How regulated UX copywriting habits can make user experience worse

One thing that unites industries like financial services, healthcare and technology is the tight regulation that dictates how they run. Regulation plays a role in everything from how the products and services within these industries are made, to the words businesses are allowed to use when they’re talking about them.

We could write an entire thesis on how this can stifle creativity but, what’s more important is that limiting the copy that regulated companies publish can have a negative impact on users and ultimately, this can worsen their experience with a brand. There is often a trade-off between serving the user well, and sticking to rules. It’s ironic, but the regulations that have been designed to protect consumers often end up making their interactions with businesses worse.

As a UX professional in a regulated industry, it’s worth being aware of how technical constraints can impact your copy to ensure that you’re only making unfavourable UX decisions when you need to, rather than doing so habitually.

Legal documents

Most regulated companies are required to include some form of legal copy in their products. Their websites will typically include various licensing agreements, terms and conditions, product exclusions, and so on. This is normally presented in the form of a long piece of copy tacked on at the bottom of a page that’s riddled with jargon, and is nearly impossible for most users to understand. Legal documentation is – by necessity – not user friendly. It’s lawyer friendly.

Since there are such stringent rules attached to this particular content, a lot of the time it will be written by legal and compliance teams and put onto the page without any input from the UX copywriters. Aside from the fact that most users will just ignore this copy because it’s not digestible, simply having it on the page can really impact the appearance and experience of a product. No matter how sleek and user-friendly a screen is, an entire section of unreadable content will more than likely impact the user’s experience.

Tone of voice

Tone of voice is a buzz phrase that you can’t escape in the UX world. Every company has one, whether it’s been formulated intentionally or not, and regulated companies typically adopt the least inviting tone of voice of the companies we encounter as consumers. Regulated companies will often take on a “professional-sounding” or “corporate” tone of voice in order to remain within what they perceive the parameters to be, and to make sure that consumers “take them seriously” within their industry.

However, we’re living in a time when consumers have more choice than ever, and can access products and services globally. What tends to happen is that the companies who’ve sacrificed speaking to their users as people rather than robots, in order to appear more professional or trustworthy, miss out on the opportunity to build a relationship with them. The outcome is most often that users don’t enjoy using these types of products or services, and are quick to find alternatives.

Use of passive voice 

One of the UX rules of thumb is to use the active voice as much as possible, and while there are always scenarios where the passive voice is the better option, some regulated companies, particularly within financial services, use red tape as an excuse for not being direct with their users. Communicating clearly with your users is a key element to creating trust, which is one of the building blocks of any good customer retention strategy.

In scenarios where regulation requires a company to make conservative commitments to their customers, or to ensure that they’re not encouraging them to make irresponsible decisions (for example, to purchase multiple loans or open overdrafts they can’t pay back), using the passive voice is arguably necessary, but it’s never prerferable. But don’t get comfortable with speaking to your users from the passenger seat.

The active voice means that you’re guiding users through their journey, rather than expecting them to make all the decisions. Explaining exactly what will happen with a positive statements (“we will charge you”) is almost always better than passively speculating (“a fee will be charged”).

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