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Finding the Perfect Word Isn't the Job: Evolve Copy into Language With UX Writing

October 2021

Article

Janine Saunders

In UX Writing, the difference between good and great work can be as simple as moving beyond last-minute games of ‘find another word for X and fill in the blanks’, to thinking about strategic and scalable language.

I remember a great question posed to me by a previous editor: 'what are you really trying to say?' I had written multiple pages, and while the words were flowing, my thoughts were unclear. What was I trying to say?

This question has stuck with me over the years, and it is the crux of a UX writer’s role because it’s necessary when solving problems for other people.

Thinking deeply about this question can move you from focusing on final outcomes — the copy — instead of figuring out the message behind what you’re actually trying to say — the language.

The right language can change the way people perceive and find value in the tools you're building. Understanding the intentions behind the copy will guide the word choices we make and ultimately impact activation and conversion rates, revenue goals, or (less quantitatively but still very importantly) how people feel when they’re using your products. Quick copy changes will only get you so far and, if you’re not focused on the overall goals, your flows or landing pages can end up looking like a smorgasbord of very wrong puzzle pieces all trying to fit together.

So, how do you refocus on language? Let's look at the tools I use to approach my work, and how I share out with my team and other relevant stakeholders.

How to approach the work:

Structure your thoughts

Sharing polished copy recommendations often result in a queue of suggestions, line edits, and comments from stakeholders. While feedback is important, it can also be highly subjective, and to combat this, your team needs to have access to the context and rationale behind your decisions. Instead, why not start by getting everyone aligned on the language choices you plan to make and requesting feedback on what is actually valuable: the goal and main points of your message. Align with your relevant stakeholders, like product, legal, and product marketing, and rally them around the messaging before writing. These decisions will eventually become ingredients for your copy.

How to structure your thoughts: 

Create a document outlining a clear summary of what you’re communicating, what you aren’t communicating, and what gaps of information you might have. Sometimes this could be as simple as a few dot points, and other times, it could be a series of questions that act as a compass for the group to answer.

An example of a brief template used to kick-off the messaging strategy for how we explain the way Spotify recommendations work to listeners. This guided the main questions and decisions between design, legal and cross-company leads.

Create a framework to anchor your exploration

Once you have a clear outline of what you need to communicate, find a framework to widen your exploration. A framework is a visual structure to help organize the way you think, offering a way to support your ideas and intuition. It can be as detailed as the Thoughtful Execution Framework, or as simple as a tone spectrum. 

Even if a solution seems glaringly obvious, pushing your perspectives can reveal your blindspots and anchor your conviction in the right answer.

Using a framework guarantees a few things:

  1. You can explain the differences between copy options when you share with stakeholders or take into user testing

  2. You can retrace your steps if you need to make a different decision in the future

  3. You can explore the risks of moving in one direction vs. another.

How to choose a framework: 

While this depends on the specific subject matter, I tend to cycle through these frameworks:

  • A spectrum or matrix of two opposite elements (for example, how direct or indirect could your messaging be? This could change the way you speak about how a feature works, or what the expected results of something could be.)

An example of the early explorations for how Marquee (a new release notification) could start to evolve and link to different kinds of release entities (album, single, playlist).

  • A scale of tone (for example, how friendly or reserved could your messaging sound?)

  • Different value propositions or directions your messaging could take

How to share the work:

Visualize your ideas

Working in docs is a great way to loop in different stakeholders, but there’s a big difference between seeing copy in isolation versus in the context your users will actually experience it. Doing this offers a few things:

  • Design due diligence: maybe another area in the flow could better communicate what you're trying to say, or maybe (shock) there are just too many tooltips for your user to sensibly navigate. Putting stuff in context gives you a clear picture of the journey you're creating.

  • UXW awareness: working directly in Figma will make your design partners aware of your work and its implications.

  • Specs: make it easier for engineers, and allow your UXW specs to exist alongside design specs.

How to visualize your ideas: 

Create a UXW visual playground (at Spotify, we use Figma) to explore ideas, play around with designs, and see how different options could look. Once you've finalized options, create UXW specs to live inside your spec files.

An example of UXW specs

Show, don't tell

The docs above help bring others into the process and multiply the impact of your work. It's one thing to deliver copy, and another to explain how you got there and why you believe in your recommendation. It's not uncommon to be the only UXW on your team (or maybe company) and these kinds of artefacts show others how to solve similar problems if you can't attack them all.

How to share with other teams: 

Clean up those docs. They're gonna get messy, so think about how you'd succinctly explain your work to your future self. 

Link them inside your design files, or product briefs. This will bring other disciplines closer to your thoughts, and if necessary, will block any last-minute copy changes from being suggested. At Spotify, we include this kind of context into our design specs in Figma. 

Wrapping up

Ideally, you come out of this process with a singular, sparkly, and polished piece of copy ready to be shipped. More than likely, however, something will change, new feedback will emerge, and you’ll be back to the drawing board. These tactics won’t always lead to the perfect answer. But they’ll provoke thoughtful and helpful conversations, help you retrace our steps to understand the original intentions behind your decisions and guide you to where you could go next.

Copy will always be the final outcome, but language is the process of continually asking, but wait, what are we trying to say?

While your final outcomes might only be a handful of words or even sometimes a single name, these artefacts explain the reasons behind our decisions.

Credits

Janine Saunders

Senior UX Writer

Janine works on the Spotify for Artists team, helping to create tools to drive discovery and build fan-artist relationships. She’s based out of Brooklyn, and originally from Sydney, Australia.

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