It feels like there’s a new flashy job title every year to keep up within the technology industry, and UX writing is no exception. But, in the case of UX Writing, it’s more than a trend: writers are finally getting a seat at the design table, and that’s an important distinction to make.
There’s an important distinction between traditional copy-writing roles and where a UX writer sits on a team, as well as what they actually do in their role. I saw a thread kicking around about this being commonly misunderstood, which can lead to painful misunderstandings in the space without clarity.
Your first job, always, is to write user-centered content. If it's not helping someone understand something, use something, learn something–if its sole function is to "express the brand", you have likely erred. Doesn't mean you can't have fun, or add delight, but it's secondary.— Scott Kubie (@scottkubie) February 28, 2019
As an external UX writer, I get a peek into this at all stages of companies, which helps understand where the need truly lies. Here’s a breakdown of where UX writers sit in an organization, and how they’re different:
It’s all about the user
Lots of writing is guesswork. UX Writing shouldn’t be. Your job as a UX writer is to understand the user personas that an app needs to hit on, then write copy that best serves that audience.
That usually means doing research into what types of users a product has, what their literacy level might be, their age, and all sorts of variables along these lines. This is absolutely necessary to understand what they want and what’s causing the most friction right now, and helps us get to the right solution much faster.
You can’t write great copy without data (even if it’s just a little). But, most writers do! I’ll often work with a new client and ask for access to their analytics or user demographics, and they’re surprised: why would I need that? Well, otherwise I don’t understand the user.
If there’s no data, we can go one further: talking to your users. This could be direct, in the form of user research interviews if there’s time, or a simple survey asking questions about their intent, whether they find anything confusing about the product today, and what their background is.
As the UX Writer, my job is to think only from the perspective of the user. How will they experience this? What do we want them to take away from this screen? What is the user trying to get done, and what are we trying to push them to do? Are those in harmony? It’s our job to balance these priorities effectively.
It isn’t about your ego
One of the common misnomers about UX writing as a process is that the copy at the end should have more ‘sparkle’ or ‘polish.’ We aren’t here to make your copy funny, or have more personality.
UX Writing is here to get out of the way and make the experience clearer. It’s an incredibly focused, specific role because we’re working to helping the user get to where they want to be, so it drops all pretenses, unnecessary charm and fancy marketing copy.
If you’re looking for a voice or quirky marketing copy shoehorned into your product, you’re going to be disappointed. Your users don’t want that either—it’s probably just going to piss them off because they just want to get shit done.
It’s totally fine to be friendly and try to have a personality. Just don’t over do it, and end up using humor as a crutch for good copy.
We’re not here to convert
If we are, you missed the UX part of the role, and are confusing the job for a copywriter. A UX Writer may possess some of the skills required to do marketing copywriting, but that isn’t why we’re here, and that’s a whole job on its own.
Don’t confuse the two or try and fill a role for a ‘unicorn’ UX Writer who does both on the same project, because you’ll quickly discover that when the lines end up too blurry, it’s just selling all the time, even in your app. If you’re hiring for a UX Writer, keep it simple, and focused: they might have both sets of skills, but muddying the water makes it difficult to do an effective job.
The disciplines are separate for a reason: once your users have signed up, they don’t want to be sold to anymore! They’ve already cleared the hurdle of signing up — you’ve got their attention — so selling even harder can come across as desperate.
Copywriters are practicing the ‘Always Be Converting’ discipline, but we’re here to ‘Always Be Clear’ (or, perhaps, Always Be Concise). We want to keep users and have them understand how to use your product, not push them away.
This is about more than just words
UX Writing often goes beyond just the words and microcopy in your app that you see. It can easily encompass complex tasks like direct feedback on the layout of the signup flow, placement of buttons or even a redesign of a page.
That’s why it’s useful to include UX Writers at the start of a design sprint, and why we’re sitting at the table with the designers rather than the marketing team. UX Writing is about using copy as a design material that adds to the user’s experience, adding the words as a consideration to the design process. Adding UX Writing in at the very start helps make it easier, just like you wouldn’t write the ending for a book before the first chapter.
Working on UX copy early makes life easier simply because the process of solving UX writing problems often reveals design problems as a side effect, which can be addressed at the same time.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do a UX Writing project at a later phase, and shouldn’t scare you off doing so. I’ve personally enjoyed jumping into existing products and performing retrospective UX Writing work, but it’s harder: the design is already in place, the flow is much more rigid.
Often, I’ll be making suggestions about the UX surrounding the words that could be improved or ways the flow might work better, but at later phases, this is much harder to implement.
Building better products requires caring about the words you use. UX Writing isn’t just another fluffy job title that’ll disappear with time, because the words you use tell your own story.
Invest in your product’s words, and you’ll find your users love you for it: you’ll show that you’ve taken the time to smooth out the rough edges and build something with them in mind.
Go forth, and be concise.