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Can we talk about this UX writing thing?

uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design — Medium | Christina Bruce

Not all design teams are talking about it. Maybe we should be.

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

If you work in design, you have probably noticed the tide of ‘UX writing’ jobs in the last couple of years. Google, Dropbox, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Facebook (their term is ‘content strategist’)…the list goes on.

Every tech giant on the planet is hiring, and it’s been that way for a while. There’s been lots written about this over the last year or two that effectively answers the question “So what is it?

That’s not what this is about.

This is about the rest of us. The people, and teams, on the other side. Those that work for companies like banks, telcos, consumer products, retailers, the government.

Places where the skillset is crucial, but nobody is really talking about it. It’s not technically a job.

What should designers think?

How can we make it work?

But we have a writer!

Marketing vs. Product — why it’s different

Content can mean anything. In the business world is most often used to describe marketing materials: copy for campaign pages, content marketing blogs, videos, white papers, social media, editorial content, and so on. If you have worked as a copywriter long enough, at some point or another you’ve probably done it all.

UX-driven product writing is NOT marketing copy. I’m talking about interface content. Interaction flows, native apps, product tours, self-serve dashboards, error states, notifications, menus, navigational elements, labels, buttons, links, chatbots….you know, all the little parts of digital product design that have words. And they matter. The shift in the industry is proof of that.

The thought process for these kinds of things is different. If the person providing copy for these interactions doesn’t have a very solid understanding of UX, or doesn’t take the time to think about how and why a system behaves in the way it does, the end result will fall flat.

Trust me, there is nothing more humbling than going through user testing and watching the words you thought were infinitely clear go right over somebody’s head.

Or not get seen at all.

Or not even address the right use case.

Writers are communicators. We like to think that’s our forte. Not always that simple.

There is not a business on the planet without some sort of interactive experience or transaction. All of it requires language to communicate with users. This is, de facto, ‘UX Writing’, and it’s nothing new. It makes sense that large tech companies can specifically build teams dedicated to this intersection of technology and communication and design.

OK…so what about the rest of us?

I’m Canadian. There aren’t a lot of ‘UX writing’ teams around yet. But there are experiences, and products, and they all need copy. So companies hire copywriters. I’ve been this person for a long time.

There are a few major problems I see pretty consistently…

1. Writers aren’t taught the right things

One of the first things you learn as a copywriter is that insights and ideas are your currency. It’s still a paramount principle for product.

There’s also a lot more to it.

In retrospect, I was ill-equipped when I first started working with product teams 8 years ago. I would attend daily scrums and nod politely, then head back to my desk and quietly Google whatever had just been discussed. I armed myself with knowledge, devouring books and blogs about usability, interaction design, and e-commerce. I took a copywriting job with a UX team for a huge telco. Every design review, every critique, every round of user testing, every iteration: all of it was beneficial.

Most writers aren’t taught this stuff. That’s a huge miss.

2. Content means everything

Being the token “word person” often means there is a mountain of writing-related work that lands on your plate. I spend a lot of time doing things that have nothing at all to do with copywriting or experiences or products. It’s inevitable. I don’t mind to a point.

But too much noise dulls creativity.

I see it happen all the time. Nobody pushes for better. Standards get low.

3. Language comes last

I’m very used to receiving a design or product that’s done with a request to “do the copy” or “make it sound better.” This is normal.

Of course you can take control of your own work, front-ending yourself in the right projects, building relationships, proving your value. As one person, it only takes you so far.

It’s infinitely easier as part of a design team, or when writers and designers have the same creative lead. Sounds obvious, but it’s not always the way things are done.

For reasons that are political, or process-driven, or personality clashes, or simply due to a lack of resources, content is an afterthought.

For the record, I am aware of my own cognitive bias. This is just what I’ve experienced and heard from others in my network. I’m sure tech companies or start-ups are very different. (C’mon, tell me how awesome it is where you work!)

Why should designers care?

Don’t get me wrong — a seasoned pro can always find their way around the challenges and make it work. Not everyone can.

Like it or not, that has an impact on your design work.

I’m not sure the current model is sustainable.

I will now use the phrase digital transformation in a sentence…

There is a lot riding on the digital experience. A recent McKinsey study noted “for every 10-percentage-point uptick in customer satisfaction, any company … can increase revenues by 2 to 3 percent.” Products that make sense have a lot to do with customer satisfaction.

It’s an exciting time. The corporate world has finally come to a place where everyone acknowledges the importance of non-sucky, user-centric digital experiences.

It’s a big deal for those of us working on websites or products, frustrated with broken or confusing experiences that could never be fixed. We KNOW how much it pisses customers off. I have been asked for magic unicorn copy more times than I care to remember.

Better experience = happy customers = cha ching!

This all leads me to the word du jour, Experience Design. If you have been in this industry long enough, you’ve likely had many job titles that all mean the same thing. So it’s easy to take something as a trend and not think too much about it. But there’s something to be said for this one. Because when you break it down, we’ve really moved beyond visual design, interaction design, usability, or content, or any of the other parts. There’s just no way to separate things as a single line item.

But businesses do this. STILL.

They parse responsibilities and send projects down the assembly line, trying to create a cohesive experience. It almost never works. And if you’re the one at the end of that chain (Hi writers!) it can become painful to put the icing on an over-baked cake time and time again.

Here’s my theory…

The only way words will ever matter is if designers are taught to think about them.

Yes, that’s right guys. It has to come from you.

Most design jobs these days are hybrid roles that are equal parts UX/UI. While people tend to have pretty strong opinions about the generalist/specialist thing, this one is now the overwhelming majority. This is where I hope the industry swings when it comes to content. Some kind of a hybrid role. Something that stretches much further than ‘content strategist’, because that is an eternally misunderstood term.

It’s the only way I see things progressing. Writing will need to combine with all of the other pieces of that puzzle to become an essential part of design. Not just the icing. Or at least one of the many different skill-sets that’s considered an asset. Like research, or coding, or visual design, or whatever else a particular role requires.

We’re not there yet. Not even close. I recently read an article that did an analysis of UX job postings and the skills that employers were looking for in 2017. Not a single one mentioned writing.

Really?

We are in the age of chatbots and AI and voice prototyping. Interfaces communicate with words. Language matters.

Designers should write. Or at a minimum think about it more critically and find someone who can. In the same way I understand design patterns, or know what a design system is and why a company would want one, everyone should have some kind of an idea about language. Know what the active voice is and why that works better for an app notification. Think about how tone and voice contribute to a product.

Even if you can’t execute it, you should understand it.

For writers, it’s extremely worthwhile to work with design software and create flows, or wireframes, or solution things visually in a way that is not your default. Because exercising those design muscles makes you a better writer. It gives you a holistic view of creating an experience that you’ll simply never get by opening up a word document.

Shouldn’t we all be taking a more holistic view?

Let’s raise the standards for everyone

Content-first design is not a new concept whatsoever but it’s gaining steam. Google talked about it at the 2017 I/O conference (a worthwhile watch if you have time to spare.) A blog from Adobe called it the top trend for 2018.

In theory we should always know the story we want to tell and design for that narrative. In the real world we all know how tough that can be. There isn’t a designer on the planet that hasn’t resorted to throwing 2 lines of lorem ipsum on a screen, crossing their fingers that copy can work it out.

I get it.

Campaign page, campaign page, campaign page, campaign page, question meaning of life, campaign page.

It’s a soul-sucking cycle and we have all been there.

We just all need to do better. Especially when it comes to product.

For me, starting to actually execute UX or design deliverables was the start of a shift that had been a long time coming. I already know my next job will be in UX because the work I want to do will always be in that world. Anything else is a step backwards. I’m not the first writer to come to this conclusion.

Knowing how to use Photoshop, or Axure, or Sketch, or Invision, or any other tool does not make you a designer. It’s about understanding users, and the experience, and looking for insights. Taking a step back and not just looking at how we might say something, but how it works, and what it looks like, and all the parts that go together. That’s the sweet spot that keeps things interesting. At least for me.

Once you land in that headspace it’s hard to go back to campaign pages.

The struggle is real.

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Can we talk about this UX writing thing? was originally published in uxdesign.cc on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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