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Searching for silences in UX copy

Great UX copy is less about finding the perfect words, and more about knowing which to delete

UX writers help solve design problems. For example, a clear button label is a useful design component. A well-crafted conversation is a pattern that helps create a more fluid journey.

But too much copy can quickly lead to bored, confused and frustrated users. That’s why we’re always trying to find out how and when we can say less — or even say nothing at all. 😉

Reducing input pollution

Everything we experience, do and feel is determined by sensory inputs that our brain interprets as touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. When we experience too many inputs we begin to filter out those we don’t want or need. That’s input pollution.

Many of us are forced to fend off input pollution like spammy phone calls, traffic noise, pointless notifications or pushy tutorials. But we are also beginning to push back against input pollution by consciously adopting coping mechanisms. For example, some people like minimalist living or fighting phone addiction. Others like going on relaxing (rather than exciting) holidays or regulating what we see, hear and read.

That’s why we work hard to keep Sketch as input pollution-free as possible by getting rid of unnecessary interactions and interruptions. The more we reduce input pollution, the more room we make for the creative process: that series of incremental interactions between the human brain and Sketch.

The cerebral act of designing is a sacred, quiet space. Restraint is rare. Silences are valuable.

And that’s why, sometimes, the UX writer must STFU.

Getting to the heart of the matter

The best intentions can lead to unforeseen consequences. As an example, one of our goals for the new Discover page was to offer an easy way for our users to find resources that match their skill level as designers.

Our first concept was a modal where users could set their skill level to ‘Starting Out’, ‘Getting Better’ or ‘Sketch Genius!’, with a further option to show more specialist content for a particular profession.

Our initial skill selection concepts began with an overly complex modal and eventually settled on just two buttons.

We loved the idea, but the design had too many interactions and decision points, which meant we needed a lot more UX copy as well. We then switched our focus to creating a simpler decision-making process, one that didn’t ask our users to rate their skills and instead focused on interests.

Preventing death by overexposure

Whenever our users need to learn something new, it’s tempting to explain the feature in detail. However, more words don’t mean more clarity. Every unnecessary word we add to our UI increases the chances of a misunderstanding.

Every unnecessary word we add to our UI increases the chances of a misunderstanding.

The trick is to provide the absolute minimum amount of copy that enables a user to make a reasonably well-informed decision. It’s also worth remembering that users aren’t static. People evolve, adapt and learn. UX copy should be as useful to a first-time user as it is to returning users.

In this case, less isn’t more. Less is just enough.

One area where UX copy needs to be brutally short and to the point is in dialogs. Why? A dialog is an interruption, a (hopefully) temporary pause in the user’s journey. A dialog also typically demands a response from the user, so it’s critical that the question is framed as quickly and clearly as possible.

In this example, a user wants to move a Sketch document to another project. We were tempted to include additional information around what the consequences might be, depending on whether they move the document to a restricted project or not.

Screenshot of two modals with different UX copy options

With UX copy, less is usually more. As you can see in this example, both versions communicate the same information but one on the right takes less time to read.

The trouble is that we’re merely guessing the user’s intention, which in turn forces the user to worry about scenarios that may have absolutely nothing to do with them. The left-hand example looks too far ahead and complicates what should be a simple decision. The right-hand example focuses on the immediate task, which is to select the document’s destination. Only when the user selects another project folder will they be able to see who has access to it — and make changes to permissions if necessary.

Who wants to be taught a lesson?

Joseph Campbells’s Hero’s Journey is a story template that describes how an archetypal hero sets off on an adventure and pushes through various barriers before returning home, changed but triumphant. The template works great for script writing, sales-based copywriting and even UX writing.

Heroes commonly meet a mentor figure to guide them on their journey. Examples of mentor figures are Gandalf advising Frodo, Obi-Wan helping Luke become a Jedi, or Medea helping Jason liberate the Golden Fleece. A mentor can even be an inanimate object like a map, or a book containing secret knowledge that helps the hero in their adventure.

When we design flows and write UX copy we often play the role of the mentor on the hero’s journey. We show users how to do things, what decisions they need to make and how to reach the end of their journey.

Well and good, but not everybody likes being lectured. Lessons are rarely fun.

We show users how to do things, what decisions they need to make and how to reach the end of their journey.

Becoming the perfect servant

Instead of acting as the ever-present mentor, we prefer to play the role of the perfect servant who supports the hero on their journey. In that respect omotenashi — the Japanese concept of exquisitely refined hospitality — may be more appropriate. The perfect servant avoids starting conversations. They may be brimming with knowledge, but will only offer that knowledge after correctly anticipating the user’s immediate needs.

Our ultimate goal is to give our users the information we know they’ll need before they know it themselves — then cast an invisibility spell on ourselves, lapse into silence and watch designers weave their magic.

TL;DR

  • Focus more on cutting out unnecessary details than finding the right words
  • Keep in mind that modals and dialogs are interruptions, so use them wisely
  • Help users learn, but not by giving them lessons
  • Guide users like the mentor figure in the hero’s journey
  • Better still, try to be the perfect servant by anticipating their needs