You can now order groceries, join a virtual meeting and deposit checks from your phone. What do all have in common? On-screen words guide you through how to complete those tasks.
You might not even notice the words — good UX writing can be nearly invisible when it’s working well.
UX writing, or user experience writing, is a relatively new discipline that’s growing fast. From young tech startups hiring their first UX writer to legacy software companies expanding their teams, there’s an increasing need to hire skilled writers to craft content for software and apps.
A few years ago, I made the transition to a full-time UX content role. With a background in journalism, a few years under my belt as a copywriter for tech startups and five years running my own content strategy consultancy, I found a happy home on the user experience team for the Firefox browser. I knew from my own experience that the path to landing a UX writing job is rarely straightforward. So last year, I became a mentor for UX Coffee Hours, where I offer virtual coffee chats with anyone who’s interested in becoming a UX writer. What follows are answers to some of the most common questions I receive from mentees about breaking into this field.
What is UX writing?
A UX writer crafts the words that appear within software interfaces. The purpose of UX writing is to help people use the product in front of them, with minimal frustration. The words themselves are often referred to as microcopy because the copy is short: error messages, form fields and navigation labels.
Anyone who works as a UX writer will tell you that the job entails so much more than writing short copy. It requires being strategic and relentlessly inquisitive. UX writers own the content strategy, development and delivery for an entire end-to-end experience. They collaborate closely with other disciplines like design, research, engineering and product management.
To do this job well, a UX writer must be able to:
- Gather requirements from stakeholders to understand business goals
- Work collaboratively with user experience designers and researchers
- Develop a technical understanding of how a product works
- Use data and research to inform their writing (and run relevant research themselves)
- Develop documentation and rationale for decisions
- Finalize copy with partners in localization and legal
- Create and maintain content guidelines
How long has UX writing been around?
Though someone was always writing the words on interfaces, UX writing has emerged as a dedicated role in the last five to seven years. As a young discipline, the job titles themselves are actively evolving. You’ll find postings for “UX writer,” “content designer,” “product writer” and “UX content strategist.”
Because the role is relatively new, UX writers have different duties depending on how their company defines their responsibilities. Some UX writers may also pitch in on marketing copy, internal communications or help center content.
What’s the difference between copywriting and UX writing?
UX writing is easily confused with digital copywriting. While both require strong communication skills and a deep passion for the craft of writing, the jobs themselves are quite different.
Copywriting serves a sales or marketing function. The goal of a copywriter is to bring people in the door. Their end game might be to entice someone to download an app, create an account or sign up for a service. A marketing copywriter may prioritize clever, punchy writing to capture someone’s attention and pique their interest.
UX writers act as guides once people start engaging with a product. This is where the “user” comes in. We start with what they are trying to do. Our role is not to convince or sell.
UX writers help people use the product in the most efficient way possible — all while providing a consistent voice and the appropriate tone for the context. Marketing and user experience writers should work together as much as possible to align their content guidelines so the end experience is as cohesive as possible.
What skills do you need to be a UX writer?
The most effective UX writers have a unique blend of hard and soft skills.
A background in communications, journalism or copywriting can be a helpful base, though not required. You’ll also find many UX writers who studied poetry, literature or theater.
Strong writing skills
You must be a word nerd at heart who has solid writing chops. While we are sticklers for grammar and consistency, a UX writer also knows when to bend the rules in service of clarity.
Similar to technical writers, UX writers are well-versed in translating complex concepts into plain language.
UX writers need to think high-level and holistically.
While you may write a specific error message or button label, similar types of copy surface in other areas of the software product. You need to think about the connections and interdependence betweens all types of interface copy.
To guide people through an experience, you’ll need an understanding of how visuals and copy work together.
Sometimes the best UX writing involves removing words and recommending a change to the design instead. Words don’t exist in a vacuum in UX writing.
Proactive problem solving
UX writers operate in ambiguous environments, often with imperfect information.
Being naturally curious and proactive helps. You need to seek out answers from a wide range of other functions in the organization, including technical-minded engineers, business-oriented product managers and visual designers.
UX writers excel at over-communication.
Your job might not be well understood by other people at your company. Knowing that, you’ll need to champion your own work and make the unseen work you do as visible as you can. This includes everything from creating documentation that helps align your team to evangelizing your work to those outside your team.
Collaboration and relationship building
Even if you’re the lone UX writer at a company, you rarely work alone.
You often pair with a UX designer to develop the content and design together. Other partners in your process may include legal, localization and customer support. You should also expect to receive input from stakeholders and product owners.
You’ll need to be comfortable accepting feedback and advocating for your decisions.
How much do UX writers make?
UX writer salaries depend largely on your level of experience, the market and the company you work for. Salaries at new tech startups are lower than large, established companies.
Associate-level positions can begin around $60,000 and range upwards of $150,000 for senior-level roles.
UX writers working in high cost-of-living markets such as San Francisco and New York can command more, as can those who earn lucrative positions at tech giants such as Facebook and Google.
Some companies also offer stock or equity as part of their compensation package.
How do I become a UX writer?
You’ll need to build a portfolio to apply to UX writing jobs.
Always focus on quality over quantity — hiring managers would rather see a few in-depth case studies than several surface-level ones.
Be sure to include before and after images of your work, as well as how you arrived at your final copy decisions. Hiring managers want to understand your thought process and rationale. They especially want to know any data or research you incorporated along the way.
That begs the question: How do I build a portfolio? You can do this in a variety of ways:
- Partner with students enrolled in UX design bootcamps to co-create your portfolio. They’ll need to design sample case studies. Usually they have to write the copy themselves. You can lead the copy development while they do the design.
- Pay close attention to the UX writing you see every day. You can build a case study by improving something you already use. Take screenshots of an end-to-end workflow, such as verifying your account or resetting your password. Every step of the way, identify what you would write differently to improve it and why.
- Volunteer to write the copy for a bootstrapped startup. Many new apps begin with just one or two developers. They’re great at writing code, but not always so great at writing UX copy. Get involved in your local technology scene to see if you can find someone who could use your help. You can then use this work in your portfolio.
- If you’re in a communications role, look for opportunities to do UX writing at your current job, even if they are minimal. If you raise your hand to write error messages, believe me, the engineering team will love you.
Great places to start learning more about UX writing include The Writers of Silicon Valley podcast; the Working in Content resources section; the UX writers conference, Button; and the Content + UX Slack community.
Lastly, start learning more about user experience design and research. You’ll find countless books, blog posts, meetups, book clubs and local communities.
Developing your understanding of the user experience discipline at large will make you a stronger candidate when you’re ready to apply for UX writing jobs.