People do read on the Internet, despite popular dogma. Imagine a digital product with zero words — we’d all be asking, “What does this button do?” and “How the heck do I find what I’m looking for?”
You could accidentally buy 10,000 pairs of old socks or delete an entire database of critical health information!
True, the role of a UX writer is often to help users read as little as possible. But the only thing almost as terrible as no words is really bad UX writing. It misleads, muddies, and creates absurd amounts of friction.
Good microcopy is clear, concise, and useful. The point is to be sparing but you still need some words.
Four score and not that long ago, UX writers did not exist as a job function and, instead, engineers were composing copy as an afterthought.
As a result, many product and design teams inherit piles of well-intended (yet frightful) UX writing when brought aboard. Mistakes with real business impact find their way through years of product iterations. Why? Because the time commitment needed for a copy audit combined with the desire to A/B test every change tends to stall progress, even by the time companies grow large enough to get the job done right.
We are still in the nascent years of writing for UX. Few guidelines exist to help people avoid the biggest mistakes that so many companies make. Thus, here’s a roundup of the top 10 issues that I’ve seen appear most often, much to the detriment of the user experience.
1. Buttons that take your credit card and run
Generally, it takes a few steps to make a purchase or sign up for a subscription. Many apps and websites use the same call-to-action button at each step, like Continue rather than saying Complete Purchase or similar. This may cause higher refund rates because users do not realize the word Continue or Next means that they will be billed as soon as they click the button.
The initial conversion rate may be higher because it’s misleading, but the refund rate and % of angry customers will counteract the cash. This is true for bad CTA buttons at any step of a flow. If the next thing that happens doesn’t match what the call-to-action says, they’ll be confused, and confusion = friction.
Progress bars are another way to ensure users know exactly where they are in the flow.
2. Confirm shaming
Oh, the joys of passive-aggressive pop-ups. It’s not fun when your parents try to guilt you into things, so why suffer the same misery in microcopy? “No thanks, I like to make bad choices” is just one of many examples of confirm shaming out there.
The intent is to push or scare the user into changing their mind. In reality, it just alienates them further. Even if someone does convert out of shame, they probably won’t stick around for long.
3. Achey breaky line breaks
Bad line breaks have been haunting editors for eons. Pithy copy loses its bite when words are sliced and diced. Work with your designers and engineers to make sure text is responsive and will adapt to different screen sizes without awkward breaks.
If for some reason responsive styles cannot be implemented, keep within a character limit that will fit on one line no matter the screen. Annoying, I know. But that’s the life of a UX writer! It’s better to edit and simplify than risk losing oomph.
4. Aggressive % off headlines
So many numbers!! Is it 50%, 30%, 20%, or $10 off? No one knows.
Many eCommerce companies (especially clothing retailers) use their best real estate for massive discount headlines. It’s hard to convince stakeholders to stay away from this behavior when it works well for a quick buck and monthly sales goals are sky high. Ultimately, though, this is toxic for both branding and the long-term health of the business.
Users learn to never buy from these companies unless they’re discounting like crazy. Hence, companies become addicted to big % off banners because there is a dip in conversion anytime they try to remove them. It devalues the product and cheapens the brand. High-value customers view these brands as poor quality and take their business elsewhere.
It’s also incredibly uninspiring for UX writers. If you work at an organization that won’t budge from gigantic discount copy, then my best advice to you is to start seeking new opportunities (i.e., get the heck out of there).
5. Jargon jargon jargon
Can you say jargon three times fast? It sounds more and more like a Klingon word to me every time I try. And IP address conflict with another system on the network might as well be an alien language too.
The average user is not going to know what that means, so it doesn’t help them. There’s also zero information on how to resolve the issue. The result? Frustration!!
UX writing should be so simple that a child can understand it. No big technical words.
Also, avoid slang. It should be easy for users whose native language is not English to comprehend. Additionally, this ensures that the text can be translated into other languages without too much difficulty.
6. Looking out for #1
Even really good products can suffer from sub-par UX writing. The claim of “#1” really isn’t useful, nor is it in any way original. Where is the brand voice? We’re all #1 in our moms’ eyes — it’s better to convey the specific value to the user than rely on generic marketing headlines.
It’s natural for a healthy tension to exist between marketing and product goals when it comes to UX writing. The incentive structure for each team is sometimes at odds because success is measured by different metrics.
To take a very simplistic view, these are the types of data points that each type of team tends to prioritize most:
- Marketing metrics = conversion
- Product metrics = engagement
Both are super important and both fail to tell a complete story. Often, it shows when one is weighted more heavily than the other in decision-making.
The example above, while concise, misses the mark on ‘useful’ and doesn’t clarify the value of the app. It’s purely a marketing headline…and not a very unique one.
7. Lack of context
Each step in a user journey needs to be considered when redesigning one element. A change to the copy usually means a change to the information presented, and that has ripple effects. No feature update happens in a vacuum — they’re all providing context for what comes next.
UX writing is considered one of the “easier” things to test and optimize, largely because it doesn’t require design overhaul and engineering lift (in most cases). As a result, UX writers can get pulled into writing multiple variations for tests at one step of a flow.
The winning variation will be rolled out, but without revisiting the other steps to make sure the new version isn’t losing essential information or compromising the flow in another way.
The “move fast and break things” motto at tech companies is part of the problem. Yes, move quickly and test new ideas — just also do the necessary clean-up work afterward.
Context is also key for concision. By distributing information at each step to match the exact user needs, the pressure to list every bit of required info is alleviated.
8. Generic copy that’s immediately x’ed out
Boooooooring! Missed opportunities like this break my little writer heart. It’s a chance for a brand moment that could really stand out. Instead, this appears to be default filler copy. It doesn’t get more generic.
Of course, not every bit of microcopy is appropriate for brand voice. Clarity always takes first priority. But when it makes sense, voice can differentiate a product and make it sound human. Users are more likely to trust a product that feels human.
Here are some guidelines to using brand voice in microcopy from Bill Beard at Smashing Magazine.
Avoid over-branding copy on:
- forms and field labels,
- instructional text,
- selection text (drop-downs, radio buttons),buttons.
Consider incorporating your brand’s voice in:
- confirmation messaging,
- rewards (badges, points),
- 404 pages,
- server errors,
- error messaging.
9. Making it too weird
This is the flipside of no brand voice — awkward microcopy. In an effort to sound fun, Turbo instead sounds like they’re trying way too hard.
The pop culture reference has nothing to do with their brand or product. It’s a teensy bit uncomfortable, like a Stage 5 Clinger. We were not dating Turbo, we will never have a romantic relationship with tax software, and comparing us to Brangelina is simply nonsense.
I’d take this over generic copy any day, but it’s crossed the line into too weird.
10. Vague errors
Tell me what the problem is, please! I can’t solve an error if I don’t know what the mistake is. Something has gone wrong could mean literally anything. I could have my shirt on inside-out. Who knows!
Vague and ambiguous error messages cause major drop-off. No one wants to keep filling out the same form over and over, only to keep receiving a message with zero details.
To make things worse, the words on the list above are stark and unfriendly. It’s bad enough to deal with an error — why not lighten the mood with more appealing language?
Every interaction with a user is an opportunity.
UX writing has developed into a critical part of designing a product out of necessity — bad copy creates confusion and friction, while great microcopy makes it delightful and easy to complete a desired action.
If you put yourself into the shoes of the user and empathize with their needs, you’re halfway there. At times, you need the copy to be so simple and clear that they don’t even notice it. In other scenarios, you want to elicit a belly laugh.
It’s okay to make mistakes — you need to try whacky ideas to make breakthroughs. As long as you address user needs firstly, you shall find success.
Now go forth and write delightful things!
Written by Melissa Mapes, Founder of Real Big Words
Originally published at realbigwords.com.
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