UX writing

What's a UX writing style guide?

A study guide is a rule book for how to write for a company’s products. Learn what goes into one and why they matter to UX writers.
ux writing style guide
In: UX writing

Voice and tone lives within what’s called a style guide. A study guide is a rule book for how to write for a company’s products.

In addition to outlining guidance on voice and tone, a style guide also outlines rules around things like grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. Think of the style guide like a system the whole company follows to ensure every word that goes out into the wild is consistent and feels like it comes from one company.

The style guide isn’t just used by UX writers — product designers, engineers, product managers, and pretty much anyone else should have access and actively use it.

That’s because the UX writing team can’t possibly touch every piece of microcopy that gets shipped, so we need to empower others with the right guidance.

Here are some examples of well-known style guides:

Depending on what size and stage company you join, they may have a full-fledged style guide, or you may be tasked with building one from scratch.

Why UX writing style guides matter

A style guide is part of what’s called a design system, or a set of standards to manage design at scale by reducing redundancy.

When someone asks me what I think makes great UX writing, thinking in systems is the first answer on my list. And style guides are a big part of that.

That’s because forming and thinking in systems equips UX writers to do their jobs with ease, efficiency, and effectiveness.

It’s a win-win for the UX writing and the end-user because we both don’t have to think as hard to achieve our goals.

Thinking in systems elevates your ability to hit on all the other traits of UX writing worth their salt, like conciseness, consistency, informativeness, etc.

The 3 reasons why UX writing systems, namely style guides, matter are because they:

  1. Make life easier by simplifying processes and unifying the company
  2. Build a holistic, consistent experience, building trust and equity
  3. allow your company to scale with intention

1. UX writing systems make life easier by simplifying processes and unifying the company

Audrey Hacq says it well in an article in UX Collective:

“A Design System is the single source of truth which groups all the elements that will allow the teams to design, realize and develop a product.”

Having that single source of truth makes UX writing a lot easier.

That’s because having set guidelines to follow minimizes the amount of time needed to think about whether there should be spaces between em dashes or if exclamation points are on-brand.

With all these rules set in stone, the development process is simplified, and all you need to do is execute with empathy.

And it’s not just UI patterns and buttons — content style guides, voice and tone guidelines, and glossaries make up an important portion of a design system.

Additionally, by having a set of standards the entire company agrees on, you’ll shave off time in reviews and communications.

In the words of Arjun Narayanan, “Good design is a language, and when everyone is speaking the same language, that’s when things get done.”

2. UX writing systems build a holistic, consistent experience, building trust and equity

Your users shouldn’t notice the details.

Everything should be so seamless and consistent that users don’t need to read too hard to make out how to achieve their goal.

That’s where UX writing systems come in.

By having established content frameworks and guidelines, your product will naturally be consistent. By increasing the consistency of your product, you’ll build a more holistic experience. By building a more holistic experience, you’ll create trust and brand equity by lowering the cognitive load.

When you lower the cognitive load of your product, it becomes easier to use and allows habits to form around said product.

That builds retention for you and delight for your users.

3. UX writing systems allow your company to scale with intention

As your company grows, the design team will grow with it.

If you’re growing without established content guidelines set in place, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

You have inconsistencies right now. Everyone does. As you grow your product, the inconsistencies will grow alongside it unless something changes today.

The time to address those inconsistencies is now, and UX writing systems are the solution.

There’s no fear in building and thinking in UX writing systems — they can (and should) be constantly updated to make sure your frameworks and strategies are still relevant to your target audience.

UX writing systems are living, breathing documentation that should evolve with your company.

What goes in a UX writing style guide?

On average, there are 3 main parts to a style guide:

  • Voice and tone
  • Grammar and mechanics
  • Glossary or words list

Let me break it down…

Voice & tone

The product voice and tone guidelines live within the style guide. Simple as that.

Learn all about product voice and tone.

Grammar and mechanics

After voice and tone, grammar and mechanics is the other super meaty section. It contains all the rules for how you handle, you guessed it, grammar and mechanics.

In the grammar and mechanics section, you’ll find rules around writing and formatting things like:

  • Abbreviations
  • Acronyms
  • Capitalization
  • Contractions
  • Emojis
  • Numbers
  • Writing about your company
  • Writing about other companies
  • And much more

For each rule, there’s usually a definition of what the rule is and an example of what to do and what not to do. Like this:

ux writing style guide

And this:

ux writing style guide

And everything else on the list.

Glossary or words list

A glossary, also known as a words list, is a dictionary of words you use at the company. If you’ve ever seen a company say “Buy” on one page and “Purchase” on the other page, this avoids that and aligns the company on a common vocabulary.

The glossary exists to:

  • Document today’s accepted terminology
  • Act as a tool for consistency and clarity
  • Document rationale for current language

That said, a glossary is also a living document that you regularly update as your product evolves.

Here are a few snapshots from a glossary I collaborated on for Opendoor:

ux writing style guide
ux writing style guide
ux writing style guide

Creating glossaries is a super collaborative process. You need to get alignment from:

  • Product design
  • Product marketing
  • Legal

I recommend coming to these teams with a proposal of what words need definitions and how to define them, and then compromising and editing from there. If you don’t lead the charge, it can be messy to navigate all the different opinions.

Happy UX writing 🖖

Written by
Slater Katz
As founder of The UX Gal, my mission is to make learning UX writing fantastically-simple and landing a job easy. I've held UX writing jobs at companies like Netflix, Fitbit, Verizon, Afterpay, & more.
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