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5 things UI designers can learn from UX writers

Seen as the unicorn skill for designers, good writing is a sought-after craft. Use a content-first approach to refine your design.

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Some might say UI design is all about the visuals, but is it really the only aspect you should care about?


Obviously, everyone is responsible for their own part. All the parts, however, influence each other, as they add up to the same final product.


You might be able to create the prettiest graphics in the world, yet they won’t get you far if they don’t go in line with a wider concept. Good interfaces don’t exist in isolation from information architecture, user journeys, and written content.


In this article, we’re going to focus on the last part: the words. This responsibility lies with the UX writers. Their role is to create good user experience through product copy. They are the people who write interface (UI) copy, from CTAs and button text to tooltips and app notifications.


It’s a relatively new discipline. Not every design team has a dedicated UX writer, especially when it comes to small companies. Quite often, creating the copy (or at least the first draft) is the responsibility of a designer. And here comes the question: do designers actually know how to get it right?


When you started learning how to design websites and digital products, you probably didn’t think much about the words. You know everything about visuals, you know a thing or two about typography, but writing might not be your cup of tea.


Of course, not everyone has to be an excellent writer. On the other hand, the vast majority of interfaces come with a certain amount of text. As a usability professional, you can’t just ignore that fact. The words are there, and you need to tackle them accordingly. Acclaimed thought leaders, such as John Madea, go as far as claiming that writing is the unicorn skill in design.


Even if you don’t have a UX writing expert on board, you can still use some of their expertise. Here are 5 things UI designers can learn from UX writers:



Content-first approach


We’ll start with a general rule.


However tempting it is, drop the lorem ipsum.


Without exaggerating, it’s what UX writers hate most – and not without reason.


Placeholder text may somehow work for very early-stage UX sketches. UI design, on the other hand, is always high-fidelity. The prototypes can be shown to stakeholders and users for review. Dummy content doesn’t help them concentrate on the purpose of your design. If you use lorem ipsum, your test results won’t be of much use.


It’s all because words are an essential part of the experience. Did you know that more than 95% of the information on the web is written? While graphic design can do wonders, it’s still just a part of the equation.


At this stage, there is no space for placeholders. High-fidelity means your design should be ready to use. Dummy text can even depreciate your interface and make it feel like just a matter of aesthetics, while there should be so much more to it. A quote by renowned web designer, Jeffrey Zeldman, sums it up perfectly:


“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”



Drop the lorem ipsum


Both words and visuals are there to help the users achieve their goals. Here’s how you can make them work together:



Use relevant copy to avoid space issues


This is a great way to cut down on design iterations. Have you ever created something you were really proud of, and then it turned out that the text doesn’t quite fit? If you were working with real content, this would be much less likely to happen.


Dummy text can even depreciate your interface and make it feel like just a matter of aesthetics, while there should be so much more to it.

This strategy is also hugely helpful for responsive design. When you have the actual copy from the start, it’s much easier to decide on device breakpoints. Working with lorem ipsum, on the other hand, will almost definitely lead to countless redesigns.


In other words, a content-first approach will help you create a design that improves the product instead of squeezing the product into a pretty visual frame.


Of course, it doesn’t mean that you need perfectly polished text to start working. Even the messiest draft is a whole lot better than lorem ipsum.



A content-first approach in UX design


And here comes another thing you can learn from UX writers:



Involve your writer in the process


So, what exactly is the value of having a writer on board?


If you’re working on a website redesign, they’re going to start with a content audit.


What’s more, writers are storytellers, and UX writers are no different. They’re with you to make sure that your product is telling the right story, both verbally and visually.


Have a look at an example of a successful collaboration between the UI/UX team and a writer. If you’ve ever used Mailchimp, a well-known email marketing tool, this GIF probably rings a bell:



The Mailchimp high five


This screen appears after you send an email campaign. It can be a really stressful step, considering huge volumes and marketing budgets. Mailchimp saw the opportunity and they took it. They used an animation of their brand hero, a chimpanzee named Freddie, along with a friendly message.


Here’s the secret: the animation wouldn’t be as effective without the text, and vice versa. Both parts of this design complement each other to create a user experience so good it gained a cult status. It’s so popular that people are sharing images of this feature on social media. It didn’t take me long to find an example on Instagram:





Consider translations


Designing for different language versions? There’s a rule of thumb among UX writers: if the German text fits, all other translations will fit as well. Although it serves as a good indicator, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. Other important issues have been raised by Rachael Bundock, the UX Writer of Booking.com, in her article about writing interface copy for translation. For example, different languages may have dramatically different grammar rules. What makes a nice and concise call to action in English might be much longer and more complicated in Russian, Hebrew, or Portuguese.


Last but not least, working with translations in mind will also help you create relevant graphic designs. A message may work well as an idiom in one language, but it may turn out less witty (if not offensive) in another. Before you come up with a funny visual touch, make sure it doesn’t get lost in translation. Using expressions like “the bee’s knees” or “in a nutshell” may not work very well in languages other than English.



Consider translations in UX writing


Plain language


Yes, the Holy Grail of UX writing. Plain language is the art of using simple words and not using more words than necessary. Although it’s a wide discipline on its own, it’s not rocket science. Even if you’re not a natural-born writer, basic plain language principles are quite easy to master. Here are some of the most important ones to get you started:


There’s a rule of thumb among UX writers: if the German text fits, all other translations will fit as well. Although it serves as a good indicator, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.


Use active voice


Simple as that. Passive voice will make your copy unnecessarily wordy. What’s more, the message in active voice sounds more persuasive. Have a look at this example:


Save your card details to pay.


vs.


Card details need to be saved for payment.


See the difference? The message is virtually the same, yet the first version is shorter and more actionable. The user knows exactly what they’re supposed to do.



Choose familiar words


It might be tempting to strive for elaborate expressions in order to make yourself sound knowledgeable.


See what I did there?


When you write copy for the interface, it’s good practice to read it out loud. If it sounds like something you wouldn’t normally say, it probably doesn’t fit.