When people consume online content, they’re not reading right to left as so many of us learned to do in school. Nor are they reading each word one by one. The average user, according to a study from Nielsen Norman Group, skims words in clusters of 3-5, and scans online content in an F shape. First looking across the page horizontally, then scanning down, and noting more information along a shorter horizontal axis, finally noting vertical movement along the left side, forming the stem of the F.
It’s been said that clever design can redirect this impulse. Despite how hardwired it seems in human-machine interaction. A good designer can pull the eye in different directions with visual hierarchies.
Needless to say, there’s a modern commonality of users scanning, skimming, and glazing right over content. With that in mind, let’s discuss the importance of being economical and clever not just with design, but with words.
UX Copywriting combines two loves of mine; terse, stylized writing, and branded design. In my previous article on UX&UI Design, I talked about how amusing it is when buttons, pop-ups, or directional steps seem to read my mind. These elements describe verbatim what I’d like to do next. Especially if they do so in a stylized voice. “Get me outta here” is a more delightful user experience than simply “Back.” Brevity and economy with words are extremely important components. But more importantly, UX Copy is “written to be felt,” as designer Micah Bowers puts it.
UX Copy guides the user through the interface with simple, instructive, conversational words. Good web and tech design is commonly called “intuitive.” In the same fashion, effective UX Copy is barely there. Its conversational and unimposing, and seamlessly fits with what the user is anticipating in their process of moving about the interface.
Micah Bowers paints an example to illustrate the importance of these tiny bits of copy by asking his readers to consider; what would the apps you use on a daily basis look and feel like with every single word stripped out? How unsettling and frustrating would that be?
Interestingly, a well designed app has taught you through only one or two uses how to navigate it, so that with daily use, reading becomes completely unnecessary. UX Copy is the voice of the interface, how it speaks to us and guides us. The best UX Copy is like a good teacher; smart, down to earth, and (in my controversial opinion) funny and stylish.
Style is subjective. Given that, many designers and UX/UI aficionados say to err on the side of less stylized copy. However, in the competitive and crowded online marketplace, copy with a real voice is what’s going to delight and retain a target market. Micah Bowers, the designer mentioned earlier, talks about how trying to be funny in bits of micro-copy can easily go wrong, noting that it’s hard enough to land a joke in person (speak for yourself), but add the element of a machine interface, and you can wind up confusing your end-user.
I both agree and disagree with this assertion. When UX Copy is simply not my style (in-jokes from a dumb TV show I don’t watch, slang that I feel is out-of-place or appropriated, etc) I’m turned off right away. However, when micro copy delights, it really delights. Especially, as I said earlier, when it uses colloquialisms that seemingly come right from my thought-process.
Step by Step Thinking
While marketing microcopy is more about the feel and brand voice, UX Copy lives in more practical territory. It anticipates each step along the process and uses simple phrases to guide the user through a variety of options. People who are familiar with research and design in the tech landscape often make the best UX Copywriters. So that they can easily make sense of journey maps, user flows, and write smart lines accordingly.
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