4 Writing Crimes Every UX Writer Should Never Do

And how to stay away from committing those crimes.

Image of a laptop with two hands typing on it using burglar-like black hand gloves.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” — Steve Jobs to John Sculley.

What Steve Jobs said to Pepsi executive John Sculley to lure him to join Apple inspired me to leave my career in advertising for UX writing.

I was in a similar situation with Sculley. One of the brands I worked on was sugared water, but I had to sell it as an energy drink. I didn’t want to manipulate people. I want to help people through the word I write, or type.

Being a UX writer gives me the power to help people by providing them with a delightful experience and putting their best interests in mind.

There were situations where stakeholders pressured me to write a copy that intentionally tricks people into making decisions that weren’t necessarily good for them but benefited the company. I always said no because it is against my value and UX writing principles. I considered deceiving copy as a crime.

Don’t be an evil writer. Here are four typical criminal copies and how to avoid them.

1. Tone deaf copy

Remember Ellen Degeneres’s joke in 2020 about being how quarantined at home was like being in jail? It received a fierce backlash because her house seen in the video, looked more like a tropical paradise rather than a jail.

What Ellen said was a tone deaf statement. Sure it was a joke, but she failed to read the room and acknowledge how her audience might have felt at time.

Tone deaf messaging can happen everywhere, advertising, emails, and in UX writing.

A pop-up message with the headline “Well, look who got locked up” and the subtitle is “ Lucky you! It only takes simple steps to reset your password. We’ll email you the instructions.” then below, there’s a placeholder with a title “Username” and a blue button with the text “Reset password.”
Funny but kinda sounds like a bully.

Imagine you forgot your password, wanted to reset it to log in, and only got teased by the copy. How would you feel? Even though the product persona is funny, cheerful, and witty, teasing users who are in trouble is considered insensitive.

Using the appropriate tone in your content can help build a solid emotional bond between your product and the users.

A pop-up message with the headline “Help is on the way” and the subtitle is “Relax! We’ll email you the magic link to reset your password” then below, there’s a placeholder with a title “Username” and a blue button with the text “Reset password.”
Helpful, friendly, not too serious.

Here’s what to do to avoid tone-deaf copy.

A. Analyze the situation

Find the right tone for your content by asking the right questions before you start writing.

  • What might the user feel when they are in this situation?
  • What do we need to do to make the experience better?
  • If this product is a person, how would they say things?
  • What do we want the user to do?
  • What will the user see next after this message?

Once all the questions are answered, you will understand better what tone is appropriate in the situation and whether your tone should be friendly, serious, funny, or completely different.

B. Test different tones

The best way to determine which tone works well is to test different versions. Have a few alternatives and test it, whether with a preference test or A/B test, because working based on assumption often lead to the wrong results.

C. Have a tone map

To make the content consistent across the product, have a tone map. It is a cheatsheet. Tone map is a guide that helps you plan the tone, instead of coming up with how you sound on the fly.

The image of the tone map using four quadrants. The x lines define the seriousness level. Below is serious and above is fun. The y lines represent conciseness level, the right is detailed, and the left is concise.
Tone map example from uxcel.

2. Clickbait and misleading copy

Don’t we all agree that clickbait is harmful?

Clickbait is harmful because the contents are usually not as good (or bombastic) as the title. Clickbait wastes the audience’s time without giving them helpful quality content. You risk losing your users’ trust if you misuse it.

But, when done correctly, clickbait is one of the best ways to get people to take notice and give you their most precious asset: attention.

Two pop up notifications form Google map, the one above said “OMG!!! This amazing photo you took is famous! Tap to see which photo it is.” that sound bombastic and dramatic. The one below said “100,000 people saw your photos taken at Central Park, New York City” that telling everything leaving no room for mystery.
The one above is clickbaity; the one below is leaves no room for surprises.

Here’s how to make clickbait harmless.

A. Understand your users

The key to a successful clickbait is a proper understanding of your audience — their needs, wants, behaviors, problems, likes, dislikes, topics they are interested in, and so on.

B. Create the right amount of curiosity

Clickbait uses the Curiosity Gap, the space between the information we’re giving and the information we purposely hold back behind the click.

So, trigger users’ curiosity by not being a tell-all, give them incomplete bits of information. Incomplete information will stimulate readers’ awareness of their lack of knowledge and leverage their desire to seek out the missing pieces of information.

C. Deliver your promise

After triggering users’ curiosity, show them what they expect to see. Quench their thirst for the knowledge they crave to acquire.

Two pop up notifications form Google map, the one above said “OMG!!! This amazing photo you took is famous! Tap to see which photo it is.” that sound bombastic and dramatic. The one below said “100,000 people saw your photos. See which photos people are looking at” that sound just right.
Aim for just right, not bombastic yet still trigger curiosity.

3. False urgency

“Good UX writing tells the truth.” — Nick DiLallo, Writer and Creative Director.

I strongly agree with what Nick said on one of his articles.

Using psychological bias as a nudge is OK when depicts the real condition. Increasing urgency is also OK to a certain degree, as long as the intention is to help users make the optimal decision.

If it does not mirror the real condition, it is a crime. False urgency is deceptive and disrespectful.

Here’s how to deliver urgency without being deceptive.

A. Never lie to your users

Lying to users by giving false urgency might trigger them to click, but it comes at a risk of them finding out the truth and necer coming back. Gaining short-term traction at the expense of losing users’ trust is not worth it.

B. Find the right framing

If the actual condition hardly creates urgency, find more information about the product and frame it with suitable nudges. For example, try social proof when the situation does not signal scarcity.

Four different framing for the same product and situation.

4. Guilt tripping and confirm shaming

At some point in your life, you might have encountered a website that asked you to subscribe to their service, and when you were about to say no, they intentionally made you feel bad.

A pop-up message with the headline “Daily guide to a healthier life” and the subtitle is “Delivered to your inbox daily” then below, there’s a placeholder with the text “Enter your email to live healthier” and a green button with the text “Live healthier.” Below the button, there’s a text said “I don’t want to live healthier.” written in italic.
Will you say no to this?

The writer of the confirm-shaming message wants us to feel that is wrong when we say no, so then we will accept anything they offered. Confirm shaming is manipulative and insulting.

Marketers think manipulating people works. Thus confirm shaming has become popular.

Here’s how to get the yes without making users feel guilty.

  1. Focus on being clear rather than clever.
  2. Make the yes option more attractive.
  3. And make the no option less attractive, without insulting.
A pop-up message with the headline “Be the healthier and happier you in 30 days” and the subtitle is “Get free daily guidance from experienced life coaches” then below, there’s a placeholder with the text “Enter your email here” and a green button with the text “I’m in for the better me.” Below the button, there’s a text said “No, thanks. I’m fine.” written in italic.
It is fine to say no.


UX writing helps users, not bully them. Writing any copy that does not put the user front and center is a crime.

Here are four criminal copies often used in UX writing.

  1. Tone deaf copy. Insensitive to the nuances.
  2. Clickbait and misleading copy. Make the content appear more dramatic than the reality.
  3. False urgency nudge. Deliver the wrong parameter to increase urgency.
  4. Guilt tripping and confirm shaming. Manipulate users’ guilt and shame them when they reject the offer.

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Sincerely, a writer who wants to stay out of jail.

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