UX Writing Essentials: Headlines

Key points – Headlines summarise important information and encourage users to take action. Ideally, headlines are simple and short, address users directly and offer a good reason to act.

Headlines in different situations

As a UX writer, you'll encounter headlines in all shapes and forms. Maybe today it's a headline for a blog article. Tomorrow, a series of headings in an onboarding flow. Then a pop-up message, an email subject line and a couple of push notifications.

Now, you wouldn’t necessarily call all of those “headlines". But they all serve a similar purpose and follow similar mechanics. If you’re summarising important information and you want users to act on it, you’re dealing with a headline – at least in a UX writing context. So, for simplicity's sake, let’s use “headlines" as an umbrella term and find out how they work.

I usually start with these two high-level thoughts:

  1. Get to the point
  2. Make it engaging

Let’s explore what that means and how it works.

1. Get to the point

Great headlines condense important information into very few words. Have a look at these historical newspaper headlines:

Why are these headlines so effective? Obviously, they describe major events that shaped the course of history. But they're also successful from a writing perspective, because:

They’re short

Like, really short. They condense important stories into the smallest amount of words possible. The third headline (“Nixon Resigns") literally consists of just two words.

They’re simple

These headlines use simple sentences and simple words. And simplicity is great, because it lets you reach a wider audience. On average, it takes a second-grade reading level to understand all three headlines (you can check the readability with a tool like WebFX's Readability Test).

They clarify

Because these headlines are short and simple, they can tell big stories with great clarity. Even if you’re hurrying past the newsstand (let’s imagine it’s 1975 for a second), briefly glancing at the newspapers, you’ll know exactly what has happened.

They summarise

Good headlines summarise complex information effectively. Take, for example, the second headline ("Ford to City: Drop Dead"): in 1975, US President Gerald Ford gave a speech denying federal assistance to spare New York City from bankruptcy. He didn’t actually say “Drop dead" – but it’s an effective way of summing up what his speech meant to the city.

Let's put this into practice

Say you’re writing a headline for a new photo-sharing app called “PhotoSnapper". Start by writing down what you want to say. Everything you want to say. Don’t think about length, grammar or style at this point. Just make sure that all the important information is on the page.

Then, start editing. Let’s say you’re starting with this:

PhotoSnapper is a new app that lets you snap, upload and share your photos with friends, family and people around the world.

Focus on the user

In general, try not to focus too much on how great a product is. Instead, show what users can do with it. This way, you're not just advertising a product – you're putting users into the centre of your communication.

PhotoSnapper is a new app that lets you snap, upload and share your photos with friends, family and people around the world.

Highlight the key benefit

What's the single best thing your product does? How does it make users' lives easier, better or more enjoyable? Sometimes it helps to strip out any secondary or less important features from your copy. In our example, we're focusing on the "sharing" feature.

PhotoSnapper is a new app that lets you snap, upload and share your photos with friends, family and people around the world.

Summarise

Look for other opportunities to summarise. Just like you don’t have to talk about every single product feature in your headline, you don't have to mention different user groups.

PhotoSnapper is a new app that lets you snap, upload and share your photos with friends, family and people around the world.

Make it simple and direct

Here’s our new, shorter and more engaging headline. Note the simple language and how we're addressing users directly (more on that in the next section).

PhotoSnapper. Share your photos with the world.

2. Make it engaging

We’ve discussed how to write short and clear headlines. But in UX writing, headlines also have to be actionable. They don’t just describe something, they encourage users to do something. So how can we achieve this in our headlines? Here's a simple example – asking users to sign up to a newsletter:

Headline in a pop-up message

Talk directly to the user

A good starting point is to imagine that you’re having a conversation with your users. One way to achieve this is by addressing users directly and by leading with a verb. In the example above, “Subscribe" serves this purpose.

In that same spirit of having a conversation, don’t refer to yourself or your organisation in the third person. Instead of writing, for example, “Subscribe to PhotoSnapper’s newsletter", write “Subscribe to our newsletter".

Headlines and CTAs

In many cases, headlines will be paired with CTAs. Of course there’s usually other content between the two, but you should pay attention to the relation between a headline and the CTA. Many users only read the headline and then skip right to the CTA. That’s why it's often a good idea to mirror your headline's lead verb in your CTA:

Headline and CTA relationship in a pop-up message

Lead with a benefit

You can also front-load your headline with a user benefit. Often, it's not enough to ask users to do something without offering anything in return. So let's give it a try:

Headline and body copy duplication in a pop-up message

There are, however, two downsides: one, the first line of the body copy is just a repetition of the headline. And two, the connection between the headline and CTA doesn’t work anymore.

Summarise (again)

So how can we create a headline that still leads with a benefit, but is succinct and encourages the user to take action? By summarising: instead of saying “Save 50% on your next purchase", we’ll just say, “Save big". This gives us enough space to add the action we want the user to take back in:

Succinct and engaging headline in a pop-up message

Headlines and user flows

In UX writing, a headline is often part of a larger flow. While the example above is a single pop-up, you’ll often write headlines for sign-up, onboarding or payment flows.

That means you can spread the information in your headlines across multiple screens. Ask yourself: what does the user need to know at each point of the flow?

Let’s have a look at an example. We’re designing an onboarding flow for our imaginary app “PhotoSnapper". On a high level, the structure looks like this:

A simple onboarding flow

The “Introduction" headline could just be the one we’ve already written: “PhotoSnapper. Share your photos with the world." – a short, punchy summary of what the user can do with the app.

In “Feature highlights", we can go into a bit more detail. For example, we could say, “Take brilliant photos" on the first screen and “Easily share photos on your favourite social networks" on the second.

Not the most exciting features, I know, but we’re just talking about the structure of the flow here. Get users interested with your first headlines, explain your product’s top features on the following screens, and, in the “Sign up" section, give them a reason to take action.

This reason can be all kinds of things, whether it’s something intangible (“Join over 1m inspiring creators") or something that has monetary value (“30-day free trial"), make sure it fits your product story and resonates with your audience.

There are no shortcuts

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to a great headline. You’ll probably write dozens of them before you find one or two you’re happy with. Look at your product from different angles, try different stylistic devices, discuss with your team, test your headlines. Do whatever helps you get there, but don't give up: it can be surprisingly complicated to write a simple headline.