Shaley’s UX Writing and Content Design Portfolio
A Blog Post about UX Writing Essentials
In the user experience field, we talk about how much cognitive load or “brain power” is required for someone to get something done (find an answer on a website, submit a support ticket, post an advertisement, etc.). If we apply this to writing:
- Something with a high cognitive load requires a lot of brain power. It’s tiring and more time consuming, overwhelming, hard to find things, hard to recall where stuff is, etc.
- Something with a low cognitive load is better. Readers connect with the content. Without much effort, they are able to draw a mental model of where stuff is, they are able to scan content easily, and can find answers quickly.
User attention is a precious resource and should be treated accordingly. Writing approachable and intuitive content is the first step.
3 Business Writing Guidelines (Not Just for the Web Anymore)
1. Give Your Readers What They Want
- Readers only care about what applies to them. The best way to grab and hold reader attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes.
- People read to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don’t do something. Think through the questions your readers are likely to ask and organize your writing to respond to these concerns.
- Prioritize content to give readers what they want first. Guide them from point A to point B in as straight a line as possible.
2. Be as Clear as Possible
- Keep the average reader’s level of technical expertise in mind, and say things plainly. Don’t be intimidated into overusing technical terms. The argument that technical terms are “necessary” is overused. Substitute everyday language for jargon as often as possible.
- Only use technical terms when truly necessary, such as when your sole audience is technical readers. If your document is intended for both technical and non-technical readers, write for the non-technical reader.
- Avoid stilted, wordy language. Wordy, dense construction is one of the biggest problems in writing. Nothing is more confusing to readers than long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses.
- Use short sentences, with only one idea per sentence and one point per paragraph. Long, complicated sentences and paragraphs suggest that you don’t know what you want to say. Shorter sentences and paragraphs organized into one point each demonstrate your expertise through clear thinking.
- Give real-life examples. Avoid analogies, if you can — they can be confusing. It’s better to provide 1 relevant example for the topic being described.
- Use “you” to speak directly to readers. “You” reinforces the message that the document is intended for your reader in a way that “he,” “she,” or “they” cannot. More than any other single technique, using “you” pulls readers into your document and makes it relevant to them.
- Use “we” to refer to your organization. Doing so makes your sentences shorter, your organization seem much more approachable, and your document more accessible to readers.
- Use present tense, active voice whenever possible to save your reader work and help you to make your point clearly. Doing so makes whatever you’re writing about feel less complicated and like it’s happening now. The more you use conditional or future tense, and passive voice, the harder your reader has to work to understand your meaning.
- Use terms consistently to identify a specific thought or object. For example, if you use the term “executives” to refer to a group, continue to use this term throughout your document. Don’t substitute another term, such as “administration,” which may cause the reader to wonder if you are referring to the same group.
- Contractions have a strong effect on tone. Use them to make reading easier and more friendly. Omit them when you want to be a little firmer with your message.
3. Use Styles and Formatting That Make Reading Easier
- Avoid visual clutter. Redundant links, irrelevant images, and meaningless typography flourishes slow users down. (Note that meaningful links, images, and typography are valuable design elements. It is only when overused that these backfire and actually impair usability.)
- Use informative headings to allow readers to scan for important points. There are 3 kinds of headings (try to stick with just one type of heading, or if you detour from this rule-of-thumb, only do so as an informed choice to increase clarity):
Question Headings (e.g., Why do we use headings?) – People tend to think in terms of questions, so question headings can be appealing. But question headings can be longer and a little harder to scan. They also decrease front loading (putting high-value words at the start of a sentence).
Statement Headings (e.g., Headings Help Guide Readers) – Statement Headings can be a good choice because they make front-loading easier and are still very specific. Sometimes they don’t make the message as approachable as question headings can.
Topic Headings (e.g., Helpful Headings) – Topic Headings are the most formal so management tends to be more comfortable with them. But sometimes they’re so vague that they just aren’t that helpful.
- Write like you speak. If you wouldn’t say something a certain way in conversation, be wary of writing it that way. For example, when was the last time you heard “shall” in everyday conversation?
- Keep sections short so that white space makes the writing appear easier to read and understand. Long sections can appear difficult and forbidding, putting off readers.
- Look for anything in your text that requires users to remember information, or make a decision. Then look for alternatives. Can you show a picture, or if a material is particularly complex and many conditional situations are involved, can you use a table or another organizational structure to build context and meaning. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a table is worth at least 750. By laying out the material visually, tables help your reader see relationships in a way that dense text never can.
- Use bulleted lists and numbered lists correctly. Whenever you feel yourself making a long sentence with a lot of commas, change that sentence into a bulleted list. Use numbered lists to break up sequential steps… 1, 2, 3 are equal to step 1, 2, 3.
- Use emphasis techniques correctly. Bold calls attention. Italics show a different relationship, like a book name or special considerations. Avoid ALL CAPS, unless you are working in a system without bold and italic options. ALL CAPS are hard to read — they slow readers down significantly and will make your content feel tedious. Similarly, underlining will draw the reader’s attention to the section, but underlined text looks like a link, so it can be very confusing as a tool for emphasis. The most important rule to remember is to only emphasize important information. Putting everything in bold, for instance, is like shouting all the time. It makes it impossible for the reader to know what is really important.