HomeNewsLanguage Is Dead, Long Live UX Copy!

Language Is Dead, Long Live UX Copy!

UX Planet — Medium | Janet Manley Credits: Dropbox

Debate around UX practices is so refined at this point that we are seeing some really sophisticated use of color, motion, and schemes for presenting navigation to the user. The cycle seems to be to add more features, then desperately strip them back to a single colored rectangle to restore a “simple” user experience. Logos become more complex and artistic, and then we strip them back down to two vertical sticks. Through the rise and fall of hamburger menus, skeumorphism, and pastel color palettes, UX copy has been there to get the user where they need to be. Often overlooked, a simple piece of copy can achieve what a new icon sets out to do with much less bother and learning on the part of the user.

As the examples below show, sometimes the best way to explain what a button does, or where a user is in the flow of screens is just to tell them. In words. Even better, clever use of voice in the UX copy can help the user build an attachment to your brand or app. It can smooth wrinkles in the user experience, sail them through errors, and leave them feeling happy or amused.

Without doubt, UX designer toolkits are impressive, but I’m here to make a case for investing a little more time and care in the age-olde capabilities of language. As a writer and masters graduate of the “dying humanities” myself, I obviously take a highly biased view of the subject, but I’m bullish on the prospects for language, even in the era of fake news and covfefe.

Here’s how copy can help take your design to the next level.

Good UX copy can buy you time.

Goodreads uses a library of quotes as an interstitial when the app is loading, keeping user’s interest up, and getting them excited about the experience.

I cannot overstate the power of quotes. They can transport the user, evoke a mood, and introduce a rich context in very little space (because the author and the larger work also come with a set of associations). There’s a good reason that the #bookstagram tag on Instagram is currently $13.7 million posts strong.

Personality done right can create goodwill.

I kept receiving email updates on sale prices from Kayak after I had completed a recent trip to Denver, and angrily hit the unsubscribe button. The screen I reached on kayak.com got my anger down to a simmer, acknowledging the universal annoyance of emails, and assuring me I won’t receive any more.

The clean screen, free of annoyance and sales chatter, actually did let me put this instance of email overkill behind me.

Help users take actions by encouraging them.

As users adjust to redesigns moving navigational elements out of sidebars into bottom navigation bars and so on, the one constant in our lives is the search field. Amazon’s app comes fairly crowded with features (note the hamburger menu at top right poised to expand), but the search bar is prominent and comes with a relatable prompt.

“What are you looking for?” encourages users to type in their request, and bypass the more confusing navigational elements.

It’s also worth noting that the sheer inventory Amazon commands is alluded to in this copy. “What are you looking for?” might not work with a company that doesn’t have a remarkable supply chain within a day’s delivery of the user.

Copy can be a reward.

Mematic takes you through a series of simple steps each time you create a meme. The final step, after “saving” the meme to your camera roll, is to exit this flow. Mematic conveys this with a final button requiring you to exit out of the meme builder. The choice of “Yeah” as opposed to “Exit” fits with the brand, and kind of makes me want to create another meme.

Error messages can ensure failures are less jarring

I almost never open Timehop, and when I do there’s a good chance that it can’t find anything to pull for its feed. Instead of giving a sad message like, “Fail, you have no memories,” an off-kilter “Oh fiddlesticks” keeps me from being too disappointed.

Diving slightly deeper into the etymology of the error message, “Oh fiddlesticks” is just a touch retro, in keeping with Timehop’s brand.

Tumblr likewise does a great job of offering a meta error message that might give the user an internal laugh, then reassuring the user that the error is temporary.

A familiar tone can guide users through the uncertainty of onboarding

Tumblr does a great job of explaining what so many thought pieces can’t: what Tumblr is. The initial tour gives new users a multitude of ideas about what the platform can be used for, populated by language that suggests the experience will just make sense, and you needn’t think too much about it.

Although the microcopy on the screenshot below does actually explain a little about how blogs and reblogs work, the call-out offers the user reassurance that it’s not that complicated.

Given that 77% of users never use an app again within three days of downloading it, keeping them engaged through onboarding is key to building your user base.

Voice can create a sense of identity for users.

The target audience for internet concern The Awl is highly educated, with a taste for esoteric, deep-dive and niche journalism (tagline: Be less stupid.). The Awl sacrifices the SEO of its site data (of debatable value, since people aren’t exactly searching for “sestinas about David Brooks” in Google) to wax absurd in the meta description.

If you’re not already familiar with The Awl, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the tone and mission of the site by the time you click through to a post.

Good copy can cut through the noise.

Users are bombarded with calls to action, prompts to review apps, and testimonials everywhere they go on the internet. This has the effect of making them somewhat immune to the hyperbole of sales pitches and rave reviews. Creating copy that cuts through this noise chamber can shake the user out of their ambivalence.

The copy on the download page for BBEdit is aimed at designers and developers who have a low tolerance for b.s., and ultimately just want to know one thing: does it suck?

Janet Manley is Head of Content for Fueled, a leading mobile app development agency. She has been published by the New Yorker, ELLE, Buzzfeed, Gawker, CNN, and Daily Dot.


Language Is Dead, Long Live UX Copy! was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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