Getting delightful UX copy right
Last year, when I was consulting with a fintech startup on UX copy, a designer once asked me to write a two-line title that rhymed. When I asked why, they said, “Just to do something fun on this screen. To delight the user with copy.” There was nothing wrong with their intention. I was in fact glad that adding delight to the user experience was not an afterthought. However that particular user flow was not the right place for delightful UX copy.
Delightful UX copy can be hard to get right. For starters, writing delightful copy is not the same as writing in your brand’s voice. Writing in a consistent voice and tone for your brand helps build brand affinity. It lets a user form a complete picture of your brand; it doesn’t surprise the user or “delight them”.
The other challenge with writing delightful copy is not the writing itself — in fact, a lot of UX writers have worked in marketing and can always think of witty puns — but the placement. Put in the wrong screen, it could be an overkill, or worse, a hindrance for the user.
Last year, when Andy Welfle asked for examples of “delightful” UX copy, many responded with poor examples:
Another content designer pointed out an error message in the United Airlines app where the goofy title didn’t quite match the formal message. Quirkiness, for the sake of it, never works.
So, how do you get delight right? I looked at UX copy for more than 25 mobile apps (hat tip to Mobbin for their ever-growing collection) to see how others do it. I observed two patterns —
#1 Find a safe place for delight
Delightful copy appeared in screens that didn’t involve the user taking an important, irreversible, high-consequence action. Imagine seeing delightful copy when you’re making a payment or when you’re trying to create a project management board for example! When users are trying to get something done, delightful copy can get in the way.
John Saito, UX writer-slash-product designer-slash project manager, recommends looking for “safe places” in your product experience to add some delight. These could be onboarding screens, success messages, loading states, empty states, placeholder text and sometimes, even error messages.
Take Headspace for example. After a user completes setting up their account, there is a short breathing exercise. The use of this metaphor is unexpected and delightful, but quite welcome:
Or Duolingo’s success screens. Every time a user extends their streak by completing a lesson, the success screen offers encouragement. The copy keeps changing, and that helps keep it fresh. These two, in particular, are my favourite:
Empty states are also a safe place to delight the user. Greg, an app that helps you keep your plants alive, displays this message when a user has no plant duties for the day. It makes users feel good about themselves:
Slack does delight really well (a designer has written about how and why they invest in delight here). The placeholder copy in the search bar is an easter egg — it’s inconspicuous enough to not get in the way, but conspicuous enough that a user will notice it every once in a while.
Zomato’s loading states are a nice touch — the copy keeps changing and I always look forward to what it might say this time! Once the loading state said: “Treat your parents for no reason today” and I did!
Finally: error messages. Adding delight to an error message is a fine balance — you don’t want to diminish the user’s problem and you don’t to frustrate the user. Most error messages should be functional, but I’ve seen many products add some delight to their 404 pages. This one by Pixar is really cute:
#2 Delight, but just once in a while
Delightful UX copy works well in a screen or a flow the user didn’t encounter very often. Seeing the same message too often makes it lose its charm. Audree Lapierre has also written about this in an article for the UX Collective:
"Delightful elements will inevitably lose their appeal over time and will come to be expected. It’s why it’s best to leave them at the periphery of the experience for aspects we see once, like the sign up page, empty states or error messages."
Spotify’s copy for Wrapped is a great example. The copy is charming and it hits all the right notes. Since users see it just once every year, the novelty of it stays and charming doesn’t become cheesy!
The more you observe UX copy, good and bad, the more you’ll develop an intuition for where delight works best. Some products lend themselves to delightful copy more than others. It’s only natural that Duolingo offers more opportunities than any banking app for example.
The key to delight is the right place and the right time.