Telling the whole story: How UX writers can elevate your product designs

Imagine you’ve just found an exciting new website or product. It offers everything you’ve been looking for at a reasonable price. You’re completely sold based on the marketing materials, product demos, and UX of the website. You decide to hand over your credit card info and sign up.

And then you’re hit with a completely incomprehensible error message and can’t go any further.

If you’ve ever been in that sort of situation, you know how frustrating it can be. Maybe you can’t get past the error and can’t sign up. Maybe you could if you really tried, but you decide not to bother and go with a competitor instead. Maybe you do get past it, but it’s such a bad experience that it’s left you with a much lower opinion of the product than you would have had if everything worked properly.

It probably goes without saying, but the people who make these products aren’t trying to confuse you or trick you, especially if they’ve put a lot of work into making the rest of your experience a positive one. They’ve just overlooked their UX copy.

It’s unfortunately a common problem. Content creation often lies somewhere between the design phase and the development phase, but when it’s a footnote tucked between other tasks, things inevitably fall through the cracks. That’s why more and more people are starting to move towards a different way of looking at things.

Instead of creating designs with a bunch of placeholder text and promising to “deal with the copy later”, we’re looking at content design as a third branch of the product design process, alongside UX and UI design.

Writing within the design process

Let’s back up for a minute. Traditionally in the product design process, designers build out a series of user flows and screens that showcase how the product works and what it looks like. Once that’s done, they hand it off to a copywriter, who then fills in the content. This approach presents a number of challenges — for example, maybe the designer has provided space for three subsections to provide information, but the writer knows four are required. The designer could go back and update their work. Or the developers could add another subsection, hopefully without affecting the rest of the design too much. Or the writer could try find a compromise and condense the four sections into three. But those solutions require either extra design or development effort (and budget), or result in a lesser experience.

Treating the content creation as part of the design phase means that designers are accounting for all the required information on the page, developers have something much more accurate to work from, and writers aren’t compromising the quality of their work to accommodate design choices that unintentionally limit the impact copy can have.

Microcopy: A bigger job than the name suggests

But there’s more to content than just headers and paragraphs, and as you start getting further into the product, things get more complicated. UX writing and content design consider things like error messages, confirmation or warning dialog boxes, menu items, form field labels — all the little bits of text that may not be as flashy as a great ad, but play an instrumental role in shaping the way a user moves through a product or website. They also consider the things you don’t see on the page, from the overall content strategy to the alt text used by screen readers.

These little bits of microcopy is where good UX writing really shines, and where it differentiates itself from more traditional marketing copywriting. Sure, you still want the language to sing, and you want to make sure you’re working within any brand guidelines. But it’s not about selling. Your top priorities have to be usability, clarity, empathy, and accessibility, and that requires a very different way of approaching communication. That’s why it’s best to have someone who specializes in this specific type of writing and is fully immersed in the design process.

I often compare it to the difference between a graphic designer and a UX designer. They’re both designers, but each uses a very different part of their brain, and produces a very different final output. You (hopefully) wouldn’t hire one to do the other’s job, and the same should be true when it comes to creating digital content.

Thinking beyond words, and thinking ahead

UX writing is a big part of content design, but it’s not the only part, and there’s a lot more writers can bring to the table beyond words. For example, most writers are inherently storytellers, and that skill can be invaluable when defining your information architecture or laying out your content hierarchy. After all, the writers are the ones ultimately shaping the information and writing the content — why not involve them in the early planning stages?

Something simple like signing up for a new product might not sound like a very compelling story. But a good content designer, as a good writer, can identify the hook in something mundane and turn it into a journey your users will want to go on. They’ll have insights that can pay off as the product moves forward, and they’ll also gain new insights from this involvement that will help them make their final content even better.

There’s a lot of potential in the work content designers and UX writers do. But to achieve that potential, they have to be in the room. And because it’s a newer field, and it’s not as widely understood as other product or design roles yet, it’s often forgotten — until that incomprehensible error message pops up when a user tries to create an account. You could fix it when you find it, but why not have someone on your team who’s thinking through and writing these messages before your users discover them and decide not to sign up after all? Better yet, why not have someone who can flag the content or structure issues that lead to those errors in the first place, and solve the problem before it happens?

A great design is an essential part of a great product, and without a beautiful and functional user interface, it’s hard for any product to make an impact. But don’t neglect the content those screens are designed to support, or the narrative your user experience is telling.

Graphics by Desmond Chang

Writer in Toronto. Opinions expressed are my own