UX writing and how I learned to unlearn long-form

An anecdotal learning experience

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I used to work as an in-house creative for an eCommerce company. I was head of the creative team working on an ATL and social media campaign when a job dropped in my inbox that I was highly unqualified for (but I didn’t know that then).

It was to make contingency content for the website in case of a crash. The person who sent the email to me reassured me that ‘crashes never happen’ and that all I need to do is update the visuals to the new campaign.

We were in the middle of a giant rebrand, a complete overhaul of the app and were kicking it all off with a massive sale campaign so suffice to say, we were all drowning a little bit.

I took all of 10 minutes to change the image on the copy that said, “Oops looks like there’s a line. Check back later, etc. etc.”

This conversation happened at 2 pm that day.

Fast forward to 3 am at night. We were facing the biggest crash that the app had seen and my CEO was stood behind my shoulder screaming.

‘We’ve been down for hours and all we have to say is ‘Oops’?!’

I learnt two things that day. Never do anyone a favour and that there’s so much more to UX writing than I thought.

UX writing is smol

I’m a long-form copy kind of gal, always have been. As much as I loved reading shampoo bottles in the shower, my love for writing came from reading romantic novels that went on and on and on about the moon and Charles Dickens overexplaining those bloody marshes in Great Expectations.

What really kicked off my interest however was realizing how small a box you have to work with. I was surprised that when it came down to a moment of crisis, the rest of my campaign that I had spent months on suddenly meant nothing. Everything hinged on that one line that was now mocking me. Oops indeed.

Also, since I thrive on negative feedback, I immediately wanted to become an expert on UX writing once my boss had screamed at me. I know, I’m already in therapy.

There’s still a story there

Imagine someone’s stopped you on the street. They want directions and you know exactly where to lead them to. So, you tell them to go straight, take the third left, then a right, cross the roundabout past the broken-down yellow jeep that’s inexplicably always parked there and that’s it, they’ve arrived! The driver may have loved you but they’re going to go round that roundabout at least four times out of sheer confusion. Someone’s finally moved the yellow jeep.

With UX writing, you’re not only writing the story within the confines of your medium, you’re also helping navigate a user through their journey.

A consistent brand voice, a tone and a story are imperative to how you lead them to their destination. You can’t be Julia Roberts in the beginning just to close with Samuel L. Jackson.

You have to be clear

I will never take a ‘Click Here’ button for granted again. I like to think I’m speaking to a toddler about to rub soap into their eyes. If you’re just a little bit unclear, all hell will break loose.

Think about the dumbest coworker you have.

The ‘Why must I always remind him to read attached?’ guy.
The ‘please refer to my previous email for details’ guy.
The ‘How did this guy even end up with a job here?’ guy.

You know exactly who I’m talking about. Now direct your copy towards him but make it fun because he needs shiny things to help keep his attention. I know it’s a bit of a tall order but that’s why you get the little bucks.

It doesn’t have to be short

I always thought that my love for long-form copy would be at odds with UX writing and yes, there are certain places where you do need to be brief but the art of UX is knowing how much to say and where to say it.

Sometimes longer copy can be really reassuring when you’re tackling a more complex or sensitive subject. It depends entirely on context. So, yes, my title is a little bit misleading but I liked the way it sounded.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

As much as I love writing creative things, sometimes you need to pump the brakes and stick with the status quo. Think about negative spaces as much as you think about the designed area. Sometimes you don’t really need to be high brow with your messaging. Everyone knows how a password form works. Trying to reinvent that wheel may leave people feeling suspicious of you.

Get familiar with the anatomy of the page

One of my first freelance gigs required me to write copy for a form. The client wanted to have a fun and playful approach because there were a lot of steps involved. Keeping it casual and human would help break the monotony. I agreed. This was a fantastic approach. Forms suck and no one wants to fill them.

What I didn’t foresee was that the form was a beast that I was not familiar with. I had filled them out hundreds of times but now I had to look at it in an entirely different light. There were a number of navigational issues that I ran into. Certain ‘If yes’ and ‘If no’ questions that I needed to lead the user through. How human would I be able to make specific instructions without sounding condescending?

I also didn’t realise that I had two different audiences. While I was writing for the brand’s target market, I also had to structure my work well enough so the designer/programmer could understand what I was talking about.

I ran into similar problems when I wrote the FAQs. It felt like the questions I wrote were feeding into others and proposing new possibilities that I needed to address. I needed to make the call as to what to combine, what to address and what to leave to be asked through the contact form.

Test your writing

When you’ve been around screens your entire life, it’s very easy to think of some things as no-brainers and taking their existence for granted but there will always be a user who will find an entirely new way to access your content. Perhaps through a toaster.

Jokes aside, there might be accessibility issues that you don’t know of. In fact, there may be certain roadblocks that you never even envisioned because you never had certain disabilities. While UX writers are more flexible than others putting on someone else’s shoes, sometimes it’s just better to let their original owners take a walk in them and let you know how it went.

Context

I’m not going to lie. The oops still haunts me. Never will I use oops in a piece of copy again. Honestly, it probably wasn’t even the worst piece of writing. The only problem was that it was generic and the silly image that accompanied it felt like it belittled the massive tech issue that we were facing. I know if I as a customer had just placed an order for a $1000 TV only to have my payment stuck on an ‘oops’, I would want to chuck my phone at the wall.

This is why context and contingency matters. Every user is unique and may take a wildly different journey and run into wildly different problems. You need to be the dumbass savant and think about everything that could possibly go wrong.

When my boy Murphy wrote that law, he was talking about UX writers.

Be Inclusive

We as writers of the internet world have a responsibility. We need to understand who’s reading and make sure that our copy caters to everyone. Accessibility is already so rare these days. It is our job to start redesigning the internet to let everyone else in.

Alexa and I are feuding at the moment because she doesn’t always understand my accent and although I say this in a light-hearted way, it can be really frustrating to have to pretend to have an American accent just so my devices can understand me or to phrase my sentences in a certain way because my mother tongue’s sentence structures differ so much that they often bleed into my English as well.

It is a quiet responsibility, but a powerful one.

Note: I’m still learning UX writing and I’d be happy to learn more. If you feel I’ve been off the mark in some places, feel free to call me out.

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