There’s a greater emphasis being placed on how copy and design work together to influence particular actions—what some refer to as UX writing.
Design and copy, together, determine how user-friendly and intuitive your app, website, or content are. They have the ability to inform or distract; entertain or bore; confuse or enlighten. Their ultimate power, though, is that they can influence or support specific behaviors.
There’s a reason big companies like Nike and Google are hiring UX writers (a term that’s still fairly new to most) in droves. They understand that writers with a strong understanding of design can shape and influence the customer experience as a whole. In short, a UX writer can make or break a user experience.
In an ideal world, copy and design work to support a user’s decision-making process, but not necessarily influence it. It’s this nuance that makes the difference between persuasion and manipulation; one is done in the reader or user’s best interest, the other, against those interests. Influence and support leave a user feeling positive, manipulation, not so much.
For instance, removing a navigation bar from a landing page is a design decision focused on eliminating distractions so people can focus on making a purchase. Strong copy can support this. That’s mostly good.
But removing an unsubscribe link from your emails just to keep people from leaving because you know you’re spamming them, well that’s entirely bad. The first example is done in a user’s best interest, the other is done for manipulative self-interest.
To make sure your design and copy are working together in a positive way—to persuade, influence, or support—it’s important to make copy a priority much earlier in the design process. It’s not that leaving a copywriter in the dark until the end of the design process (as is often still the case0 leads to manipulation; I’m simply saying that in an effort to best support a user—to create the best possible customer experience—you have to get designers and copywriters working together much earlier.
Why does this collaboration matter so much? Because it deepens context.
Context is an essential piece of creating a positive user experience. Creating the wrong context (or, worse, none at all) can make simple things go horribly awry. When you bifurcate a creative process by separating copy and design, you lose a lot of that needed context.
When a person’s expectations match the outcome of their actions, we foster confidence and trust. When they don’t, we get angry tweets and rage-filled Yelp reviews. Leaving your writer out of the design loop keeps them from influencing the creativity, structure, and layout of a persuasive path—and ultimately to making sure design outcomes and copy outcomes match. This is an essential element to creating a great customer experience.
When pairing your designer and writer, you’ll want to keep three factors in mind:
The consideration of a user’s feelings before, during, and after their use of your site or app or their interactions with your content are critical in how designers and writers shape customer experience. Yes, I’m talking about empathy—a word that has been beaten to death in recent years.
Empathy simply means that copy and design keep a user’s best interests in mind (the persuasion mentioned earlier, not manipulation).
And how do you know what your customers’ best interests are? You ask them. Funny thing is, designers and copywriters are probably going to ask them similar questions.
Design and copy decisions should rely on the same customer research insights because both have overlapping goals. Yet, too often design does their thing and copy doesn’t have access to all their research, meaning writers either do their own, separate research, or they do none at all.
And because copy and design should embark on a similar research process, you can kill two birds with one stone, having writers and designers share the tasks—and the subsequent insights. There are lots of ways to do this:
As a whole, this research will give designers and writers the shared context needed to make empathetic decisions for users. Here’s a formular for you:
Shared research + context + empathy = better customer experiences
Creating context is important, but it’s also important to realize that we’re creating it. That’s right, as much as we hate to think about it, our own biases and framing can influence context as well. Nothing means anything without our own interpretation of it.
Personal experiences and unchecked opinions can inform copy or design decisions just as much as our conscious ones do.
For example, many companies fail to present critical (i.e. obvious) information on their website that a less-informed visitor may be looking for. It’s what’s referred to as the “curse of knowledge.” You know the information or the desired action, so you assume everyone else does too.
Similarly, the way we choose to frame an issue can blur the line between persuasion and manipulation. Saying “1 out of 10 dentists” paints a much different context than “9 out of 10 dentists….” Though the same data is used in each example, the first framing produces a negative result, while the second produces a positive one.
Getting writers and designers working together early on in a project can circumvent some of these biases and framing issues and help identify “blind spots” early on.
Now, this might be my own bias as a writer, but I believe copy should lead design. This opinion is, essentially, the basis for a UX writer’s existence.
Copy’s sole purpose is to establish a messaging hierarchy that makes sense to a user. Proper persuasion relies on keeping a user’s context and self-interest in mind. Design simply augments it.
Therefore, a UX writer has to understand the path toward persuasion, consider what needs to be said and done to drive the desired action, and be able to design a path to get them there. Sure, a designer can do this too, but they’re not necessarily focused on the messaging that’s going to move a human to act.
Most writers know there are three primary brain functions when someone is making a choice or decision:
Good copy (followed by good design) will speak to all three.
When coupled with their shared customer research and a check on each other’s biases and framing, copy-led design helps to create a more complete and positive customer experience.
Copy and design were always supposed to complement each other. If anything, the term “UX writing” only emphasizes this point.
Of course, UX writing blurs the line between copy and design. The best copywriters have always known this and have been practicing that way for a while now. We just happen to have a clever new title for it.
But If you’re truly working in your user’s best interest—trying to understand their context for the world so you can empathize with them and create the best experience possible—it’s best to get design and copy on the same page as early as possible.
Chris Cooper creates customer-driven content for B2B tech and SaaS marketing campaigns. He’s worked with SAP Ariba, Atlantic Metro, GTT, Arrow Electronics, and BrowserStack to create content that engages and converts. Chris has spoken at Denver Startup Week and has been featured on Rainmaker.FM, Hot Copy, and Conversion Sciences. Connect with him on LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.