8 Writing Tips to Supercharge the Quality of Your UX Work

by Rikke Friis Dam | | 30 min read

Content is king—and how you write your content is key. Any UX designer worth their salt needs to write effectively, whether it’s case studies for your UX design portfolio or copy for your product. Want to be a better designer? Read on!

Here are 8 practical writing tips that will significantly improve your UX work:

  1. Use the inverted pyramid to state your main points first.

  2. Be concrete and walk down the ladder of abstraction.

  3. Write active sentences for an easier read.

  4. Kill your filler words.

  5. Mix short and long sentences for variety.

  6. Use bullet points and numbered lists to help readers skim.

  7. Highlight key words.

  8. Use plain English.

Make sure you read till the very end, because we’ll give you a free cheatsheet to download which contains all 8 tips!

Tip 1: Use the Inverted Pyramid to State Your Main Points First

Let’s get straight to the point—the inverted pyramid is a writing style where you mention the most important information first. Journalists use this style to deliver essential bits of a story first (the who, when, what, where and why), before they dive into the rest of the details.

In an inverted pyramid, we give readers the most important information first to help them understand faster. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

We call it the inverted pyramid because we put key information—the “broad base” of the story—at the top. We then add finer and finer details as we move towards the end.

This is opposed to the standard pyramid style, which academics often use to build an argument. In that style, we present the problem statement first, then we list our details and observations which lead to a conclusion at the end.

Many academic writers use the standard pyramid and present their conclusions only at the end. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Why Should You Use the Inverted Pyramid Writing Style?

  • You’ll help readers understand better and faster: Readers will understand the key take away of the topic right from the start. This way, they’ll absorb your supporting information and background much better.

  • You’ll reduce the time required to read and interact: Readers can get what you mean without having to read the entire content. They can stop reading at any point and will still understand the essence. That means that you’ll also support skimming, which most readers do online.

  • You’ll encourage reading: When you draw readers in with your main points, they’ll naturally continue to read about the details and perspectives if they’re interested in the topic.

How to Apply the Inverted Pyramid Style

  • Find out what you really want to tell and why you want to tell it: What is the conclusion, the key fact you want to communicate to your readers? You should be able to sum up the key take away in a heading or sentence. This is essentially what your readers need to know. This task takes more time than you might think. However, if you spend sufficient time finding out what you really want to tell, the rest of the writing process will be easy, smooth and fast for you. And your readers will instantly understand what you want to tell them. It’s as simple as that. You should always choose simplicity over complication.

  • This is how you find out what you really want to tell and why you want to tell it: You simply use this sentence and insert your main take-home point.

    • I want to tell that... (main take-home point/conclusion),

    • because... (why this is essential to your dear reader/user).

  • Let’s take an example:

    • I want to tell that you first have to find out what you really want to tell your reader/user,

    • because this will save you a lot of time and, more importantly, it will make your text/app much easier to understand and more interesting to read/use.

  • Start writing:

    • Communicate your main point and conclusion This way, you write a summary at the top when you write an article or UX case study. You should also craft headings that meaningfully summarize each section you write. Likewise, when you write copy for your product, you’ll also craft headings that meaningfully summarize a page or screen.

    • Then, move on to the most important details and supporting information to explain your main point and conclusion.

    • Lastly, it’s time to communicate background information with fine, technical details, discussions and perspectives. This is the information which is merely nice to know.

  • Write in the inverted pyramid style within each paragraph, too: Start your paragraphs with the most important sentence first. In fact, start your sentences with key words as much as you can.

  • If you come from academia, this will be a tough challenge. Academia is all about the standard pyramid. But we know you can convert your writing style. Just start practicing right now.

Tip 2: Be Concrete and Walk Down the Ladder of Abstraction

Abstract sentences are broad and vague—for instance:

“An experiment was conducted to test the relationships between users’ perceptions of a computerized system’s beauty and usability.”

― Tractinsky, N., Shoval-Katz A. and Ikar, D. (2000), What is Beautiful is Usable Interacting with Computers, 13(2): 127-145.

Abstract sentences are not ideal, because they require effort and time to process and they don’t reveal who does what. Try to imagine how you might draw an illustration of the sentence above. Difficult, right?! This is how difficult abstract sentences are to comprehend and make sense of to our brains. Concrete sentences, on the other hand, instantly reveal what they mean. They help us understand who does what, and they become much easier and faster to understand and visualize. For example:

“At the MIT-IBM Watson lab 7 researchers conducted an experiment to test the relationships between 120 users’ perceptions of a mobile payment system’s beauty and usability.”

When we write concrete sentences, our readers don’t have to search the article for other sentences to help them understand who does what. In the abstract sentence, the reader will have to look around to find information about which lab it is as well as how many researchers and how many users participated in the test. That’s why concrete sentences are easier to understand and faster to read. Be concrete, not abstract. And, honestly, we must confess that we spent 5 minutes to grasp the details in the excellent paper by Tractinsky, but within 5 minutes we could not find out where the experiment took place, who participated and who the researchers were. We gave up, so we guessed and made up the important details of who did what. Likewise, your readers will either start guessing what you mean or give up reading your article or portfolio if you don’t write concrete sentences.

Abstract sentences are vague, while concrete sentences are easy to understand. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

If you have studied at a university level, it can be a tough challenge to write concrete sentences, because academia is in love with abstract sentences. Several university graduates, PhDs and professors have told us that learning to write concretely is like un-learning how to walk and then learning it all over again in order to be able to run. But you know what―they agree that it’s worth the time it takes to learn.

Why Should You Write Concrete Sentences?

It’s because we understand concrete statements faster. Abstract sentences force readers to spend time skimming up and down the page to understand what we’re trying to communicate. In bad cases, we force our readers to guess what we mean. This takes up mental capacity; it takes time and thus worsens the reading experience. When you write concrete sentences, you’ll make things far easier for readers. Better still, they’ll want to read what you want to tell them.

How to Write Concretely

  • Provide examples to illustrate your point: For instance, when you write about design challenges you faced in a project, list 2–3 specific challenges you encountered.

  • Show it, and tell it: When you introduce a new feature in an app, provide screenshots of how the feature works.

  • Be specific rather than general: Look for general statements and make them specific. Don’t say, “We had an outdated design.”; say, “We had an outdated design where we used text that’s too small for mobile devices.”

  • Walk down the ladder of abstraction: The ladder of abstraction helps you write concrete words especially in the beginning of your article and then slowly move up to abstract levels of information. Please see the illustration below, and promise yourself to always start at the first step of the ladder. After all, your reader can’t fly all the way up to the upper step of the ladder—and would fall down with a broken leg or give up reading if you started your writing journey from the upper step of the ladder. And, please stay at the bottom of the ladder as much as possible. Why? This will help you write something worth reading, whether it’s for an app, a case study, a social media post or an academic paper. Now, you may think it’s impossible to do this when you follow the structure of the inverted pyramid. But that isn’t true. The conclusion, main information and purpose are things you can—and should—describe concretely. However, sometimes you’ll first touch the upper part of the ladder in a few sentences, and then you’ll quickly descend to explain the conclusion in detail and with concrete examples.

  • Make comparisons: Just as we compared your reader to a human being who tried to fly all the way up to the upper step of the ladder and fell down with a broken leg.

Tip 3: Write Active Sentences for an Easier Read

Active sentences specify what action is performed and by whom. Or, to make that sentence even more active, these sentences specify what happened and who did it. They help you construct clear, concrete sentences. It is the verb which makes the major difference. You write active sentences when you use active verbs, instead of passive verbs.

A simple example is this: “We [actor/subject] created [action/active verb] paper prototypes [what’s being done/object].” The active verb helps the reader easily identify the who and what of the sentence.

On the other hand, in passive sentences the subject doesn’t perform an action, but has something done to it. Therefore, passive sentences often “hide” the actor. For instance: “Paper prototypes [what’s being done/subject] were created [action/passive verb].” Notice how the sentence doesn’t reveal who created the prototypes?

Active sentences have a direct structure and thus are easy to understand. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Why Should You Write Active Sentences?

  • You’ll make your sentences easier to understand: Active sentences are more direct and therefore easier to understand. Passive sentences have an indirect sentence structure. As with the abstract sentences, the reader will often not have a clue as to who did what to whom, so readers have to exert mental effort and time to skim for the specific actors and objects, so they themselves can connect the dots. As the author, you should take on the mental burden of understanding who does what to whom, so your readers can slide easily through your text. In fact, when you have to connect the dots yourself, you’ll most likely understand the content you’re communicating much better yourself. Just see what good old Einstein said:

  • “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    – Albert Einstein

  • You’ll show that you have a clear way of thinking when you can communicate with active sentence structures in a simple and straightforward way.

  • You’ll reduce your word count: Active sentences are usually shorter. For instance, the active sentence “We tested our prototype.” is 2 words shorter than its passive equivalent, “The prototype was tested by us.”

  • You’ll sound more confident: Active sentences require us to highlight who performed the action. When we do so, we take responsibility and give credit for the action. For example, when you say, “I conducted user interviews,” you clearly show your part in the design process. (Compare this with the passive “User interviews were conducted.”) Similarly, “You should use active sentences.” is more confident than “Active sentences should be used.”

How to Write Active Sentences

It is tough to consistently write in the active voice. We struggle with it daily. However, with enough practice and the tips below, you can master the active voice.

  • Write only active verbs. So, how do you do this in the easiest way? Just read on.

  • Place the actor first in a sentence: For instance, “I [actor/subject] conducted [action/active verb] user interviews [what’s being done/object].” On the other hand, when you start your sentence with what’s being done, you’re likely to create a passive sentence. For example: “User interviews [what’s being done/subject] were conducted [action/passive verb] by me [actor/prepositional phrase].”

  • Avoid the “-ing” suffix: When your sentence contains a verb in the -ing form (the present participle), it can sometimes hide who the actor is. For example, “Selecting all relevant options will give the best results.” is an example of a gerund: the action itself, worded as a noun (i.e., as if it were a conscious actor). This isn’t strong, active writing. You can fix it when you use the verb in its present or past tense with the actor clearly taking the lead—so, “You should select all relevant options to get the best results.”; or, shorter still, “Select all relevant options to get the best results.”

  • Avoid nominalizations: A nominalization is a verb that is converted into a noun. “Discussion”, “exploration” and “ideation” are examples of nominalizations. They are noun forms of the verbs “discuss”, “explore” and “ideate”. When you use nominalizations, your sentence is likely passive. So, write “We explored possible ideas,” rather than “An exploration of possible ideas was done by us.”

When to Use Passive Sentences

Sometimes, you can use the passive voice to de-emphasize or omit the actor. We usually do so when the actor has committed a negative act, for instance in error messages. It is more polite to say, “Invalid address entered” than “You’ve entered an invalid address.” In the same vein, you might use the passive voice to sound less personal when you critique someone. Also, when you’re writing copy, occasionally it’s better to word sentences in the passive voice—i.e., if the active version would sound unnatural or awkward. For example:

“Dr. Goodenough made huge contributions to the field. Appropriately, he was included in the New Year’s Honours list in the UK.” (The second sentence is passive, but better because it sounds more natural.) versus

“Dr. Goodenough made huge contributions to the field. Appropriately, the committee acting on behalf of the monarch decided to include him in the New Year’s Honours list in the UK.” (Both sentences are active, but note how the extra words aren’t necessary to describe this, a traditional act of official recognition in the United Kingdom. Also, they shift the emphasis a little from the subject of the first sentence.)

Tip 4: Kill Your Filler Words

Filler words are redundant. They add length but not meaning. Remove them to improve the quality of your work.

Kill your filler words to let your message shine. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

For instance, this sentence here is really a very good example of a sentence filled with filler words, since it’s literally filled with redundant words.

We’ve italicized the filler words in the previous sentence. Here’s how it reads without them: For instance, this is a great example of a sentence with filler words, since it’s filled with redundant words.

Why Should You Delete Filler Words?

  • You’ll cut down on words: Less is always more when it comes to writing. That includes the point that you’ll cut to the chase. There’s a difference between writing in a conversational style and writing as if you were having a conversation with a friend. In fact, the next time you do have a conversation, listen out for these filler words… the ones we’re so used to that we actually (yes, sometimes that’s one, too, depending on the context) overlook them.

  • You’ll make your content easier to absorb: Filler words are like noise—they are meaningless and distract you from the important signal. When you remove filler words, you make your main message clearer.

How to Eliminate Filler Words

  • Kill filler words: “just”, “so”, “very”, “a bit”, “really”, “literally” and “quite”. These are the main culprits.

  • Remove words that reference the here and now: Remove words such as “here”, “now” and “currently”. Also, we can shorten “The website is currently down” to “The website is down” since we can infer that the website is down right now,from the present tense.

  • Be more specific: Instead of saying, “We had a very good time,” be specific and say, “We had a great time.” or “We had an ecstatic time.” Rather than say “The website was very slow,” describe how slow and say, “The website took 50 seconds to load.” Your sentences will be more informative, powerful and interesting, too.

Tip 5: Mix Short and Long Sentences for Variety

Vary between long and short sentences to create a more interesting reading experience. Use short sentences as much as you can. See, isn’t this nice? Use longer sentences more sparingly. Your best paragraphs will have a healthy blend where short and longer sentences complement each other to optimize flow, so they’ll pour your message into readers’ minds naturally and effortlessly.

Why Should You Mix Short and Long Sentences?

  • Variety makes your content interesting: Consistently short sentences feel piecemeal and sound jerky and monotonous together in strings. Consistently lengthy sentences require mental effort to understand. A mix of both is ideal.

  • You’ll get to the point: To mix long and short sentences, you’ll need to break up and shorten your long sentences, since you’ll likely have more long sentences than short ones. In effect, you’ll make your sentences more succinct. Now, that’s a nice side effect.

How to Mix Short and Long Sentences

  • Break up long sentences: Find long sentences and break them up. In general, you should use lengthy sentences only when needed.

  • Use short sentences for dramatic effect: Short sentences not only give readers an easier time; they also add some dramatic effect. It’s the equivalent of a power pause, when a speaker pauses to emphasize a point. Use them well.

Overall, remember—English is a musical language that’s geared for flow. And you’ll know how well your words can flow into your reader’s mind when you read them aloud. You’ll be able to spot if you’re out of breath (on one overlong sentence or a string of long ones). Likewise, you’ll be able to tell if you’ve got too many shorter sentences clustered too close together (like driving over bumps in the road). So, you’ll notice how well the sentences complement each other—or play off one another’s strong points—in each paragraph. An added bonus of reading aloud is you’ll more likely find words you may be too fond of. For example, if you keep writing “increase”, swap it out for “rise” here and there. It’s amazing what the ear can pick up that the eye is blind to. We’ll have more to say on this a little later.

Tip 6: Use Bullet Points and Numbered Lists to Help Readers Skim

Nothing says “scannable” more than lists. Bulleted lists and numbered lists are your friends when you want to make text readable.

Why Should You Use Bulleted and Numbered Lists?

  • You’ll help people skim and understand better: See what we mean? You group content when you use lists, and this makes your content faster and simpler to process.

  • You’ll show that you care: When you use bulleted and numbered lists, you show that you cared enough to structure your content well. Readers appreciate that.

How to Use Bullet Points and Numbered Lists

  • Structure your content well: Know the key points you want to say.

  • Use bulleted lists when the order doesn’t matter: For instance, to list the key factors you considered when you designed a prototype. In such a case, all factors were equally important and so their order doesn’t matter.

  • Use numbered lists when the order matters: For example, when you list the 3 steps to create an account. When items have a clear hierarchy of importance or sequence, use a numbered list.

  • Use numbered lists when the number of items matters: When you mention 10 usability heuristics for mobile devices, you should put them in a numbered list. Even though all 10 heuristics are equally important, the total number of items is a key characteristic of your list.

Tip 7: Highlight Key Words

Most readers won’t read your content word for word. In fact, you’re probably not reading this word for word. That’s why it’s essential to highlight key words to help your readers scan.

Why Should You Highlight Key Words?

  • You’ll help people scan your content: Readers can get a solid grasp of your message faster.

  • You’ll emphasize your main points: Highlight words to signal to readers what your main points are. This way, you tell your story better and help readers absorb those points faster.

How to Highlight Your Key Words

  • Identify key words.

  • Bold key words (or use other visual styles): You can choose to bold your key phrases or italicize them. You can even use custom styles (such as a highlight), but please use just one style consistently.

  • Don’t use an underline: We often use underlines to mark links on a webpage. If you use underlines to emphasize your points, your readers (especially readers with vision impairments) might think they are links.

Tip 8: Use Plain English

Plain English is simple. It’s friendly, professional and reads like a conversation. Plain English creates pleasant reading experiences.

In contrast, “bureaucratic” English is lengthy, dull and difficult to understand. You’ve probably encountered bureaucratic English in legal documents and academic papers. It has a time and a place, but that’s not here. You know how boring and/or heavy-going it is—so, avoid bureaucratic English.

Communicating clearly is, on the other hand, very difficult. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Plain English is friendly, direct and simple—use it to communicate better. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Why Should You Use Plain English?

  • You’ll communicate clearly and concisely: Plain English is easy to understand. This means your readers will get what you mean quickly.

  • You’ll widen your audience: For example, recruiters who read a UX case study might not be UX experts. More users will be able to use your product if you communicate clearly―and fewer users would need to consult a manual. So, when you write in plain English, your words reach more people who can understand what you mean. People with cognitive disabilities will also understand you better.

How to Write in Plain English

  • Avoid jargon: Jargon is words that only people from a certain group understand. We designers love jargon such as “usability” and “A/B testing”. If your reader isn’t a designer—and they’re likely not—replace jargon with everyday words. If you need to use jargon (for instance, in your UX case study), explain what it means. Say something like this: “We tested the prototype’s usability to see how easy it was to use.”

  • Use simple words over complex ones: Big words don’t help your readers, many of whom will also be non-native English speakers. Don’t say “additional”, “correspondence”, “modify” and other complex words. Say “more”, “email” and “edit” or “change” instead. Be simple, but also don’t oversimplify what you say. English has a huge vocabulary, where four, five or more words can describe the same thing (where other languages may have only two). Take the time to pick the most appropriate simple word for each context—when readers must stop to think about a strange-looking word, you can start to lose them.

  • Connect your sentences: When we speak, we use connecting words such as “and”, “but” and “so” to join our sentences. Use these connecting words. And use them to start sentences if you want to. But don’t go overboard.

  • Read what you’ve written aloud: After you’ve crafted your draft, read it aloud to test if it sounds like how you’d normally speak. Use your phone to record yourself if it helps. If you find yourself sounding unnatural, tweak what you’ve written. Remember, your ear can pick up things your eye won’t. That includes flow, word choice and—as an obvious but vital bonus—mistakes such as typos that your spell-checker may miss (for instance, “Now you’re leaning!”).

The Take Away

You need to master how to write effectively to be a great UX designer. These 8 writing tips will boost your writing skills:

  1. Use the inverted pyramid to state your main points first.

  2. Be concrete and walk down the ladder of abstraction.

  3. Write active sentences for an easier read.

  4. Kill your filler words.

  5. Mix short and long sentences for variety.

  6. Use bullet points and numbered lists to help readers skim.

  7. Highlight key words.

  8. Use plain English.

Want all these tips in one place? We’ve got you covered. Download our free template below:

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Now that you’ve learnt these 8 tips, try to identify the techniques we’ve used in this article. How many can you spot? Can you suggest ways to improve our article?

References and Where to Learn More

Learn more about the inverted pyramid writing style in Nielsen Norman Group’s article here.

The Plain English Campaign has a nifty PDF guide on how to write in plain English.

We also love Mary Dash’s writing tips in the United States’ plainlanguage.gov website. Mary Dash is the Chief of the Congressional Correspondence and Quality Review Branch of the Internal Revenue Service.

The concept of “the ladder of abstraction” was created by American linguist S. I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book Language in Thought and Action.

Hero image: Author / Copyright holder: Joanna Kosinska. Edited by Teo Yu Siang. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.

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Download our free ebook The Basics of User Experience Design to learn about core concepts of UX design.

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