The Unwritten Rules of UX Writing

Hard-won wisdom from the product trenches

Though in its infancy, UX writing has been thoroughly vetted. Hundreds of articles cover what it is, how to do it, and why it matters.

And I consumed them like a box of Thin Mints: one by one until I had a throbbing headache.

Now that I have some experience under my belt, I have a few tricks of my own.

One: Add [a curse word] to the end of your content

A gut check rather than a red flag, the curse word tactic helps me judge tone and delivery.

Trust me. Tack “bitch,” “ass,” “douche bag” (or any word that’d cost a quarter to the swear jar), and see how it tastes rolling off your tongue. If it feels at home in your copy, have you done what you set out to do?

Delete this photo[, bitch]?

You already tried that[, dummy].

To use this card, please enter a valid expiration date[, asshole].

Is that the tone you’re going for? Or is it a little too harsh for the situation? Listen to your instincts.

Either way, how well a “bitch” or “ass” fits in your copy will be how a reader absorbs it.

Just don’t forget to delete it.

Two: Conceding isn’t failing

New to the craft, I realized there was a distinct expectation: fight the good fight. I’m the writer, so I’m the expert. If I’m not defending my point-of-view, I’m either a bad writer or inexperienced (and, therefore, a failure on both counts).

While well-intentioned, that philosophy haunted me. I’m a shy, people-pleaser and prone to insecurity. I’m not fond of vigorous daily debates, especially with non-professional writers about writing.

“It’s my job,” I told myself. So I debated, defended, and argued. I went into meetings with my dukes up, ready to go to battle for every UI element.

It was a time-waster and a drain. Squabbles over minimal changes left the whole team miserable and suspicious of each other.

Enough was enough.

I changed the philosophy from “fight” to “that’s alright.”

If I disagree with the direction, I note it and double-down on my recommendation. If the team knows my position but ignores it anyway, that’s alright.

Though our jobs feel very important to us, I’m here to represent and advocate for the user. Everything else is my ego distracting me from the work that matters.

Three: Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze

When I stopped fighting every little thing, something amazing happened. My team started trusting my opinion more. I fought for the issues that made a difference and let the little things go.

Eventually, those little things were up for discussion, too. My expertise was valued rather than seen as an impediment.

If we’re going to battle, it’s going to be over something worth the emotional expense.

Four: Copy I didn’t write isn’t a fire to put out

But it is an opportunity to build goodwill.

Look, everyone’s a writer. Emails, social media captions, grocery lists, we all write. Some of us are better than others, sure. If someone hands me good copy, I tell them it’s good. Praise triggers dopamine, and happy people are helpful.

Even when someone hands me badly written copy, it’s content I didn’t have to write. Know what’s worse than bad writing? A blank screen. I can edit, rewrite, or use it as inspiration (before throwing it in the trash). I’m a writer — that’s my job.

Five: Too much sugar kills the message

If you bump into me, I apologize to you. That’s the kind of writer I am, too. I’ve edited out many-a sorries and pleases from my copy, always for the better.

Why? It doesn’t read well in product copy. Too much finger-wringing reads, at best, unconfident, and at worst, disingenuous. Neither of which is valuable to project onto users.

Use the curse-word tactic to toughen it up, or find stronger writing to communicate an appropriate tone. My colleague, Kelsey Dunn, gave me this sage advice:

Be honest about everything and move forward together. Using ‘Let’s’ language can help you do that.

Six: No, you’re not your user — except, sometimes you are

Hand over heart, recite: “I am not the user.” This is the cardinal rule of UX.

I haven’t wholly bought in.

Like people using the products I write for, I’m also a person. Where I currently work, I’m actually our target demographic.

Even if I weren’t, I’m still a human using technology to make connections, spark conversations, and find a community. A fact that helps me trust my instincts better — especially in the absence of compelling data or research — I’m a person writing for people.

UX writing ain’t easy, y’all.

I have a job that everyone thinks they can do (while simultaneously not understanding what it is I do). Once I decided to see that as a benefit rather than a detriment, I became a better collaborator and writer.

Content designer, etc.

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