.

  1. Managing stakeholders

Finally – and perhaps this should go without saying – when working in busy product teams, confidence in your craft and in your expertise is paramount.

This can be easier said than done. It’s easy to feel somewhat on the backfoot as a new copywriter in a busy project team: we have to get our head around the tone of voice, check whether a preferred terms list is already established (and if it all makes sense, or if any terms need to be updated – English is, after all, alive and kicking). We need to take some time to understand the customer, the brand and what it is the two are wanting to say to one another. And – inevitably – there are likely to be more than a few non-copywriters who think that all it takes to be a copywriter is to write and speak English.

Initially, there’s always a balancing act when drawing boundaries and establishing one’s territory of expertise, without upsetting key stakeholders, flouting the work of previous copywriters and appearing arrogant or inflexible in the process. How we negotiate such territory is likely to be down to our own levels of experience, conviction combined with humility and openness to learning, and patience. In my experience, using the first few months to build stakeholder relationships and trust is usually essential to helping me establish my area of expertise and convey my copy decisions with authority.

Even then, copywriters are exposed to being undermined in a way that, truthfully, most other disciplines in the project team will not be. Design software requires some specialist knowledge, but anyone can use MS Word – and this by and large sets the scene for how professional copywriting can be received.

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Keeping a risk log of copy concerns that you’ve flagged but were ignored can be a sensible option if there’s any potential that those risks could come back to haunt the company. If there are opportunities for user research, use that to explore (rather than prove!) your points. And have a look at our handy UX copywriting checklist to help you structure and plan your copy.

Next steps

Hopefully, we’ve shown that UX copywriting isn’t a dark art – but a skill that can be achieved relatively easily, especially if you already have excellent copywriting skills and experience.

If you’ve not worked on UX copy before, ensure that any transferrable experience elsewhere that’s useful to UX copy is noted on your CV (for example, your work with plain English, tone of voice, and any of the skills mentioned above).