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December 19, 2019
UX words, terms and concepts in plain English: A glossary

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The first time I was asked to write some copy for a widget, by my colleague Sophia*, I had no idea what she was asking.

“Hey Susan, can you get that widget copy over to me within the hour?” she pinged me.

“Oh yeah, totally. I’m on it.” I messaged back.

Shit. What’s a widget? I thought.

I looked around at the 100 or so people busy at work and freaked out a bit.

What if one of them saw me Google “What’s a widget?”

They all knew, surely, but I couldn’t ask them. I was the copywriter for crying out loud.

I surreptitiously typed in my query. This was the result:

Just fantastic, I was no closer to knowing what I was meant to write.

I wish I’d had Keywords Everywhere installed at the time. If I had, I would have felt less alone. 140 people are searching for this very same query a month.

Swallowing my pride, I walked over to Sophia’s desk and whispered, “Um, what’s a widget and what copy do you need exactly?”

The look she gave me. Half compassion, half who-the-fuck-hired-you. I could’ve died. 

But luckily for you, I didn’t. Because I can now create this amazing resource for you.

NOT knowing all the industry jargon should never be a reason for you not to take a potentially lucrative job. You’ll never work again.

When I started “UX writing” I didn’t know what it was, it didn’t have that name yet.

I also didn’t know what “digital products” were, but I was helping design them.⁠

A lot of new terms have come into our lexicon over the past decade and if you’re new to UX writing, it can be intimidating AF.⁠

I know, because I’ve been there.⁠

Ready to get stuck in?

The basics

UX (user experience): Just as the name suggests, this is the process that creates meaningful experiences for the users of a digital product.

UI (user interface): These are the screens users interact with to use the products. Buttons, headers, forms, icons, and more all make up the UI of a product.

Digital products

Digital products: We’re talking mostly about apps and websites. Now don’t be fooled into thinking apps are mobile-only, there are also web versions that people use on their desktop or laptop computer. Similarly, websites can be used on mobile.

Website: As a general rule of thumb, this is the domain of a traditional copywriter. Its primary function is to provide the user with information. That’s the content you’ve been busy writing in your copywriting career.

Web apps: Apps don’t just exist on your phone, they come in desktop versions as well. This can often cause confusion to the newly initiated. Designed for someone to complete specific functions. All copy here is designed to help someone perform a specific task.


UX writing: The words you see on any digital product. The main goal is to guide the user through the process towards an end goal.

Copywriting: Writing for marketing materials like brochures, websites, sale pages, social media, billboards, advertising intended to sell products, digital or otherwise.

Dive deeper into the differences between UX writing vs copywriting.

Product teams

Product teams: The groups of people who work together to build products.

User: The person who is interacting with the digital product on a phone, tablet or computer. Also sometimes referred to as the “end-user”. (Just don’t ever refer to them as “users” within your copy.)

UX writer: The person who writes most of the words you see on any digital product. Their main goal is to guide the user through the process towards an end goal. They may also be responsible for aspects of the UX strategy such as information architecture, taxonomies, metadata, or content strategy.

Product Managers (PMs): These are the big-picture thinkers. They are responsible for the delivery of the feature or product you are working on. Business goals are important to them. 

UX designers: You’re essentially part of the UX design team. A UX designer works alongside you (the UX writer) figuring out how the product should function. Their goals should align completely with yours.

UI designers: The UI designer looks after the visual side of things. They’re responsible for designing components that work harmoniously across the entire product.

Front-end developers/engineers: These are the folks who code what you see, also often referred to as the user interface (UI). A common question you might ask a front-end developer: “Can we create a drop-down menu here?” 

Back-end developers/engineers: This are the people responsible for information (like numbers or someone’s name) that’s stored behind the scenes of a product, like in databases and servers. A common question you might ask a back-end developer: “Can I pull that number from the back end?”

Digital product components

Button: Pressing a digital button, much like pressing a physical button, will lead the user through to the next step in the process. They contain a label called a CTA. (See below)

Form: A function that requests users’ personal information for a specific purpose.

Form field: The areas of a form where a user can input their data (e.g. name, address, credit card details) either by typing or selecting an option.

Tooltip: Little helpful messages that pop up when a user hovers over a small icon.

Empty state: Think of an empty box, it’s the same thing. Essentially it’s part of the product that should have something in there (messages, contacts, images, badges, wishlist items etc), but doesn’t yet.

Modal: A small box that can appear when a user taps a CTA, requesting another action to be taken before the original action is processed. For example, it may ask the user to confirm that they want to proceed despite not filling in certain information.

Progress bar: Shows how far along the user is in completing a process. You commonly see these during the payment/check-out process.

Breadcrumb: The type of navigation usually found at the top of a website that helps the user understand where they are on the site.

UX copy

Microcopy: So this is where it gets tricky. Microcopy is any small piece of copy. This is traditionally thought of as the realm of UX writing for digital products (such as labels or tooltips), but can also appear in copywriting for marketing websites (such as CTAs, confirmation messages etc).

Variable: This is a dynamic field in UX copy that pulls information from a backend database. A common example is a number: “You have 3 items in your cart”. The number 3 here is the variable and it will change depending on how many things you add or remove.

Now in this example (in English) you can also see that when there is 1 item in the cart the word item also has to change from plural to singular. Variables can be a total pain but also vastly improve the UX.

CTA (Call-to-action): A short command for your users to do something, usually appearing on a button.

Information Architecture (IA): Just think of a blueprint in actual architecture, IA is the structure of all your content. To say it’s important is an understatement. If you get this bit wrong, it’ll be very hard to navigate your product.

Style guide: This is a tool that helps brands maintain a consistent tone and voice across all their published content, whether that’s internal or external. It covers more abstract things like brand voice and tone, right down to small things like oxford commas and capitalisation in titles.

Taxonomy: This has nothing to do with dead stuffed animals. Instead, it refers to the way things can be grouped together. Take an online clothes shop, for example. You usually see things first sorted into 3 groups: mens, womens, and kids. From there you may also be able to sort by things like price, designer, colour, size etc. These are all taxonomies.

Metadata: The descriptions for data that makes it easy for users to find what they want. For example, have you ever looked for a photo your know you downloaded but can’t remember when. If the file name looking something like this 1287XXX567OIU.jpg it would be pretty hard to find. 

Now imagine you work for an online catalogue of millions of photos and someone wants to find a picture of someone eating an ice cream cone in the 1920s. If that photo (the data) has short labels attached to it such as a date and subject, it’s going to be a lot easier to find.

User story: This is an essential UX writing tool. Like the name suggests it’s a brief story that gives context to the copy you’re writing. Once the copy has been defined in the original language it’s then forwarded on to the localisation teams (see below) so they have the context required.

Design process

UX research: This is the process of finding out opportunities for your product to improve. There are many, many ways to get insights into how your users interact with your product. UX writers then use this data to make recommendations to improve the experience.

Wireframe: These are simple drawings of how the user interface (UI) might look. They are quick and easy prototypes that look like a series of boxes, lines and labels.

Fidelity (Low/High): Refers to how polished a design is. Usually referred to on a scale of low to high. Low-fidelity being early sketches (see wireframes) and high-fidelity being almost complete renditions.

Heatmap: A research tool that shows where users are spending the most amount of time on the interface. With red representing the most popular areas fading down to blue representing the most neglected areas.

Internationalisation (i18n): Making your product suitable for localisation at scale through engineering and design.

Localisation (L10n): This is the process of transforming your copy into other languages. It goes beyond translating and takes into account the messaging, strategy and other technical requirements of the copy.

A/B testing: Also known as split testing, this is how you can accurately see which version of your copy is most effective. To test accurately the two or more variants should be significantly different while everything else about the experience remains the same.

And finally, the one you’ve all been waiting for …

Widget: A mini-program, like a really simple app. It draws information dynamically and usually only performs one function. Like showing the weather for example.

We’ve only just begun …

This is really just the beginning and I’ll continue to add to this list over time. Get in touch if you think there’s something that needs to be added or if there’s anything you’re unclear about.

Want to know more about the difference between copywriting and UX writing? Get the goods here.

Ps. I used the below sources to fact check and reference this post (they are not affiliates). However, I chose these articles because they aligned with my experience. Terms do tend to vary depending on what country you’re in (in Australia I’ve noticed developers often get called engineers, for example), so I’d love to hear any different terms you’ve come across in your career.


*Not her real name, but I do wish I knew more Sophias. 

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