Writing for UX

Six tips for using words to improve user loyalty, conversions and satisfaction.

From using the software you live in every day, to even simple things like enjoying games on your phone to pass the time, the words used throughout these experiences are as crucial to your experience as the code behind them. While speed and clever navigation help provide a seamless, hopefully intuitive experience, how you talk to your users can make or break their impression of your product.

If you’re talking to a doctor with terrible bedside manner who seems rushed, filling in the blanks on your chart without seeming to care about you, how comfortable are you going to be sharing intimate details about your health history? On the opposite end of the spectrum, a physician who looks you in the eye, displays empathy, uses gentle language, and comforts you throughout the experience will probably find patients are much more willing to share personal details.

Software applications need to communicate in much the same way. While built to operate as a series of steps in a process, it’s easy to forget that actual people are on the other end of the screen. People have many important traits (e.g., impatience, lack of understanding, advanced or young ages) and emotions (e.g., fear, anger, surprise, disgust) that need to be considered throughout the experience.

Keeping in mind the spectrum of responses software can illicit, it’s important to remember a few key elements in writing for the user’s experience. Here’s six factors to consider when writing for a software application intended for humans. (That’s most of them!)

Understand what state of mind a user will be in when her or she uses the product.

It’s easy to think through a workflow within an application without really considering the context of how a person got there, but it can be detrimental if it’s not clearly understood. It’s important to tailor the experience based on a deep understanding of what someone might be feeling or thinking at any point during the experience, keeping in mind first impressions are most crucial.

For example, some software is a necessary evil that people just get through as quickly as possible (renewing a vehicle registration or enrolling in a company’s new healthcare plan, for example) so including cutesy paragraphs of “fun facts” or making users wait to play a video about where their money goes when they renew their registration may just frustrate instead of connecting with the user. In a case like this, it’s best to make sure the user feels like they’re being taken through the process as efficiently as possible and that they receive very clear instructions throughout as to what they can expect. Knowing how long the process will take, and how far along they are can be extremely helpful as well.

In the example below, the USPS understands the process of working with them can be confusing, so they do a (perhaps surprisingly) great job of being clear but friendly in helping users schedule a parcel pick up. Conversational tone helps clearly explain what’s being asked for, with brief clarifying text providing necessary detail.

Ask yourself WYLTIWLT.

Huh? A good rule of thumb when writing clear, helpful copy for buttons is to go by the WYLTIWLT (pronounced “wilty-wilt”) rule: “Would you like to/I would like to.” For example, it’s pretty easy to say that I would like to, “View my account” but it’s not totally clear if I would like to “More information.”

We’ve all pressed that “Submit” button a time or two in our lives, but does anyone know what happens next? Buttons are sometimes overlooked in the user experience process but are an important, passive way to communicate critical information. This is particularly true if you’re asking your users to send financial or personal information and they’re not entirely sure what’s happening to this information once they click. A great example is the penultimate step in a checkout process. Instead of “Submit”, “Review My Order” makes it clear a summary stage is still to come.

Empathize with your users.

While we hope that thoughtful software design alone can make your users feel a certain way, the words used throughout matter a great deal when trying to establish a connection. The two need to work together to tap into your users’ emotions. To achieve this, simple word choices can be incredibly effective: Avoiding the second person such as “Your account” and changing to “My account” creates an immediate sense of trust for an application which stores personal information or sensitive details.

Along with small tweaks to language used, having a sense of where a user might feel hesitancy and providing reassurance can help guide them along, such as stating their information won’t be shared or reminding them that the application or website is completely secured. Preempting those questions are more and more important as high profile hacks make the news and more users become street smart with their data.

Stop referring to users as “users.”

Maybe this should have been point number one. It’s easy to dismiss the complexity of our users when we let the word stand in as a single dimensional descriptor for anyone who might interact with our software. Making it a habit of referring to your users as “people” instead can help to remind you and your team of the breadth of your customer base.

It’s a small change, but something that can be felt throughout an entire experience. Facebook’s director of product design, Margaret Gould, at a conference in 2014 even quotes, “It’s kind of arrogant to think the only reason people exist is to use what you built. They actually have lives, like, outside the experience they have using your product, and so the first step of designing in a human-centered way is to recognize that they’re humans.”

Use your microcopy to its full advantage.

Every single word used throughout your product is an opportunity to communicate something incredibly important. Something as simple as asking for a user’s name can be transformed into an opportunity to empathize, avoid confusion, reaffirm the product’s personality or just bring a smile to their face. Make use of all available text throughout your product including placeholder text in a form field, buttons, tool tips, success messages, 404 pages, etc. You’ll want to ensure there’s consistency throughout, so that the personification feels genuine.

Alleviate their pain and make it fun.

No matter what you’re asking people to do with your product, it’s our job to make it as painless as possible. Speed, intuitive design, ease of use, and accessibility are key to achieving this, but using words to enhance clarity or make your app a more enjoyable experience can go a long way in launching a successful product, converting customers, or establishing loyalty.

Keeping in mind these points will go far in making sure the process of working with your application or product is clear and comforting. Let us help you build an experience that leaves your audience smiling.

Kim Stearns
Kim Stearns
Director of Product
Kim Stearns is the Director of Product Management at Synapse Studios. She oversees the product management and UX teams at Synapse Studios and has a passion for helping clients to build data-driven products that users love.

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