Steve Howe

Writers are motivated by the endless possibilities the blank page can afford. Writing without rules, your imagination can run riot. The image you create can be as abstract as you want. The canvas as big as you want.

So what happens when you add restrictions? Take space, for example. Now, your words need to fit inside a width of 70 pixels. Or take lexicon. No longer can you adorn your phrases with words like lexicon and adorn. And don’t forget syntax — make sure you use active voice, not passive voice.

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

Welcome to UX writing. It’s less like tackling a blank canvas, more like putting puzzle pieces together. Which can be immensely satisfying. But does it curtail a writer’s creativity? Does it reduce writing to what is, essentially, a paint-by-numbers exercise?

In other words, is UX writing ****ing boring?

Yesterday I was working on some ‘nudges’ in our app. Once someone creates their first typeform, we show them this message to inspire new ways to use the product.

One of our product managers suggested this instead:

How Barcelona’s best burger joint keeps sizzling with feedback

With my writer’s hat on, the suggested title is nicer. I like the word sizzle. I imagine a grill.

With my UX writer’s hat on, I think:

  • Is it clear what ‘keeps sizzling’ represents? If feedback is the activity, what’s the end result? There are a range of readings here.
  • We have users whose first language is not English. Would they all understand ‘joint’ and ‘sizzle’?
  • We’re asking someone to stop what they’re doing, jump out of the product, and read an article. Is it perfectly clear what they’re going to learn from reading the article?

My response was to leave the sizzle to one side and stick with the original title (or improve it) in the product. We can use the more eye-catching title for the blog article.

Evocative loses out to straightforward.

When it comes to UX writing, this ‘boring’ hangup we have is a personal insecurity. Our users aren’t scanning to be entertained (okay, some might. But they’re the exception). They’re scanning to quickly understand and take action. They’ve got something else in mind — something much more important than chuckling at our self-indulgent jokes.

It’s the difference between tourists and commuters. On the metro, tourists (to the frustration of regular commuters) value the experience in and of itself. They soak it up. Wallow in it. Wow, these trains are so much smaller! Look at all those lines! Ha, she said it — mind the gap! Commuters, on the other hand, just want to get to their destination as fast as possible. Simple communication like exit, step-free access, and doors open on the right-hand side provides just the essentials for doing so.

When I first started working on Typeform’s product, I thought I’d add my so-called personality to it. This is my time, I thought. Finally, I can show the world how creative I am.

An opportunity came up. We added a message to warn users that deleting a question from their typeform would also delete the logic they’d applied to that question.

Ha! I proclaimed, triumphant. A romantic relationship. I’m the king of metaphors.

Problem is, it’s the David Brent of system messages — desperate to get the joke in before you even know what’s going on.

A more effective message immediately tells you what’s going on, even if that means canning the comedy act.

Here’s another example from our old signup page:

And here’s what people thought about it:

Believe it or not, creepy and pervy, aren’t in our voice and tone guidelines. Point taken, copy changed:

Not only is the new copy not creepy, it actually gives you some useful information. Big thanks to Yuval Keshtcher and his UX Writing Hub community for the feedback.

In these cases, boring is beside the point. If things aren’t clear, you might as well be telling a joke to a cupboard door.

There seems to be a ‘voice and tone curve’ that companies follow as they grow. Back in 2015, Mailchimp used to explicitly state that its voice was fun and weird.

Mailchimp’s Content Style Guide in 2015

Fast-forward to 2019. They still say they’re weird, but the emphasis is very much on plainspoken, and their humour is dry. We recently interviewed Erin Crews, Senior Content Strategy Manager at Mailchimp. Here’s what she said:

“We’ve spent a lot of time defining a more dry, deadpan style of humor as we grow up and move into more complex product spaces.”

Mailchimp’s Content Style Guide in 2019

At Typeform, as we’ve grown up, we’ve wrestled with this swing from merry to meh.

Take a look at our question tooltips from a year ago:

We had a grand old time thinking up a funny example for each question type. Then we realised they weren’t really the clearest way to show what each question was for.

Compare it to the copy we have now:

It’s only natural that the emphasis on clarity increases as you grow. With a small audience, you can afford to be a bit more niche. In fact, it might even be one of the reasons your early adopters are attracted to you. You’re refreshing. You offer something different.

As you expand, you start to reach people in other countries. Unless you truly localise your product, the jokes your early tribe find hilarious might leave your international audience clueless.

So you revise all your copy for distracting messages. You shed your identity as class clown. What’s left? Who are you?

Of course, you can be both helpful and interesting. There are tons of examples of companies who have done it effectively. The trick is knowing when to sprinkle on the fun flakes.

Clearing all those unread messages is a good feeling. The Slack team know it’s the right time to celebrate:

Now imagine you arrive at the airport. You left your house in a hurry, and you’re panicking about what time your flight leaves. You glance at the departures board.

At Stansted airport, they let you know you have time to relax:

And at the Typeform office, once you know the water’s not drinkable, we figured it’s fine to throw in a cheeky aside.

If you’re someone who needs constant stimulation, perhaps. If you need everything to be on, all the time, like a method actor who never drops his character — then yes. The world might be a boring place for you.

Because good UX helps us navigate the world smoothly. If those same things were to distract us in the process it would defeat the purpose. A metal plate on a door tells us to push. A handle tells us to pull. We don’t think about it, we just act.

Push or pull? Most people wouldn’t even think about it.

But for brands to connect with people, they need to be different. This is the enticing paradox of good UX: stand out, fade away. It means raising a smile while keeping someone on track. And that means finding a spark of creativity within a set of restrictions.

When Amazon started out, they had to keep costs down. So Jeff Bezos’s first desk was a door attached to four bits of wood.

And at Mailchimp, a mature brand isn’t stale — it’s ripe with opportunities. They used a rebrand to find ways to differentiate themselves. Here’s Erin again:

“We’re willing to be weirder than anyone else. That’s still something that sets us apart that we really embrace. And we’re not terribly worried about other companies adopting that.”

So no, UX writing isn’t boring. You just need to find a way to make your desk a door.