What this essential design skill is all about — and what it’s not.

“assorted-color color pencils” by salvatore ventura on Unsplash

If you work in user experience or product design, you’ve probably heard of by now. But chances are, some of what you’ve heard (or thought) about UX is wrong — and it’s not just you. The term UX is so new that most organizations are still trying to figure out exactly what a UX writer does anyways, and as UX practitioners we’re all still learning how to better include writers into the design process.

That said, there are some things about UX writing that are definitely not true. In this post, I’ll debunk some of the most I hear about UX writing and why it matters.

Myth: UX writers spend all day writing

People often think that a UX writer spends all day writing. That’s a fair assumption considering the job title, but a UX writer does so much more than just write the words.

Reality: UX writers are experience designers too

Just like UX designers don’t spend all day working on visual designs, UX writers don’t spend all day writing. There’s more to UX than just the final outcome.

In fact, what separates UX from other disciplines is the work that happens before anything is made: it’s the human-centered, evidence-gathering work in the beginning that makes interfaces work.

UX writers often assist or even lead things like user research, develop the tone and voice of a brand, test copy, and much more. Just take a look at some of the discussions happening in the Microcopy & UX Writing Facebook group.

Myth: UX writing and content strategy are the same thing

Both UX writers and content strategists are people who understand the content part of design and also work in UX. So… they must be interchangeable, right?

Reality: UX writing and content strategy and different

UX diagram from UX Writing: How to do it like Google with this powerful checklist

Although they are related, content strategy and UX writing are different specializations within the larger field of user experience.

UX writer Andrea Drugay summed it up nicely on her blog:

UX writing focuses on the words a person reads or hears when they’re using a product, while content strategy focuses on a broad plan for messaging.

Read her blog post.

That said, sometimes content strategists are actually the same person within an organization — sometimes due to confusion, but mainly because it’s often cheaper or easier to just hire one person. I’ve worked on a handful of app design projects where I would function first as a content strategist, then as UX writer later in the design process. I’ve also been noticing more hybrid job postings lately, with titles like “UX strategist / writer” so the role overlap seems to be widespread.

Myth: fewer words means less time

There’s a common misconception that the number of words someone writes is directly linked to how long it takes to write them.

More words, more time. Less words, less time. Right?

Totally wrong.

Just because the home screen of a mobile app only has 15 words on it does not mean that it will be quick and easy to write. There’s just more to it than that.

Reality: good UX copy takes time

Words within interfaces are often doing a lot of heavy-lifting. They take visual designs and transform them into something a person can use and do things with.

💬 Interface copy needs to tell a user:

  • What they can do
  • What they can’t do
  • How to get help
  • What things are
  • Where things are

Figuring out how to say things in a short, concise way and say it in a specific brand voice is no simple task. In fact, it takes me more time to write microcopy than it takes me to write long blog posts like this one. Length is a luxury that UX copy doesn’t have.

Myth: designers can write copy

This is a dangerous myth for product teams. People think,

“The design team did is creating the UI. They should be able to write the copy.”

Nope. Although design teams do understand user needs and product functionality, that does not mean they are word-people.

Reality: design teams need a dedicated word-person

Words can make or break an interface, and UI designers don’t necessarily have the skills, time or interest to focus on every small word choice within a product interface. A visual designers job is to make sure every pixel is perfect.

Words are an entirely different beast.

While there are certainly some designers out there who are great UX writers, it should never be assumed that a designer can write interface copy. Or that they want to. In fact, most designers I’ve worked with were usually thrilled to pass-off the responsibility of words to a dedicated person.

Let visual designers do their thing. Hire a word person to do the words. Your team, your product, and your end user will all be much happier if you do.

Also, read this: Why your design team should hire a writer.

Myth: all writers can write UX copy

Terms like microcopy and UX copywriting are still so new — and so are the roles that go with them. One of the symptoms of this new-ness is that hiring managers assume all writers are UX writers.

In fact, a lot of people just bundle all writers together into one homogenous group. It’s assumed that if you can write Facebook ads and sales pages, surely you can help me with the words for that app interface.

Reality: writing for interfaces is a specific skill

“UX Writing Values” from Richard Lee on Slideshare

Someone who specializes in writing sales pages probably isn’t the best writer to help an airline company with the words for their touchscreen check-in kiosk. These are very, very different things.

While marketing copy focuses on selling or enticing someone, UX copy seeks to guide and help a user through an experience.

UX writers have specific skills and knowledge that not all writers have (or need to have). UX writers understand the design process, collaborate well with design teams, love agile environments, and have entirely different goals for their writing than a marketing copywriter does.

Myth: we don’t need a writer until after design

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten an email from a prospective client saying something like this:

“We just got HiFi wireframes for our [interface], so it’s ready for copy. Are you available?”

Cringe!

It could be an app, website, even print flyer — doesn’t matter. There’s a widespread misconception that copy can just be “dropped in” to HiFi designs at the end of the design process.

At the heart of this myth is a deeper, and much more problematic myth: copy and design are different things.

Reality: writers and content people should be involved from the beginning

Writers should be involved from the beginning of the design process, because copy and design are the same thing.

Copy and design are the same thing.

Products and interfaces help people do things, and without words to guide people, products would be virtually useless. Take Lyft as an example, which relies on microcopy to help users create or log-in to their Lyft accounts.

Screenshots from the Lyft app log-in process (personal info retracted)

Imagine that Lyft flow without any words.

Copy is design. Writers are experience designers.

That said, you can’t throw in copy at the end of the design process. The copy person should be involved from day one, getting in trenches with the rest of the design team for things like user research or usability testing.

Plus, remember this tweet? Still important. Still applies to any interface. Thank you Zelner.

That’s all! Thanks for reading. 👏

Liked this? Help others see it by clapping, leave some of your own knowledge in the comments, or say hello on Twitter or Instagram.

Also, hi. I help make websites and digital products more useful, intuitive and valuable with human-centered content. If you need a content person on your next project, get in touch here.

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Common Myths About UX Writing was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.



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