Connecting the words: UX writing and how words influence you


When you read the word designer, what comes to mind? Frank Lloyd Wright or Dieter Rams? Do you think of a costume designer or a graphic designer? Are you thinking of Vogue or Architectural Digest? Every word carries with it an association that varies from person to person based on personal experiences and context.

When writing for digital or physical experiences, the specific words you use can have an impact on users. Before attempting to find the right words, first make sure you have a deep understanding of who your target users are and how they think and behave.

Consider the associations of the words you use

Words are defined by their associations with other words. Be clear with what you want to say and use words that simply and clearly describe your intent. Because users’ reading levels and language proficiencies can widely vary, it’s important to know who your specific audience is and write for them. If you’re creating a product for the average person, there’s no need to say superfluous when extra would work just fine.

Users apply meanings that are pulled from their unique past experiences. Take into consideration your target users and who they are. Don’t mistake your own past experiences for your users’ past experiences.

To cook or rehearse? Neither.

If a skincare brand uses the words Prepare, Perfect, Prevent, Protect, and Boost on its website, what will customers associate these labels to mean? Are these really the words that customers are going to be searching for when shopping for skincare products?

Let’s dive deeper into Prepare, as an example. Prepare means something different to everyone, depending on their experiences and circumstance. A chef might think about prepare in relation to her work and getting food ready prepped and ready for dinner service. A teacher could think of preparing in the way that he plans his lessons for the week.

In the context of an e-commerce beauty site, this chef and teacher would likely understand that the word Prepare isn’t related to food or school. However, even when you assume preparing is related to skincare, what does that really mean?  If you haven’t yet washed your face, you’d prepare your skin with cleanser. If you’ve already cleansed, you’d be preparing your face with toner or serum or moisturizer. But this isn’t clear in the single word descriptors, nor is the word prepare a universal experience for all users.

When the words aren’t clear, users have to think harder than they should have to. Don’t risk losing customers because they have to spend more time clicking around on your website just to find what they’re looking for.

Consider how words might alter the way users think about something

I don’t know you personally, but I know that you’re an unreliable eyewitness. Let me explain. In cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’s study of how labels distort eyewitness memories, student subjects watched a series of car accidents and estimated how fast the cars were traveling before the accident. All student subjects viewed the same videos but completed questionnaires that were each worded differently in the way that they described the accident.

The subjects were asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when the cars hit, smashed, collided, contacted, or bumped each other. Just the phrasing alone changed the subjects’ perception of the speed of the cars in the accident. The words smashed, collided, and bumped resulted in higher estimated speeds than the words hit or contacted.

Choose words, test, iterate, and get them out into the wild.

After you conduct research and have decided on the words that you think best fits your intentions, test them. Get them in front of target users and find out how they associate the words you’ve chosen. Are they understanding them in the way that you want them to? If not, ask why, identify new words, and test them again.

Once your words are launched out into the wild, measure them by defining how you want to track user activity. Are users completing the tasks that you want them to? What is the completion rate goal? For example, if your goal is to increase newsletter subscribers, consider the call-to-action words on the button. Are you encouraging users to Sign up or Subscribe or Get Started? Or perhaps you’ve added more playful text such as Gimme! or I’m In. If you’re not seeing subscriber growth, the words might be part of the reason why. Use these findings to analyze what’s working and what might not be. For even more constructive feedback, continue testing with more target users.

The takeaways

When you read the header of this section, did you think about take-out food? Word associations, yum.

There are endless ways to convey information. One of the best parts of the design process is the testing and iteration. If words aren’t coming across the way you intended, change them! There’s no one right word for every situation, but there are certainly wrong ones. Get feedback and use it wisely.

  • Convey the correct emotions with your words.

  • Consider your users’ past experiences instead of focusing on your own.

  • Think about the different ways users might react to words and the associations they might make.

  • Use accurate and simple words.

  • Be mindful of the context of where your words are placed.

  • Test with users, iterate, repeat.