Recently, more and more SaaS companies have started to see the value in great UX writing. The copy that you use in your product (often referred to as “microcopy”) can have a dramatic effect on your users. We’re going to look at some of the biggest UX writing mistakes you can make.
Great microcopy often goes unnoticed. That’s because it blends so effortlessly with the product. Good UX writing can drastically improve user adoption, feature activation, and increase retention.
But today we’re going to look at the other side of microcopy. We’re going to see what happens when it all goes wrong.
I’ve analyzed a lot of in-app copy and drawn up this list of the most common UX writing mistakes.
I’m going share these with you, and then I’m also going to show you how to avoid making those same UX writing mistakes in your own product.
Let’s get started…
UX writing mistake #1: Sounding like a robot
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about robots stealing our jobs. It seems that’s already happened, at least when it comes to UX writing!
One of the most common UX writing mistakes I see time and time again is that the microcopy in SaaS products is completely devoid of life.
It often has zero personality.
Generally speaking, the main reason for this is that the UX writing wasn’t actually written by a writer. Chances are, a dev or UI designer was responsible.
You might be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is? So our product doesn’t have a personality? So what?!
But I’m guessing you don’t take the same approach with your marketing or branding.
I’m guessing that you have an established tone of voice when you’re writing sales copy, blog posts, and even the replies that your Support team send out.
(If you don’t have a tone of voice, by the way, then you really should!)
There are two major issues that stem from having a lack of personality in your UX writing…
Firstly, it creates a massive disconnect between what people experience as a prospect, and what they experience as a user.
If your marketing is warm and fuzzy, then people will expect your product to feel the same.
If it doesn’t, then it’ll leave them a little confused, and wondering what they possibly could’ve done to offend you.
In other words, it would be like having a dating profile full of jokes and innuendo, and then sitting there in an awkward silence on the first date.
If your marketing and product have different personalities, then you’re effectively “catfishing” your users.
Chances are they won’t stay around for long.
The second issue is even worse. In a lot of cases, features that your product offers can be replicated elsewhere.
If there are a dozen other products providing the same functionality as you, then you need another way of setting yourself apart. That’s where your personality comes in.
Mailchimp doesn’t have much more functionality than any other email marketing software. The reason they’re so successful is because they have a fun, playful personality that shines through in their product.
Who doesn’t want a high five off this guy?
If you have no personality, but your competitor does, then prepare to see a lot of your users switch away from you.
Let’s take a look at some examples of UX writing that was clearly written by a robot…
Examples of UX writing with no personality
First up, have a look at this example from Headspace:
This section of the app is essentially a sales pitch, enticing people to purchase a “Moment Coach” subscription.
The copy is informal and friendly, even using emoji to convey the feeling that this app is your friend.
In fact, the copy in the body of this page is a perfect example of how to convey your personality through words. Top marks!
But… then we have the button at the bottom. The CTA is the key element here, this is what the page has been building up to.
For some reason, the folks at Headspace opted for “Buy Moment Coach”.
There’s no personality there. That microcopy instantly clashes with the copy that precedes it.
It’s like no thought went into the UX writing for that button.
Then you have this example from Mobike:
“Your account is frozen.”
You can almost imagine The Terminator himself saying this one.
Considering this is delivering bad news to the user, you’d think there’d at least be a hint of empathy in there.
Instead, Mobike’s error message has a stern, cold, detached feel to it that is guaranteed to alienate the user.
Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t even explain why their account has been frozen.
How to add personality to your UX writing
So, how do you fix this problem?
I’ll start by saying that you need to be careful. When you start injecting your brand’s personality into your microcopy, it’s important that you don’t overdo it.
If you try to be too cutesy or witty, then the actual content of the message may be lost, and your users will end up even more confused.
That being said, a little personality goes a long way.
The key is this: Whenever you (or whoever is responsible) sits down to write some copy for your product, have a quick recap of your brand’s tone of voice.
Once you have it in your head, write some nonsense out. It could be a short story, or a little poem, it doesn’t really matter. They key is to write it in your brand’s tone of voice.
This will embed the personality into your writing, so it becomes second nature. Once you get into the zone of writing like your brand, you’ll find it much easier to inject your brand’s personality into your UX writing.
Let’s take a look at those two examples of robotic microcopy, and see if we can make them better.
First up, Headspace’s CTA…
As you can see, I changed the CTA copy to better reflect the tone of the other copy on the page.
“I’m Ready!” is a lot more playful, and represents a declaration from the user that when they hit this button they’re ready to get started.
The emoji is in keeping with the fun, personal voice that Headspace want.
It’s a positive, affirmatory response that fits in with the tone of the copy before the CTA.
Next, Mobike’s error message…
I changed the message to “Sorry, we’ve had to freeze your account. Learn more.”
Starting with an apology is a surefire way to make your user less annoyed. It shows that you’re human, and you understand that your user will be angry.
By saying “we’ve had to freeze”, I’m suggesting that action has been taken by Mobike. This tells the user that there must be a reason for it. It isn’t simply a glitch or bug.
Finally, I included a helpful “Learn more” link that would take the user to a page explaining why their account has been frozen, and what they can do about it.
This provides a helping hand for the user.
Be true to your brand
Users value authenticity really, really highly. So making sure your UX writing follows your brand’s tone of voice and personality is super important.
UX writing mistake #2: Talking in riddles
Perhaps the most difficult thing about UX writing is the lack of space.
When I’m writing a blog post like this one, I have thousands of words to play around with. I can get poetic, I can add metaphors, I can tell random stories. (Don’t worry I’ll spare you the random stories!)
My point is, the more you’re able to write, the more you can get away with losing focus.
With UX writing, however, you often have room for maybe a handful of words, sometimes even just one word. You have to stay completely focused.
Any deviation from the message you’re trying to convey and you’ll end up distracting or confusing your users.
A common UX writing mistake I see is that people try too hard. They take the advice above (inject more personality) and end up overcomplicating their microcopy.
They may add more words than are necessary. They may use too few words. Most commonly, they come up with a sentence that they think is smart and witty, but actually doesn’t tell the user anything.
Every single piece of UX copy in your product needs to be crystal clear. If users can’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, they’ll struggle to understand your product, and eventually they won’t even bother.
Let’s look at some examples…
Examples of unclear UX writing
Our first example comes from a food delivery service:
I must admit, I had to read this microcopy a fair number of times before I finally understood what it was trying to say.
(Even then, I’m not entirely sure…)
I think this message is asking the user whether they want to include cutlery with their delivery.
The sentence below is the user’s current response, followed by a response from the delivery service.
You see why this is confusing?
Firstly, the “Do you really need cutlery?” question is a confusing one. It means the user has to think about what they’re actually being asked.
Also, it’s quite rude. It seems almost accusatory. Not the tone you want your product to have!
The next part of the copy — “No cutlery, please.” — is the user’s answer to the question. This answer can be changed using the toggle switch.
Okay fine, so I’ve said I don’t want cutlery. Great. But then on the same line, as if continuing my response, it says “Thank you for saving the world.”
This is even more confusing. Is the product thanking me, or am I thanking the product? Even now I’m none the wiser.
This is so confusing that it’s genuinely off-putting, and I think I’d rather switch to Uber Eats instead!
Here’s the next example from Citibank:
This is a description for a search feature that is way too long and descriptive. It’s the perfect example of overwriting.
Most, if not all, of your users will understand the concept of a search bar, and the benefits that the search bar provides.
It’s become such a natural component that users will see a search bar and immediately know what it does.
But by providing this unnecessary description, Citibank have made the search bar more confusing.
Now I’m left wondering why they need to describe it. It makes me think their search bar is different to all the other search bars I’ve used.
“In that case,” I think to myself, “I’m better off ignoring it. I don’t have time to learn how this new search bar works.”
Just like that, overcomplicated UX writing has led me to avoid that feature. I suspect this wouldn’t have helped Citibank’s activation rate for the search bar.
How to simplify your UX writing
There’s a famous short story, written by Hemingway, consisting of a mere six words:
“Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”
In six short words, Hemingway tells a whole story.
It works because it’s clear and simple. Any parts that Hemingway omits we can fill in for ourselves.
The same logic should apply to your UX writing. You need to give enough information that the user can understand what you mean, and then you should stop writing.
You want the bare minimum.
If you can say it in 5 words, aim for 3. If you can say it in 3, aim for 1.
In some cases, as you’re about to see, you don’t want any UX writing at all.
In terms of an actual process, chances are you’ll overcomplicate your UX writing first time round.
That’s why you should write it, take a break, and then go and have a second pass at it.
This time, try to cut down everything you just wrote. As the old saying goes, you need to “kill your darlings”. Anything that is filler and fluff, or that overcomplicates your message needs to come out, no matter how much you love your witty one-liner.
So let’s return to those earlier examples.
First up, the food delivery service:
I’ve changed the question to “Would you like cutlery?”. This is more polite and helpful, but it’s also a lot clearer. Everyone knows what that question means.
Next, I’ve removed the old response completely, and replaced the toggle with two options to choose from: “Yes, please.” and “No, thanks.”
See how much easier this is to understand?
Also note that there’s no mention of saving the world. The user simply wants to order food. Saving the world can come later.
Next, the Citibank example:
If you’re looking at this and wondering where the new microcopy is, then you’re looking at this wrong.
The point is, sometimes the best UX writing means not writing at all.
I decided to strip away the microcopy here completely. Users know how a search bar works, you don’t need to tell them.
Keep it simple
UX writing mistake #3: Typos and grammatical errors
For some reason, I see more typos and grammar mistakes in UX writing than any other form. Maybe it’s because writers generally aren’t responsible for it? I don’t know.
What I do know is that it’s absolutely essential that your product’s microcopy is spelled correctly, and obeys simple grammatical rules.
Spelling is more obvious than grammar, and so this is where you should really focus your efforts.
Users might not be able to spot a grammar mistake, especially if it’s fairly obscure (comma splice, anyone?). But they will spot spelling errors and typos.
When a user sees a typo in your product’s copy, they’ll think one thing: “Wow, this is a pretty unprofessional product.”
They might not think that explicitly, but that thought will be there, lurking in the back of their mind.
Eventually, that thought turns into a feeling of distrust. They may not even know why, but they’ll start scrutinizing your product more. Over time, they’ll come up with various reasons why they should start looking elsewhere.
You wouldn’t publish a book with spelling and grammar mistakes. That’s what editors are for. So why so many products have poor spelling is beyond me!
Here are a couple of examples for you to groan at…
Examples of typos and bad grammar in UX writing
Let’s start with this message from Axis Bank:
“are you want save the transcript”
Look, I know what this means. It’s asking if I want to save the transcript. But the lack of grammar here really is incredible.
No capital letter at the start, no question mark at the end, and worst of all, it literally doesn’t make sense.
If I was an Axis Bank customer, here’s what I’d be thinking:
“Well if I can’t trust them to proofcheck their copy, can I really trust them to handle my money?”
For a professional organization like a bank, this is unacceptable.
Next up, we have this example from some pension software:
While there aren’t any typos in this example, it clearly illustrates how grammar can impact how you communicate with your users.
The sentence structure here is clunky and off. Even if you don’t know the exact reason why these sentences are broken (and I won’t go into that here), you’ll still get the sense that it’s wrong.
For a pension product, trustworthiness is one of the biggest factors when it comes to retaining customers. Unfortunately, a lack of clear and effective communication — due in part to the grammar issues — doesn’t exactly scream trustworthy.
How to eliminate typos and grammar mistakes in your UX writing
Typos and grammar mistakes can seriously impact how your product and brand are perceived.
Fortunately, out of the three mistakes I’ve covered in this article, this is the easiest to fix.
Start by writing your microcopy in a word processor like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or Google Docs. If you’d rather not write it in a word processor, then at least copy and paste it in when you’re done writing.
Most word processors will have basic proofreading capabilities, and will spot any major errors.
You might also need to enlist the help of standalone proofreading software.
One of the most popular tools is Grammarly. You can either paste text into the software, or use the handy Chrome extension. Grammarly will check through your UX copy and make sure it obeys grammatical rules.
A final tip is to have someone else read through it and proofread it for you. Spotting your own mistakes is much harder than spotting other people’s. Hopefully a colleague will be able to pick up the bits you missed.
For the sake of completeness, I’ve rewritten the two examples with perfect grammar, so you can see the difference.
UX writing can make or break your product
That’s not an exaggeration.
UX writing plays a massive role in the overall user experience your product provides.
While the UI design and the overall flow of the product might be more obvious, the UX writing often goes ignored.
This presents the perfect opportunity to easily improve your product, giving your users the experience they deserve.
Why not start by conducting a brief audit of your existing UX copy?
Have a play around in your product, and try to pay attention to the UX writing. Keep an eye out for the three most common mistakes:
- Sounding like a robot
- Talking in riddles
- Typos and grammatical errors
Fix those three, and your product will improve virtually overnight.
About the Author
Joe is a UX and content writer, with several years of experience working with SaaS startups. He’s been working with SaaS startups that are focused towards product management, product marketing and customer success for the past couple of years. If you want to fix your UX copy, feel free to reach out to Joe for this: https://joedaniels.io/