What is a UX writer, and do you need one?

UX Writer

Hands up if your team uses template lorem ipsum text right through the development phase?

If that’s you, then don’t worry – you wouldn’t be the first designers to assume that ‘the words’ are marketing’s issue, and that they can add them in at the end of the process, whilst they’re writing promotional materials for your new product.

This has been the done thing for a while, but given that your ultimate goal is to create experiences that are intuitive (‘user-friendly’ is soooo 2009), it’s probably time for a rethink.

Think of the experiences you design as a conversation between a person and a digital product. The words are always going to be the most human part of that interaction, so it’s super important to get them spot on – and what better way to start than to see them as a central part of your design process?

Now. Your designers weren’t necessarily trained as wordsmiths, and even if they’re handy in that area probably won’t have time in the day to take on even more work. One solution is hiring a UX writer (or UX copywriter, as they’re sometimes called).

Having someone responsible for the wording from the start of the design process is a fantastic way to ensure your design and your wording works together right from the get go. That’s why we’ve put together this blog.

We’ll help you understand:

  • What a UX writer is, and what they do.
  • How they differ from a traditional copywriter
  • The benefits of having a UX writer as part of your team
  • Some best practices, to start you off

What is a UX writer and what do they do?

UX writers create the copy that allows your users to interact with your product. This includes:

  • Interface copy for apps and websites
  • Email, text and push notifications that users will receive
  • Error messages and other pop-ups
  • Often, user help guides and training manuals

Primarily, they do the ‘words’ part of your design – their job is to write with experience (as opposed to sales, or explicitly promotional) goals in mind.

That’s not all they do, however. To get the most out of a UX writer, see them as a fully-fledged member of your design team. They’ll need to be heavily involved in the research phase, to understand what potential users would expect from a product, as well as the testing phase so they can see what needs adjusting for a fully user-centered experience.

One thing that is essential to remember is that UX writers, unlike traditional copywriters, need to be highly collaborative. It’s all too easy to think of the words for your app as an end point, rather than a part of the design that should be integrated into the entire process.

This leads us nicely onto…

How is UX writing different from copywriting

Lots of people will tell you that UX writing is so different to copywriting that it is inconceivable that we should recognize any similarities. Bluntly, this isn’t true.

Both UX writers and traditional copywriters will need an analytical mindset, a good ear for tone of voice and an eye for detail.

The differences between the two mainly lie in where they sit in the design process, how they fit with the rest of the team and the goal for which they write.

And – it’s also worth emphasizing – these differences mean that copywriters can work alone. UX writers absolutely can’t.

Traditional copywriters tend to be sales-focused, or marketing-focused. Their job is to write promotional materials aimed at persuading the reader to take a certain action – whether that’s to download a white paper, click ‘add to cart’ or head to a brick and mortar store to buy your product.

UX writers, on the other-hand, take an experience-led approach. Sure, they need to persuade – but there’s an equal emphasis on helping users complete a task at hand. You might need to persuade a user that a particular subscription is worth signing their details over for, for example, but the emphasis after that shifts to helping them through that process clearly enough so that they don’t get frustrated and abandon it halfway through.

This means that there’s a fundamental difference in where copywriters and UX writers sit in the design process. As we’ve discussed above, the experience-led nature of their work means that UX writers should be involved in the early design phases, along with the rest of the UX team.

Copywriters come in at the promotional phase. This takes place after the product has been designed, built, tested and is ready for launch.

The benefits of having a UX writer on your team

As you can imagine, there are plenty of benefits to having UX copy written by the UX team, rather than being tacked on by marketing at the end of the process. Here are the biggest:

Better UI copy

We’ll start with the obvious.

If you create your interface copy whilst designing, it goes through the same testing process as the rest of your product. That means:

  • Unclear or unhelpful ways of phrasing things are highlighted when they are fixable
  • You can A/B test for better wording options
  • Your copy and your design are working together from the start

You know how frantic it can be at the end of the design process. Expecting a marketing copywriter to write good quality copy whilst helping plan campaigns and write promotional materials isn’t a smart move – not because you’re marketing copywriters aren’t great, but because they’ll be snowed under with other work.

You pour time, effort and resources into designing and developing the best performing product you possibly can. Why not show your UI copy the same love?

A UX writer ensures that this area gets the attention it deserves, and isn’t squashed on the end of a process as an afterthought.

Highlighting design flaws that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious

Sometimes, the flaws in a particular user journey aren’t always obvious until someone asks you to run you through it.

Having someone who isn’t a traditional UI or visual designer on your team can be a huge benefit in this regard. So many issues can be caught when your UX writer realizes that a particular process is really difficult to articulate in a way that a non-expert user would understand.

Sorting these out before the testing phase will quite frankly be a weight off your shoulders.

Obviously, your UX writer won’t catch absolutely everything – that’s not what they’re there for. They are, however, a useful line of defence from getting too wrapped up in your own design processes to spot easy-to-fix problems that would otherwise snowball further down the line.

A better prototype for your team to work with

The number of teams that still use lorem ipsum text well into the testing phase is surprising, given today’s buzzwords around conversations and intuitiveness.

Can your team really know what they’re dealing with without the words? They’re an essential part of your design, and the main way in which your product ‘communicates’ with your user.

A working prototype without words is fine. You’ll get by, like you’ve always done.

But you want to be doing better than ‘getting by’.

A full working prototype with proposed copy gives your internal teams so much more to work with, particularly when it comes to stakeholder management. They’ll have a much better idea of what your app ‘feels’ like to a customer, and how the words and UI design work together well.

Hiring a UX writer

If we’ve sold you on the idea of having a UX writer onboard, that’s great. What we haven’t told you is that good UX writers are like snow leopards.

They exist, but can be difficult to find.

As big names like Amazon and Google now hire UX writers, it’s a fairly safe bet that others will follow suit. As a specialty, UX writers will be increasingly in demand over the next few years, so expect the competition for top talent to be tough.

For now though, it’s a (relatively) niche field, particularly if you’re based outside large cities or major tech hubs. Investigate freelance options – there are plenty of writers who like to work on a project-by-project basis who move around based on where their next contract is. Alternatively, you could look to work with a digital development agency, who will have their own in-house team, and perhaps a network of freelancers you could tap into as well.

If you’re really looking for a full-time hire (and you’re not based in a large city or super-happening tech campus), you could consider looking for a traditional copywriter that you could retrain.

As we discussed above, whilst UX writing and copywriting do have different focuses, there is enough common ground to make this a feasible option. If you go down this path, you’ll need to look for the following in potential candidates:

  • Genuine interest in UX and the design process
  • Experience fitting brand tone of voice into small spaces. Look for a portfolio filled with snappy straplines and sparkling CTAs. If they have data to show how well their work converts, all the better.
  • A willingness to work collaboratively. Copywriters tend to work alone, so this could be a barrier for some.
  • Eye for detail – they’ll need it when you’re going round and round about the wording for a particular error message.
  • Analytically minded. So much of the design process is interpreting research data to figure out what works and what doesn’t. UX writing is no different.

A few final thoughts…

Can you get by without a UX writer, in the strictest sense?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes, but your product won’t be nearly as good’.

And, as the big names boost their recruitment of UX writers and others follow suit, can you really afford to be left behind? Right now is your chance to get ahead of the curve and redefine your design processes before other companies do.

With the amount of effort your team puts in, your product deserves to really shine when it comes out the other end of the process. It needs the words and the other aspects of the design to work as one, rather than one being added on at the end, as an afterthought, right before you’re due to launch.

A UX writer can help you achieve this. That alone has to be worth the investment.