Concept by Artur Ovanesyan; Illustration by Angin Jabaryan; Motion by Stas Yuskin, Raivix
Writing words that help users get from point A to point B in a product experience is a great way to start the writing process, but it is just half of what is needed. This article will be a starting point to help you figure out the words needed to create experiences that shepherd interested people to confident first-time users. From examples, determining your goals, finding your product’s voice, and measuring content’s impact, let’s figure out how to design the right words.
1. What is UX writing?
Okay, so what exactly is UX writing? Isn’t it just the same as copywriting?
Copywriting and UX writing aren’t the same but should collaborate by managing expectations and brand voice consistency. Generally speaking, copywriting is intended to draw users into the experience. UX writing is for when they are in the experience. Specifically, it is the words within the product. From the smallest button, error states, micro copy, UX content that helps replace ambiguity with user actions.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with user onboarding?
User onboarding is your product’s first impression. Every aspect of the experience needs to be clear, concise, and welcoming. When all of these factors are combined with your product’s personality, you create something memorable (in a good way), informative and delightful.
2. Onboarding copy examples
Take this image from MailChimp’s. Everything about this visual is perfect: humor, consistency, clarity, visual design, even down to the beads of sweat in the gif. There are a few personality-driven pieces of copy that make this screen great.
- The copy at the top, “Prepare to launch”
- “This is your moment of glory” at the bottom
So much more is gained from the experience with these carefully placed 9 words.
The rest of the copy is clear and concise. It also doesn’t hurt that the experience is paired with a great illustration and motion design. This moment of delight and personality from the experience is more than memorable. It helps remove friction from a moment where there might be some hesitation from a user sending their first campaign.
In this version of Airbnb’s user onboarding, simplicity is their best tool. All three aspects of this copy (Header, subheader, and button) get the user thinking about their next trip. Airbnb is no longer a vacation rental service but is now a vehicle for their next adventure.
This is more of a great example of copy placement than the copy itself. Linkedin, well, being the business social networking site, its personality is going to be very professional. Only a little room for warmth in the copy, but there is an opportunity to have the copy make the experience less stressful. The first screen is an excellent primer for the second screen, inviting people into your network. If the first two screens had been combined, it would have been a big ask of users from the get-go.
3. How do you write UX copy for first time users?
UX writing doesn’t start with writing. It starts with listening. If the content is developed in a silo, the words and the product experience suffers. The words need to be developed collaboratively. A great way to figure out the words is to learn more about the goals of the product experience.
Having established goals is a great way to anchor stakeholder actions and conversations. This prevents the product from becoming adrift and lost. Deciding which goals to set that’s where things can get a little tricky. This process is best guided by “mission-critical” questions, such as
- What’s the important part of the experience?
- Who are the customers?
- How do people solve the problem now?
- What motivates them?
The more behavior-oriented questions related to specific actions in a product experience, the better.
You are creating words, not just for a product experience but words that will impact every stage of the customer lifecycle. In strategic writing for UX by Torrey Podmajersky, this is called the virtuous cycle. The goal is to take strangers from investigating a product to becoming fans of the experience. This means the content for the onboarding phase will be complemented with guides and “how-to” materials. Having a great user onboarding email doesn’t hurt, either. All of this supporting content is important, but this article’s emphasis focuses on words in the product experience. After all, this is where your user’s attention is the most valuable.
It is tempting to think of the product experience screen by screen, but we don’t look at all the pixels. We look for what we need. Scratch that; we scan for what we need.
To help us guide through the rest of this article, we will use a fictitious (or soon-to-be app?) called DealzOnWheelz (DOW for short), a community-oriented car rental application. They are trying to figure out their product’s unique voice and how to exercise it.
If there are UX researchers or someone with that skill inside your organization, then talking to users will already be happening. Getting insights from specific copy will be happening later in the experience; this is to gain an idea about their expectations about the experience and how they have been met or betrayed. Betrayed might seem like a strong word but the goal is to build trust and a key part of that is managing expectations.
Competitive research is important, but the goal is to learn more about behavior. It is an excellent source of market insight, but more is needed to replace the more important resource, your users and customers.
Voice and tone
A product’s voice is “the day-to-day” copy for most interactions. The tone is where the product’s “pitch” changes per the context of the page. And context is king when it comes to your product’s copy. Think of the difference between your boss congratulating you on a job well done and asking why you were 10 minutes late (the answer is always getting an iced coffee).
To do this, collaboration and effective conversation needs to happen with the following departments
- Customer Success
These conversations will be key in helping shape the words based on interactions with users, customers (those lost and retained), and the real estate available in the experience for the words.
The process starts by defining the product principles of the organization. In short, a product’s principles are the pillars of the user experience and the feeling the UX should convey to the people engaged with the product. For DOW, these product principles are Trust, Community, and Freedom.
Concepts are the ideas that the organization wants to emphasize whenever possible.
Vocabulary is a small list of words that are to be embraced (OR avoided) that help support that particular product principle.
Verbosity is a mini writing guideline to help pick the right amount of words. Too few, and the experience is vague. Too much, and the user is forced to read when they can scan.
Grammar is the recommended grammatical structure that balances usability and the product’s personality.
Punctuation and capitalization lay out the rules that best complement your product’s tone.
Okay, so how exactly do you use a voice chart?
Besides policing the language in the product experience, it can be a great way to guide the iterations that will occur in the writing process.
For DOW, let’s say there were three different tones to explore with users first renting a car, a critical moment for the user, and a critical revenue-generating moment for the organization.
The first option could reaffirm that DOW has your back when you start your ride. The second option could focus on joining a community of riders. The third option could double down on your new freedom via the car you just rented.
Note: There are times when the voice takes a backseat. If your users are in an accident and need to notify DOW support about the incident, the priority is a clear copy of whatever accident they must report.
Okay, so you’ve determined your goals, and you have your voice chart to help you. This will immensely help the iteration and collaboration process as you figure out your words.
How do you know the words are working? Test them! Relentlessly.
A/B testing is your best bet when determining which batch of copy is achieving its main purpose: helping users complete their actions. A/B testing is like any UX research tool; it’s best under the right conditions. A/B testing is right for situations with the minimal copy but doesn’t give you a deeper understanding of why testers liked what they liked. Lucky for us, there are other ways to test the words.
Have you ever played mad libs? That’s kinda what a cloze test is. Sections of the copy are intentionally left blank, and a tester writes in or their first thought in that space. It helps test the context of the rest of the words and the experience those words inhabit.
The highlighter test is great for seeing the conversational tone and pacing. Essentially, you have testers highlight the pieces of copy that make them feel confident in green and unsure in red.
Comprehension surveys are essentially a mini book report on your product’s words. It asks testers to see how much information they retained from the experience.
There are more advanced methods for measuring words, but these techniques come with years of experience and look at the whole UX. One of these techniques is a UX content heuristic assessment. It is essentially a scorecard that looks at accessibility, the purpose of the words, how concise a section is, the conversational tone, and their ambiguity.
Drafting and publishing copy for your product experience is a lengthy process with ups and downs. The copy has to percolate through stakeholders, leadership, your brain, and the pixel constraints of the space it inhabits. This article is the tip of a large process-iceberg. Like all UX projects, there is an ideal writing process. And then there is reality. So each writing process will have to adjust, most likely on the fly, for the scenario at hand. These tools can help you design the right words quicker and with less second-guessing.