Using Principles to Write For Digital Spaces

Image courtesy of: WordConfettiGroup.

What does creating User Interfaces (UI) have to do with ? Well, a lot. The principles that define what makes good UI are the same principles that define what makes good writing.

As a writer, you may not think you pay much attention to what constitutes “good UI” in websites or apps- but you do. Human beings are incredibly visual creatures. So much so that half of our brain processing power goes to interpreting visual information.

Many people think “visual” is relegated to the world of pictures, icons, and illustrations. That isn’t true at all. And how do I know that? Because if you never learned The Cyrillic alphabet, or didn’t grow up in Russia, then these don’t all read like “letters” to you. Some of them look like images…because they are. If you encountered some of these in the wild- with no context of it being in an alphabet…would you know that it was supposed to be a letter?

That letter after the E with umlauts is the coolest, and if you don’t agree, fight me.

The world of graphic design and UI is centered around visual perceptions. But so is creating and using typefaces to convey a story. Curating your choice of words, font size, italics, all caps — all of it is part of the visual realm that you as a writer can create and control. UX writing plays just as big of a role in forming the user experience as much as the visual and UI design aspects.

So, now that we understand “visual design” is not separate from “writing” let’s get to these 6 UI tips that will improve your UX writing

Structure: Like goes with Like.

In visual design, things that resemble each other, or do similar things should, naturally, be placed together. The same goes for UX writing. There is rarely a reason that words that do actively opposite things should be near each other. We have all had that moment where you meant to click “yes” but then the screen enlarged or something finished loading and instead you clicked “no.”

If that has never happened to you…I hope you stay lucky and blessed.

I understand that some devices are small, and sometimes the spacing can’t be helped. If that’s the case, give the user the option to go back, start over, or make a different choice.

Simplicity: Communicate clearly, and keep it simple.

This is a basic rule in visual design that holds true when it comes to writing. It manages to get to the heart of the three principles of UX writing: Clear, Consise, Useful.

Simplicity doesn’t mean something is easy to create. It means that the ease of use for the user should be what matters most. When someone is using your product, it’s likely they will be in a situation that has a lot of distractions. Keeping your writing simple and clear makes it much more likely that the user can focus on completing the task.

Visibility: Make all needed options visible without overwhelming.

The absolute last thing that users need to be doing on their tiny iPhones is digging through your navigation bar trying to find a solution to their problem. Pinpoint what it is that the user needs, and make it stand out to them. That goes double for writing.

People that read online are often reading in an “F” pattern. Meaning they will scroll the title and subtitle, then jump down to the first line of the first paragraph…then the second, and stop when something finally catches their eye.

Don’t make your users do all of the work of looking through paragraph after paragraph just to find what they need. Understanding your users means you should know what they’re looking for. Give it to them quickly and efficiently, or they will not be your users much longer.

Understanding your users means you should know what they’re looking for.

Feedback: Be unambiguous, and keep user informed of changes.

You might like surprises, but your users don’t. Especially not if they’re expecting one thing, and end up with another. Be extremely clear and communicate any changes that are going to happen. If any conditions change, let them know immediately. If they send an email, or subscribe to a mailing list- that counts as a change in their condition. Make it clear. Very clear. Nobody likes wondering if something they did actually…happened. The digital world is weird like that.

Tolerance : Don’t be WebAssign.

Story Time. So, I took some chemistry and physics classes in undergrad that required us to use an online assignment portal called Webassign. It’s been years since I was in university, but I will NEVER forgive the UX writers who did this:

If Webassign had better UX writers, maybe I’d be a doctor instead of a person that writes things on the internet. I’d also have less anxiety.

When writing for online spaces, always keep in mind that just because you would write something one way, doesn’t mean that everyone else will. Use your creativity and allow room for interpretation in the answers that your users can give. The rule of “close enough” is a lifesaver.

Reuse: Don’t use synonyms.

As a writer, you’re probably of the flowery language persuasion. That’s ok. But UX writing is not the time, nor the space for it. Even though most writers are basically BFF’s with the concept of synonyms, all they do in this situation is complicate things.

Listen, you’re not describing to me the cold, dreary night that you discovered your lover betrayed you. You’re walking me through an onboarding process, or helping me accomplish a task. If you decide to call the process of selecting a date and time “Scheduling” do not call it a “Booking” later in the process. You will confuse people, especially those who are not native speakers of the language of the app.

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