Empty states, also known as zero states, are moments in the user experience when we don’t have specific info or data to show.
Empty states are a bit like this: Imagine you’re driving. You see a “Road closed” sign in the near distance. You pull over wondering what to do next. Looking around, you don’t see a detour sign anywhere, and your GPS isn’t suggesting alternative routes. In this situation, guidance telling you where to go would help you reach your destination.
Similarly, we use empty states to orient people in both familiar and unfamiliar spaces and build trust and confidence. When the moment is right, we can even use them to celebrate our users and their accomplishments or add a dash of delight.
An empty state can happen in these situations:
Someone hasn’t tried out a feature or product yet, either because they’re new or still exploring.
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Clear writing can make even an unfamiliar space feel familiar. Empty states should explain in plain language what’s happened and what, if anything, someone can do to move forward. As always, try to avoid technical language.
In first-time use scenarios, try to be specific about what info or data will appear after the first use so the benefits and functionality of the product or feature are clear.
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Empty states should help people achieve their goals rather than making them feel lost. Helpful content also goes a long way in building and maintaining trust with our audience.
When you can, use a positive tone in empty state messages. Encouraging content might be all it takes to motivate someone to keep trying. Someone who feels supported in an experience will feel more comfortable exploring as they’ll be more confident in their skills.
Avoid shaming or blaming if someone reaches a dead end or hasn’t tried something out yet.
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Keep it brief
Get to the point quickly and cut out irrelevant details and extraneous words so people can get on with their day. Empower people to act quickly by providing just enough info to explain what’s happening and how to move forward. For more, see our guidelines on writing small.
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Empty state content should encourage people to act, whether that means trying out a new feature or doing something differently with an existing one. In the end, we want to help people achieve what they came here to do.
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Know when to delight
Empty states can be an excellent opportunity to celebrate our users when they achieve their goals, establish a stronger connection with the brand persona, or turn an otherwise disappointing moment into an encouraging and lighthearted one.
Use your best judgment in deciding when to delight. For example, with frequently recurring empty states, it might make sense to lean on brevity and clarity over delight. Repeated exposure to the same message may result in “delightful” content becoming irritating over time. However, when someone has achieved a goal and the message is primarily celebratory, it might make sense to lean on delight.
For more info on when to delight, check out our celebrations guidance.
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What to include
Make sure your headline is clear, brief, and includes the most important info. This way, the user can get the gist of the entire message, even if they don’t read anything else.
If you can do this in one line, even better.
- Upload your first report
- Organize your money
- Let’s create your first invoice
- We couldn’t find anything matching that search criteria
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- You’re all caught up!
- You’re all done with invoice tasks
If you need more room to explain in addition to the headline or CTA, write a brief body message. Elaborate on the headline and tell someone how to move forward. If the headline tells the user everything they need to know, there’s no need for a body message.
- Expand on—but don’t repeat—the headline message.
- Describe the benefits of the product or feature.
- Here’s your custom list of categories for organizing expenses, income, and more.
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Call to action (CTA)
Tell the user what they can do next. Advise them on how they can populate a data table in the future, or suggest another task they could be catching up on. There can be up to two CTAs: primary and secondary. CTAs are usually buttons, but they can also be links—use your best judgment when deciding which fits better in your experience. For more on CTAs, check out our actions guidance.
The primary CTA is the most important action you want the person to take.
- Upload invoice
- Connect bank account
- Start new search
- Add customer
Secondary CTAs are less important actions.
- Find out more
Putting it all together
Let’s see what a completed empty state message could look like.
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