Poor Copywriting – the UX Problem That Will Never Go Away?

We’ve previously looked at how Google Chrome’s page translate feature had ambiguous copywriting that could leave first time users in doubt over whether Google would translate the page for them, or if the user himself could suggest a translation for it:

Does Google offer to translate the page? Or are they asking me to do the translation?

We’ve also reported how multiple e-commerce stores leave customers in doubt because of the use of contextual words like “Continue” and “Back” (when used as button text):

‘Continue’ is a contextual word which tends to confuse users – even when combined with additional explanation such as here.

The other day when Jamie connected his iPhone to the computer he got the following warning from iTunes:

Will clicking ‘Continue’ potentially cost me my purchases?

Does clicking ‘Continue’ mean the files will be transferred to the library or that the update will commence and the purchases potentially be lost? Simply writing “Update anyway” or “Transfer files” as button text would have resolved any doubt.

A Problem That Will Never Go Away?

Poor copywriting (from a UX perspective) can be almost impossible to spot if you know too much about the product/service/interaction. The moment you know the right way to interpret the text, you’re damned by The Curse of Knowledge, unable to see the ambiguity of your text because the meaning is inherent to you. This often leave the ones most likely to get the error fixed - programmers and UX designers - blindfolded.

This makes me wonder if poor copywriting is the UX problem that is the most difficult to get rid of? Or is it simply that most companies underestimate the impact copywriting has on the user experience?

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Authored by Christian Holst

Published on June 7, 2011

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Excellent post about a subject that is rarely brought up yet needs to be! When words are involved, professional writers or editors should be too, who have distance from the problem and aren’t cursed by the knowledge of those who have been working on it.

And it’s very difficult to find out if users find anything confusing because they don’t want others to think they’re stupid.

Yes hiring in professional writers and editors is a good suggestion

Getting the words right can be deceptively difficult when you’re writing for a process with many stages, or for a complex logic. When my work site was updated we moved from asking for usernames to email addresses when members logged in (the wrong thing to do, I know).

The number of complaints this generated was quite an eye opener. Finding the correct wording for the login form took several attempts. Getting someone else who didn’t know what we’d done to test the words helped a lot.

Hi Leon, thanks for sharing (yet another) example with us. It’s much appreciated.

While not a solution to the problem, I think adding tooltips that do some further explaining of the button could help in a lot of cases (in the iPhone example for instance).

These are exactly the problems that are rather difficult to spot as a designer, but which jump right out at you the moment you get some real users to test for you.

Sometimes it is as simple as a typographic error. Example: I immediately noticed that you’d missed an apostrophe. The first line of this page said “Google Chromes page translate feature” when I arrived at it. Should be “Google Chrome’s page translate feature”. Not a massive error, but distracting for me (as I’m an apostrophe pedant).

Other times, the errors have the potential to be very confusing or damaging.

Simple solution: brush off your copy of ‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy’ by Steve Krug and get testing!

And never, ever test with ‘lorum ipsum’ or similiar ‘fake’ words. Get real copy into your designs right from the start.

I’d love to say that the missing apostrophe was intentional – a “case in point” opening to the article, but I’m afraid it was just a plain silly mistake. Fixed now.

And I absolutely agree, lorem ipsum is a dangerous path to follow. Bacon ipsum ( is the way to go ;) No, all kidding aside, I wholeheartedly agree, you should always work and test with real content. This not only gives you a better of idea of the amount of content but also it helps you set the proper context.

I like it, thanks.

Interesting article. I think the solution is always run these things by someone who isnt cursed to get an outsider’s perspective.

When making an application or a website I am forced to come up with all sorts of texts and directives since they are rarely specified to the detail. In fact, while I agree with Caroline, I almost never get the whole text when I have to design so I have ot make use of lorem ipsums a lot unfortunately.

When you are in a small venture like myself, hiring a professional editor or writer is out of the question, so when I am done I always run this by someone who doesnt know the context sometimes my partner, sometimes a friend and ask them without giving them prior information if what they read is clear. Never underestimate the opinion of a potential user with fresh new eyes!

Indeed. Fresh eyes and a “beginner’s mind” is invaluable.

It can certainly help you catch glaring mistakes / ambiguity such as the ones by Google and Apple in this article.

Two words: User Testing.

Never let a developer play designer or content writer. You must have non-IT users test your work.

To solve this problem, i systematically ask myself “what happens if I click here?”. Then I try to reduce the answer in two words. Easyer with “rich” languages such as french.
Asking the user remains the best thing to do ;)

Great idea, thanks for sharing,

I wrote the in product messaging for MusicMatch. The developers and I never saw eye to eye in what conclusion was being drawn in the user’s head. More than once did I wanted to fling myself out of a window.

Can either of you recommend any good UX books that focus on copywriting.

There is a general, slow, but undeniable movement towards better copywriting on the screen (web, app, whatever). The problem is projects are often rushed and not enough time is dedicated to user testing.

Good post.But in fact poor copywriting is rather a “point-of-view” problem, than something else. And besides one has to collect a damn amount of factual data to decide whether any particular piece of copywriting is good or vice versa. Numbers rule – nothing more.

I think, that most companies underestimate the impact copywriting has on the user experience.

It was clear after recent user testing that some issues were .a result of unclear or ambiguous writing. Just finished reading an article on about re-addressing the design princples based on research findings. I’m wondering what this would become if turned into a design principle for the team. Any suggestions?

Microsoft’s Vista User Experience Guidelines have some useful advice on button labelling, which would have forestalled the iTunes example. More generally, there has been some discussion about ‘micro-content’ and ‘micro-copy’ over the last 5 years or so which has also raised many of these points.

Yeh copywriting has a huge impact on the UX. I agree about the impact that text on a button can cause on the users confidence. When using video for user testing, users are constantly mentioning the confusion with button text being unsure of what it means.

Develop a love of puns! Although you know what the text is meant to mean, see how many ways you can deliberately misinterpret it. Award points. Give out prizes. Laugh.

I’ve not tried this, but it sounds like it might be fun, and it might just work!

@Matt This is many years late, but Ginny Redish is an ideal expert for web writing. Her book is Letting Go of the Words.