How to create user-friendly text and microcopy

UX writing is an important part of design: text can either help or hurt a product’s user experience. Words matter!

I’ve broken down the basics of UX writing into two interconnected goals: 1.) write clearly and 2.) reduce users’ cognitive load.

Excited about making words work? Let’s dig in...

1) Write Clearly

Well okay, so before digging into the interesting stuff, I have to touch on understandability. Above all, UX writing needs to be clear, correct and easy to comprehend.

Two quick notes on writing understandably: be concise and be specific.

Be Concise

In the clearest writing, every word serves a purpose. Short sentences and paragraphs are easier to read than long ones. (And people are more likely to read short things!)

When I was a PhD student, we were required to write a ten-page paper early in the semester. We submitted it dutifully. Our next assignment was to shorten that paper from ten to five pages without losing any meaning. We handed that in, too. A few weeks later, much to our grumblings, our final assignment was to abbreviate the same text to TWO AND A HALF pages, still without losing any meaning.

We were, y’know, not happy about all the editing, but we learned that it was possible to drastically shorten our writing by stripping the text down to its elements.

Here is some easy, pocketable advice for writing concisely:

  • Delete wordy and unnecessary phrases like “due to the fact that.”
  • Consider Stephen King’s stylistic advice from On Writing about nixing most adverbs altogether.
  • Paste your writing into the Hemingway app to test how bold and clear it is. We certainly don’t all want to sound like Hemingway, but it’s good to identify in a UX context when you are rambling.

Be specific

Pay attention to words like ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘it’ when you are proofreading text. Ask yourself: is it extra-super-clear which noun you are referencing? Or could it be ambiguous? It’s important it was to be as specific as possible in UX, even if you repeat yourself a little.

Acronyms can hinder understandability too.Whenever you use an acronym, make sure you define it. (I even define UX as User Experience at the beginning of most of my articles to be sure everyone understands.) Using an acronym without spelling it out will likely be a problem to somebody, no matter how ubiquitous you believe it is.

Everything you need to get started with UX research

2) Reduce users’ cognitive load

Product users should be able to read text quickly and easily — that is, without muttering “Hmm, wait minute…” and rereading it with a furrowed brow. We’ve all been there, and it’s not fun.

Cognitive load is a psychology term that you might hear in the context of design. Cognitive load refers to the amount of users’ mental effort that something requires. The higher the cognitive load, the more likely users will get confused or frustrated.

It takes more mental effort to read something that is unclear, which can easily lead to frustration when interacting with a product. Below are some stylistic tips for keeping cognitive load low with UX writing.

Use active voice and address users

Active voice is stronger and clearer and slightly faster for readers to interpret. Pro tip: if you can end your sentence with “by zombies” it’s passive voice!

Consider the differences between:

  • “We saved your response” vs. “Your response has been saved” (…by zombies?)
  • “14 people liked your post” vs. “Your post has been liked by 14 people” (…or zombies.)
  • “Finalizing Installation” vs. “Installation being finalized” (…by zombies!)

Active voice statements make it easier for readers to follow along without thinking about it. Active voice also attributes credit (or blame) rather than being ambiguous, which can possibly help users build trust in your product.

While you’re using active voice, you should also address users with ‘you’, ‘your’ and directions for what they need to do. Trust me, users will appreciate the clarity (though probably without realizing it).

After all, which of these is better?

  • “Restart your computer” (active voice, addresses the user) or “The computer must be restarted” (…by zombies.)

Start with the objective

Be direct at the start of the sentence by getting to the objective or user goal, right away. Because users are quickly scanning content, it’s useful to give important information upfront.

In user interfaces, this means you should write the user goal first and the user action second. Instead of “To find out more, contact us” make a switch to “Contact us to find out more.”

Be mindful of jargon

Engineering language often escapes into a user interface, which can create confusion and frustration. UXers should spot these instances and make swaps for more user-friendly wording.

Phrasing things in the users’ point of view also reduces cognitive load. Otherwise, it takes a little mental effort to translate the text into what it means for them.

So, don’t say “authenticate your login credentials” when you can say “sign in with your email address.” Error messages especially need to express plain language so users know how to fix the problem.

Of course, when it comes to jargon, if you are designing for specific populations (like in healthcare or agriculture) you should define and use the terminology used by that group. You don’t want to make users translate your product’s words into their everyday words.