The great copy conundrum: why copywriters are essential for UX design

  • Posted on August 22, 2017
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes

This article was originally written by Avanade alum Joel Beath.

You may have experienced something like this: You’re part of a design project. A big one. There are all sorts of web pages you have to create, from landing pages, to product pages, to the boring terms and conditions pages. They all have different needs, serving different users, and you’re on a deadline. You just have to get this thing out the door.

And then you realise…where’s the copy supposed to come from?

We’re actually working on a massive project like this at the minute for a client. It’s a complex beast, with so many pages to keep track of.

It got me thinking — without a dedicated copy team working alongside UX, it would be easy to see this type of project crash and burn.

Unfortunately, that’s what happens all too often: copy and UX don’t work together.
User experience design places so much emphasis on what we want people to do or understand visually that we ignore context and storytelling. We forget that so much of the work we do with a brand is about guiding people through a particular journey structure — which is what good copywriters excel at.

So what happens? Copy comes far too late. It’s laced with marketing jargon or a tone of voice that’s jumbled or confused. (Often because it hasn’t been properly designed from the ground-up to fit in a new design.)

Often designers on deadlines need to become ad hoc editors, chopping and changing text ranging from headlines to microcopy, working to fit 200 characters into a 40-character space. There are more than a few problems with this approach.

It creates inconsistency
I’ve seen more than a few sites — even in larger businesses — that have inconsistent calls-to-action, telling people to “buy” or “subscribe” interchangeably. That microcopy is gold that leads to conversions, so getting it wrong is putting money on the table.

Inconsistency doesn’t just relate to copy. If a copywriter is involved in design from the beginning, they understand how a story will flow through a page. Without them structuring the order of information, quick, rushed copy will inevitably lead to confusion.

It leads to bad advice
We all have our areas of expertise, and both designers and copywriters need to have intimate knowledge of how each other work. But when copy is rushed and left to a designer, it can often have a bias to what looks good, rather than what reads well.

That often means things like making copy long when it should be short, or making copy short when it should be long. Just take a look at this Apple page:


For some designers, that would be too much copy. They’d cut it down and adopt a minimalist view, but the reason the copy is long here is because it has to be long to incorporate Apple’s tone of voice — an integral part of the brand itself.

Removing that from the page would be a massive blow, and those are the types of decisions that can be made when copywriters are left outside the process.

You miss out on nuance
English is a complex language that changes over time. This New York Times article is a great look at how the full stop is not only disappearing, but also changing its meaning: more people seem to view one-word sentences with one as “less sincere” online.

These are small things, but as any designer knows the small details are worth a fortune. Just take the asymmetrical copy example I used at the start of this blog — with a strong copywriter on board, that would never happen because they understand the emotional impact just a few words can have.

So given those risks, how can copy play more of a starring role in design?

1. Copy and UX need to draft together
Copywriters should be involved in the beginning. From understanding the client’s needs, to sketching ideas, to wireframes and then high-fidelity designs. Copy needs to be involved every step of the way.

The natural reaction to this is that copywriters shouldn’t encroach on visual design. But they aren’t. Copywriters with an understanding of structure and flow, (which, by the way, is a reason you should look to journalism or copy editors for great web copywriters), will be able to help structure information in a way that makes sense.

By the way, this is going to be an increasingly massive prospect for designers. As chatbots and artificial intelligence become the foundation for a lot of products, enabling people to interact conversationally and fluidly with machines will be the norm. Having copywriters normalise and humanise that process will be critical.

2. Clients need to understand the value of copywriters
It can be confronting for a client to hand over their words to a copywriter. They have language they’ve drafted carefully, often with their own research, so they can feel protective.

This is why copywriters need to be involved as early as possible to understand the tone of voice, the nuance, and how to make that better. When a copywriter understands how to talk like a client, they can start creating copy from the ground-up — which is always better than trying to cram a client’s words into a new design at the last minute.

You’ll end up with a smoother, richer experience that actually leads the customer to understand what they should do both from a visual and written context.

3. Everything needs to be run through a copywriter
In an agile environment, it’s tempting to get things done as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, for little bits of copy here and there it can mean copywriters get sidestepped. Particularly for CTAs, or some headings that may not seem to mean much.

But this is exactly why copywriters are needed — to create some delight where you may not expect. In headlines, 404 pages, or just the little touches on a page. Even terms and conditions can be delightful if you let them.

This is all exactly why the big project I mentioned earlier is being run with copywriters alongside every design decision. Because visuals only make sense with the right context, and that context can’t be rushed — it’s the mortar that holds the visual bricks together.

Without copy, you have nothing. Use it right and use it from the beginning.

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