A Curmudgeon’s Guide to UX Writing

The metaphorical representation of my soul—this grumpy cat.

I collect pet peeves. And none bother me more than questionable UX writing.

Every time I come across bad product copy or misleading advice, I add it to my collection. Each one proves how vital and subjective writing is. (And why it should be left to the professionals.)

To borrow a warning from Dante, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Let’s dive in.

Useless words

Retry

Even as a 5-character word, I can’t make sense of “retry.” Half the time, I mispronounce it like “retrie,” and the rest of the time, I want to punch it.

I would never in my life say to another human person, “Didn’t work? How’s about you retry.” I would say, “Try again.”

“Retry” is hard to match to headers, too. CTAs have an understood second-person subject. So whatever the copy is, it reads like “[You] Retry” or “[You] Register” or “[You] Check Out.”

When “Retry” is used as a CTA, it creates an awkward conversation between the content components.

Take this dialog from Foursquare, for example.

[header] Server Problem

[body] Sorry, there seems to be a problem with our servers. Please try again in a minute or so.

[secondary CTA] Cancel

[primary CTA] Retry

Foursquare coming in hot with the “Retry” CTA.

So, let me get this straight, Foursquare. I’m supposed to either retry server problem (sounds weird) or cancel server problem? Seems like they’re both above my pay grade.

Sorry

Ugh, I hate seeing sorries all over the place. It wastes characters without adding value. I don’t need an apology (unless you’ve mailed porn DVDs like Netflix did that one time). I need the thing I came for, sans sass.

Moomin’s Stinky doesn’t look sorry at all.

Please

Like “sorry,” “please” takes up room. If I’m editing, it’s one of the first things to go. With such small real estate in the product world, we can’t afford luxury words.

If I depend on “please” to soften the tone, it’s time for a rewrite.

Greetings / Cheers

I see these bad boys in emails from college professors, companies, and spammers — none of whom UX writers should emulate.

Oops / Whoops / Shucks / Poops

Doesn’t translate all that well, infantilizes users, and is entirely unoriginal.

Yes / No CTAs

Inaccessible. Unclear. Passive. Generic. Not action words. (People can’t “yes” something.)

“Yes” and “no” CTAs only get in the user’s way — a cardinal sin.

People will have to read every single line of this dialog. No thanky.

Learn More / Click Here CTAs

Inaccessible. Unclear. Lazy.

Users should always know— without reading all the content — where they’ll end up. Always. These CTAs don’t provide that info.

[Anything] now

“Read now,” “Join now,” “Subscribe now” — ack! It’s the internet; everything’s instantaneous.

“Now” is redundant. Get rid of it.

Synonyms

In a group content review, I noticed a writer using “select” and “add” interchangeably. When I mentioned it, they explained they didn’t want to choose between them because using only one felt too repetitive. I didn’t argue, but if I had, I would’ve politely reminded them:

  • Repetitive = consistent
  • “Add” and “select” mean very different things
  • There’s always a case to be made for removing content

UX writing is not creative writing (though it does require creative problem solving). Using synonyms in an interface is for our ego, not our users. Let’s stick with the word we started with.

Our job is to make sure people immediately, innately understand what to do. Synonyms muddy the waters. Leave 'em at home with the fan fiction and slam poetry.

Click and tap

Shuffling between devices (from laptops to FitBits), we’re alternating between clicking and tapping. But writing instructions like “Click the button” or “Tap the link” requires a versions for every device. That doesn’t scale.

Links and buttons are ubiquitous — people know what to do when they see them. We don’t even have to mention their existence.

Thoughtless habits

These are the equivalent of “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Human as a standard

Companies love including “Write like a human” in their voice and tone guide. But it’s a waste of a rule. What they mean is: Write plainly, write conversationally.

Helpful content below buttons and fields

Big idea alert: Microcopy should be above its related component — above the button, above the field, above the form. Full freaking stop.

It’s an accessibility thing, but it’s also called being a good person. Everyone, especially people using screen readers, needs to know the rules before playing the game.

Assuming my emotional context for me

When I unsubscribe from a newsletter or decline an offer and see that condescending, snarky, “No, I hate being cool” bullshit, I lose my cool.

You don’t know me, Cosmo.

Out in the wild, The Guardian is A/B testing their cookie message. Playing around with their CTA, they’ve changed “I’m OK with that” to “Yes, I’m happy.”

[header] Are you happy to accept cookies?

[body] To manage your cookie choices now, including how to opt out where our partners rely on legitimate interests to use your information, click on Manage my cookies.

(Phew, that’s a heck of a sentence.)

[primary CTA] Yes, I’m happy

[secondary CTA] Manage my cookies

The Guardian’s cookie message and emotionally manipulative CTA.

Thanks, I hate it.

And it doesn’t matter if I’m happy because it’s rhetorical. I have to accept the cookies to use the website. But since you asked — no— I’m not happy.

Side note: I’m not a fan of first-person CTAs. In this case, the rest of the content uses second-person pronouns. Remember the bit of advice about being consistent?

Title case all over the place

Want to talk about writing like a human? When we throw title case around willy-nilly, the content looks robotic, it’s harder to read, and open to inconsistent use. There are so many rules around capitalization, too. Individual companies have different standards as do academic writing styles (AP, MLA, Chicago, APA). And iOS and Android have separate conventions (which oppose each other because, of course).

I can deal with capitalizing proper nouns; otherwise, call me Shania Twain because [title case] don’t impress me much.

Preposition fear

When we’re talking to each other, we end sentences with prepositions. We also say “less” when we mean “fewer” and “who” when it should be “whom.” We ramble and tell tangentially-related anecdotes. We’re messy communicators.

That’s what it actually means to write like a human. Why not break a few grammar rules?

Primary CTAs on the left

Make the primary CTA the right-most option. It connotes forward momentum, the next step.

For languages that write right-to-left, the primary CTA should be the left-most option for the same reason — forward momentum.

Or put it smack dab in the center and stack the CTAs, with the primary action sitting on top.

Whatever’s going on in the world — and it’s a lot — there’s no reason we can’t work harder to make our users’ lives simpler (and save us all from curmudgeons like me).

Agree? Disagree? Hit me up with your UX writing pet peeves. I’d love to add them to my collection.

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