UX writing without a UX writer

I’m often asked, “We don’t have a UX writer — what should we do?” The answer is simple: Hire one! But when that’s not possible, what can the stakeholders do who end up writing the product copy? Sometimes that’s product owners or designers or developers. It can also be marketers and technical writers. In some companies it’s simply anyone who speaks the language of the interface. I’ve collected some tips for people who find themselves in this position.

Image source

This may seem pretty basic but when you treat this dogma as a checklist, you might find yourself making revisions. Maybe you were focused on sounding conversational when writing your first draft, but then you go back and catch that it came at the expense of being concise. It’s nice to be in natural conversation with your user, but if you’re verbose, they won’t want to be in conversation with you.

Maybe you were focused on staying consistent with existing strings, but then find that legacy copy just isn’t all that good. If it’s not clear, concise, and helpful, at a minimum, write better copy this time. Even better than that, open a backlog ticket to align old copy to the new and improved version.

“Clear, concise, and helpful” is a checklist anyone can follow. You don’t need any special expertise in accessibility, be on top of current trends in the industry, or any of the other extra value UX writers bring, and it will improve your copy every time.

One of the hardest parts of UX is remembering that “you are not your user”. Just because something is clear to you, does not mean it will be clear to your users, or at least not all of them. Even after double-checking that your copy is clear, concise, and helpful, it still may not be as easy for those with low literacy, those with situational barriers like a crying newborn in the background or who are in a loud, public space, and many others. You can’t possibly cover every case for every user, but what you can do is open your content up to a wider audience by bouncing it off non native speakers.

A non native perspective is a shortcut to making your copy clearer to all users who are not as aware of language conventions and nuances, who are reading too quickly to catch nuances, who are distracted, have a low reading level or low digital literacy, or live with a cognitive limitation and therefore digest content in smaller chunks. Feedback from a non native speaker will not suddenly solve all problems for all people, but it will surface opportunities for improvement that will benefit a wide range of user segments.

Again, anyone can do this. You do not need to be a UX writer or have any relevant experience at all to lean over to a colleague or friend and ask, “Dude, read this. Does it make sense?”

Being consistent is beyond easy. It’s also the way to write without writing. Just copy-paste what you already have! Don’t forget to balance this with the “clear, concise, and helpful” list above. Just because it exists, doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. But if you’re in a hurry, better to stay consistent than to reinvent a suboptimal wheel.

The same goes with “correct”. As an absolute minimum, the copy needs to be free of spelling, grammatical, and other errors. Inconsistencies and incorrect language are two of those things that may seem really small but they disproportionately confuse your audience and harm your brand.

If you’re a product manager, a developer, or other non UX writer stuck writing the copy and don’t feel you’re in the position to apply all best practices, at least write something that wouldn’t offend your grade-school language teacher.

No matter who you are and no matter who your user is, you are both human. I hope. If not, most of my blog posts are probably not relevant for you. But if you are, you should have conversations the way humans do.

Since the beginning of human communication, we’ve been speaking out loud. Before telephones, we were able to leverage non verbal cues, too, like body language, but even with the advent of the phone, we continued to successfully communicate out loud. Then came the most ubiquitous written communication our species had ever seen and something broke. People started writing differently than they speak while trying to communicate the same messages to the same audiences.

Homo sapiens communicating verbally (a cartoon)
Homo sapiens communicating verbally (a cartoon)
Image source

Tap into your communication expert, the Homo sapien inside who wants to communicate verbally, who knows how to communicate verbally, who never needed a UX writing course to succeed at it. Read your copy out loud and see how it sounds. Do you sound like a human? Yes? That’s good.

There are so many tools out there that you can lean on when you do not have a UX writer. They’re certainly not a replacement for a UX writer, but they can support you until you get one. I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but a few worth looking into are Hemingway, FullStory, usertesting.com, Cloze tests, and SurveyMonkey. Make sure you’re writing clear, concise, helpful, consistent, correct copy, that you’ve read out loud with a non native speaker, and then use tools to get insight into how your users are interacting with your words. Is your copy working for them? No matter who’s doing the writing, if it’s working for your users, you’ve done your job.

UX writer specializing in complex products. Passionate about making tech accessible to mass markets. Also a proud em dash enthusiast.