UX writing mistakes from a perspective of neuroscience and psychology.

An adorable fluffy kitten with gray and white fur, dancing joyfully on its hind legs with its front paws raised in the air. The kitten’s big, bright eyes sparkle with happiness. It is set in a vibrant garden filled with colorful flowers and lush green grass, under a clear blue sky, creating a lively and heartwarming atmosphere that captures the kitten’s pure delight.
The illustration of the Happy Happy Happy (3H) Effect (generated by DALL·E)

Microcopy is basically poetry. Why? Because “prose is words in their best order, and poetry — the best words in the best order.” Like poetry, the process of UX writing is heavily influenced by the psyche of its creator.

There are a lot of in-depth articles on the psychology of the user in UX writing. Like this one, and this one, and this one, oh and even mine here.

However, I failed to find much on how UX writers’ decisions about which words to leave and which to throw away are sometimes hindered by our emotions, surroundings, and other people.

So this is my personal take on 3 different cases when my brain sabotaged my text. These cases are about:

  1. The emotional investment that blinds better judgment.
  2. Dangerous overconfidence because of the amassed experience.
  3. Panicky bad decisions made under pressure.

I explain some of our errors with neuroscience and psychology research (actual research, not ChatGPT) and discuss self-tested ways of preventing bad UX writing decisions.

The Happy Happy Happy (3H) effect

happy cat dancing
Happy Happy Happy via Tenor

Named after the meme, it’s a situation when a UX writer is overwhelmed with happiness and excitement after producing a piece of copy (especially during brainstorming sessions) that they think is:

  • amazing
  • genius
  • witty
  • so user-centric that it might not even need finishing touches
  • as good as it gets

What your brain says…

You are simply delighted you’ve come up with the text that you think meets user needs very accurately; you show it to your colleagues, and… they agree. This piece you’ve created (and in such a short time, too) is great.

…vs the reality

The next day, you think—who wrote this?

It can be rephrased so much better. Where’s the frontloading? Why haven’t I considered the translations/space ratio?

Confirmation bias appears.

*Experienced writers sigh here*. One priest (yeah, you read right) explained it to me thusly— You cannot see the sun with your thumb in your eye.” Confirmation bias happens when you unconsciously interpret the text to match your perception instead of the user’s.

Unfortunately, because you love your work, this bias is even more concentrated because of a feeling of euphoria in the creation process.

It’s also very unfortunate that your colleagues who are not UX writers trust your judgment, and are likely to agree with you more often than not.

Emotional investment makes self-critique difficult.

Neuroscientists say that an emotion is a “double-edged sword” that can either enhance or hinder various aspects of our cognition and behavior. This means that being emotionally invested in the text often results in poor self-critique ability.

The Ogilvy syndrome

This image is a motivational poster featuring David Ogilvy, a well-known figure in advertising. On the left side of the image, there is a black and white photo of David Ogilvy seated, dressed in a suit and tie, looking towards the camera with his hands clasped. On the right side, against a white background with a torn paper effect on the left edge, there’s a quote in large, bold, black font that reads “The best IDEAS come as JOKES”. Below the quote, in smaller letters, is the name David Ogilvy,
“The best ideas come as jokes” quote by David Ogilvy

Ogilvy is an advertisement agency that has little need for an introduction. They’re considered to have the best creative writers and to produce the best-selling texts. Ogilvy is a synonym for a demi-god.

What your brain says…

“I know what’s best. Don’t even question my expertise.”

Sometimes, this happens to my more experienced colleagues— they see my text and rewrite it with minimal or no explanation. Last week, I became possessed by Ogilvy, too. I critiqued harshly the “about it” in the title of “What Did You Like Most About It?” and forgot it was me who wrote “about it” in the first place. Very embarrassing.

…vs the reality

This is what psychologists call the “curse of knowledge.” It’s a psychological phenomenon that “occurs when an individual’s knowledge influences their ability to reason about what others know, leading to misjudgments about the commonality of that knowledge among peers.”

To put it simply (but impolitely):

You unconsciously despise reasoning with a less informed person.

It’s challenging to imagine what it’s like not to know something, so it’s easy to jump into an “Ogilvy suit” to just say: “Trust me, I’m an expert. I know how it works”. Which is insane, because:

  • Neglect of other team members’ opinions narrows your perception.
  • No one likes arrogance in a professional setting.
  • UX writers only work effectively in collaboration with others.

The Ogilvy syndrome goes beyond confirmation bias. It’s simply rude.

The Titanic move

Titanic via Giphy.com

The most hilarious one and the one you will regret the most — text written under pressure. Whether you:

  • received an especially nasty comment from a HiPPO about your copy and now have to rewrite it
  • got last-minute instructions that significantly change the flow of what you’ve written so far
  • overworked yourself on the previous task and now have 0 inspiration for the current one (yes, we need to use the word inspiration here as I truly believe the craft of UX writing is on par with fiction writing)

… you’re in danger of making the Titanic move.

What your brain says…

(doesn’t say anything really as you’re too stressed for complete sentences)

…vs the reality

The Titanic move is about straining and failing to see the “iceberg” (bad copy or not the most optimal copy).

Fight or flight, not write.

Under enormous stress, the brain’s amygdala (the emotion center) kicks into overdrive — the fight-or-flight scenario. These are not suitable conditions for the creative process. Although neuroscience showed that constraint helps creativity, I don’t think it works in situations in which we’re being constrained by fear and other negative emotions.

As a result, our capacity for thoughtful decision-making takes a nosedive, and we’re left with the bare bones of survival mode — hardly the space where great UX writing thrives.

Lessons from 3H, Ogilvy, and Titanic

I hope this story has at least entertained you so far. But I also want to provide some takeaways from personal experience that might be beneficial for fighting bad UX writing despite the stress or joy:

  1. Nothing stays perfect. Yay, here is good news — with time, everything needs to be renewed (that’s why wise companies hire UX writers permanently and not for a “phase” of a project). So whatever you write now will need to be redone anyway at some point. You’re not carving Venus de Milo — you don’t risk losing her arms forever.
  2. You’re not special. However damming and sad it might sound, knowing that you’re no more gifted or smarter than any other person in the room makes you want to hear them out. It doesn’t matter if you are talented — forget about comparisons when collaborating on a project. Focus on the project, not the persons who work with you.
  3. Always revise. Duh!
  4. Admit your mistakes when you notice them. It’s a hallmark of professionalism and growth. Owning up to errors builds trust and credibility with your team, reinforcing a culture of transparency.

And, most importantly, remember that learning from your mistakes is good… but it’s even better to learn from someone else’s.

happy cat dancing

3 Ways Brain Sabotages Your Copy was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.