UX Writers don’t always have a set place in an organization. Do we belong in the product team, as our own branch, or even with marketing? Are we editors or copywriters or designers? Should we be called Content Designers or UI Wordsmiths?
Though companies handle this in different ways, writers are increasingly viewed as designers because, well, writing is design. Think about microcopy as one component of many: just as icons and dropdowns add meaning to an interface, so do labels and subtitles and button copy.
Chances are you’re familiar with Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics, principles that lead towards better user experience. Though these heuristics are primarily used by UX Designers, UX Writers can apply them to their copy to provide a better experience for their users.
Design heuristics for UX writers
Visibility of system status
We all want to know what’s going on. If a screen is loading, users want to know about it rather than just hope that something’s happening. Copy should inspire trust.
Don’t say Loading when you can be more specific with Loading messages. If a user performs an action, like copying text, provide a confirmation message (like Copied to clipboard) to let them know things are working as expected.
Match between system and real world
The design of buttons in UI comes from buttons in the “real world.” Users have expectations, and most of those expectations come from offline experiences. Consider Jakob’s Law: users are usually not on your site, meaning they’ll come to your interface with outside expectations.
Copy should be no different. Don’t introduce a new term when users are already familiar with another. Use words and phrases that your users will be familiar with and, if a new one needs to be introduced, provide context.
This heuristic also comes into play when writing for larger components, like forms. We’ve all had to fill out a physical form, and we know what’s expected from a checkbox or blank space. We know that content is usually grouped with related items. Following these standards will improve the information hierarchy of your product, and make content easier to find.
User control and freedom
We all make mistakes. Online, we’re used to choices like undo, redo, cancel, and close.
While designers are usually the ones to add these links, UX Writers can ensure that the correct term is used in the right place. Users should feel like they’re in control, not stuck on one path. If an option can’t be undone, let the user know beforehand with a warning message; to provide an escape, use the word Cancel instead of only an X in the corner.
Consistency and standards
UX is all about consistency. If users know that something by a specific term, keep using it. Don’t say search in one place and find in another.
That said, clarity should not be sacrificed for consistency. If what’s expected won’t be enough, provide more context.
Let users know what’s expected of them. If something can’t be undone, let them know with a confirmation modal. Users should know the consequences of their actions before they’ve made a decision.
The Serial Position Effect shows that users remember information that is presented first and last. Place relevant instructions and warnings where users are most likely to read them.
Recognition over recall
Recognizing something is easier than remembering it. Miller’s Law states that the average person can only remember 7 items at a time. This means making sure information can always be found again when needed. If providing users with a checklist or an onboarding experience, the information should be saved so they can reference it later.
As mentioned earlier, this also means being consistent with terminology. Users will be more comfortable when they recognize words across your platform.
Flexibility and efficiency of use
No two people complete a task in the same way. In UX, it’s common to provide multiple ways to get something done. This doesn’t mean that your interface or copy should be repetitive, but that users should feel free to work their way through the site with their own preferences.
Copy can help by providing additional information for users who need it, and organizing information in a way that’s easy to navigate.
Aesthetic and minimalist design
Minimalism has been gaining popularity, usually associated with plain design and the least amount of information possible. However, aiming for minimal design doesn’t mean paring it down to the bones, but only providing what’s necessary. Hick’s Law states that making decisions becomes harder when a lot of complex options are shown, so keep it simple.
When it comes to copy, this means giving the right amount of information. Too much, and the user won’t read any of it; too little, and they won’t understand. Ask yourself what the user needs to know.
No one wants to see an error message, but life happens. Whether there’s a system malfunction or a mistake on the user’s side, error messages should provide information on why the error occurred as well as what can be done to fix it.
If it’s possible for a user to fix their mistake, provide instructions and a CTA within the message itself so they don’t have to go hunting around for the solution.
Help and documentation
An interface that’s well designed will be intuitive, but sometimes extra help is still needed. Especially in complex systems, users sometimes need or want additional information to be sure they’re achieving what they want to do.
For example, providing an article on how permissions work can ensure that sensitive data is only shown to the correct people. Though UX Writers often aren’t the authors of help articles, even the CTA leading to the article can clarify exactly what the user will find. Don’t say Learn more when a more specific link, like To learn more, check out this help article is possible.
UX Writers aren’t UX Designers, but both can work towards providing a good user experience. Keeping basic design heuristics in mind can go a long way in making an interface clear and enjoyable.