Design & UX
Article

Why Don’t You Have a Writer in Your UX Team?

By Georgina Laidlaw
Person in subways holding 'Will write for food' sign.

photo: itsmeritesh

At the UX Australia Redux conference in Melbourne this week, I was struck by the dearth of writers.

Of those who identified themselves at the beginning of the UX Careers session, there were designers, business analysts, UX practitioners, project managers, developers… but barely a handful of writers in UX.

To be fair, this was the first conference an employer had ever seen value in sending me to, and I’ve spent 15 years as a digital writer. Perhaps writers were traditionally less self-organizing than those in other disciplines (there are plenty of content-related conferences now, but earlier? Not so much). Or perhaps writing isn’t valued as highly as these other disciplines.

But hey, it’s 2014. Where are the writers working in UX?

What is “writing”?

If you’re asking, “Why would you need a writer in UX?” you’re not alone. To say there are plenty of agencies and startups that produce products without any help from a writer is an understatement; in my experience, the majority of small product businesses don’t call on a writer for help with their UX. At all.

We tend to see web writing as the creation of slabs of text to go on a page, or the repurposing of slabs of text to better suit a new design (for example, to fit a responsive interface). Writers write emails and calls to action and ebooks and posts and articles. But they don’t write products.

We talk about “designing for content”, about “content containers”, about recombinant, omnichannel content, about device-independent content.

But where’s the discussion about using a writer to improve your product UX?

Let’s start it now. Here are five things a great writer knows better than anyone else in the room.

Writers understand story

Once upon a time: with paper and pen.

photo: UNE Photos

Any writer, from the person writing instructions for your new blender, to the person writing the next Booker Prize winner, is a storyteller. That’s what they do: construct logical narratives. You see the product of that construction as a blog post or a book, but a writer has to construct a conceptual narrative before they can write it.

So if you think writers deal in words, you’re mistaken. Writers deal with logic, with explaining and linking concepts, and with creating natural flow. Sound familiar?

Good writers understand things like tension (or pain points) and resolution (for example, through features), and are adept with creating stories within stories. They’re also pretty great at spotting plot holes and continuity issues — get a writer to look at your page flows or wireframes and see if they don’t add some value.

Writers understand meaning

Words are the currency of writing work, and as a consequence writers tend to have lots of them. When you’re stuck for the perfect label name, a writer will be able to come up with several options, and explain the nuance of each. Because they’re so good with narrative, they’ll be able to work with multiple meanings simultaneously, looking at all the labels in an interface, and how they work together (as well as individually) to communicate meaning.

A good writer will, not surprisingly, be able to work with things like imagery, and its weight and position, fonts, and transitions. They’ll be able to integrate snippets of interface text in a way that contributes significantly more than just the particular meaning of the words they’ve used.

Writers understand empathy

Stormtrooper kid with parent and teddy

photo :Kalexanderson

Two talks at the conference focused on empathy. The first, by Simon Lawry and Zaana Howard of Huddle, was about mindsets, and how designer and client mindsets can affect the UX outcomes of a project.

The second, by Ben Rowe and Ben Tollady of Thirst Studios, focused on creating user delight and several times mentioned the importance of interface text in achieving that aim.

Consider the Gmail app’s cheery “all done” message, which displays when you reach inbox zero. It’s a small thing, but as we know the little things make a big difference. It’s also a smooth way to handle what would otherwise be a blank screen.

Writers deal with emotion all the time. Even the writer of the blender manual is working to avoid frustrating or patronizing you, and to make things seem achievable so that you feel an affinity for the product you’ve bought.

Every professionally written item aims to communicate, and to do that, the writer needs to deal with emotion. They’re skilled at empathising with the target audience — the users of their words — whether that’s on a single-word basis, or a thousand-word basis.

So if you want your interfaces to “resonate”, and your interactions to be “intuitive”, a writer’s got what it takes to help you with that. Get a writer in the room the next time you’re doing an empathy map and see what happens.

Writers understand characterisation

I mentioned above that writers work with story, and every story has characters. In the case of your product, some of those characters will be user personas you’re designing for. Another will be the brand, and its values, which you’re reflecting in a tangible product.

A writer will be adept at understanding these characters, and fleshing them out (as an aside, many writers have a natural interest in people, so they’ll love doing things like user research). Then they’ll take those characters, home in on them and draw out their specific nuances.

And because they know about empathy, they’ll help you to develop the nuances that will make the brand character “resonate” most deeply with the characters in your personas.

Writers understand communication

tin can phone

photo :Florian SEROUSSI

There’s a tendency to think that writers know about writing. I’m here to tell you that that’s a misperception.

Good writers are communicators. They’re not just about stringing words together into sentences. They’re about finding the best ways to express things — even things as mundane as “The page you’re looking for isn’t here”.

Writers work with words — they are about writing — but a good writer knows when enough is perfectly enough. When to cut, when to stop, and when to let the visuals do the heavy lifting.

So why isn’t there a writer in your UX team?

I’ve worked in UX teams a few times now, and in each role, the skills I brought to the team would not have been there had they not employed a writer. Designers would have muddled through the language with typos and tense issues, getting the language right-ish but without ever really hitting the tone, or saying what needed to be said in the space of however many characters the design itself allowed.

They would have reiterated what was expressed clearly enough through the visuals, and missed the opportunity to add value, rather than repetition, through text.

The more targeted and specific the product, the more true this is. Your UX team needs writers — at least, I think it does. Do you have any? Tell us (and if you don’t, tell us if you think a writer could help) in the comments.

Meet the author
Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
  • Ahmed Zain Mohammed

    Awesome, totally agree with you on this one

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      Thanks Ahmed :) Glad you’re on board!

  • Thabiso Mohatlane

    I also totally agree, if we going to build client centric design, we need writers, in order to have good product explanation to your client.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/karlbrownactor Karl Brown

    I’ve said it a thousand times at the office, a great writer is worth their weight in gold. In e-commerce a great writer can create magic from seeing the product, and if copy gets sent in from a supplier then a great writer can tidy it up and make it much more effective. They can lift campaigns to a higher level, and as you rightly point out, they can work with the designers to influence the design of a project or campaign so it delivers better than expected results. Thank you for another marvelous article, Georgina.

  • Mark Southee

    As a technical writer I couldn’t agree more.

  • Kevin Chilton

    Interesting article. As a career-long Technical Writer I can only agree.

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Wow, thanks for your comments! So glad to see there’s some agreement on this. But then… why *aren’t* there more writers in UX teams? Does anyone have a writer on their UX team? Are YOU a writer on a UX team? If your UX team doesn’t have a writer — why not?

  • http://proaustinwriter.com Texas

    Absolutely spot on!

  • http://ffeathers.wordpress.com Sarah Maddox

    Hallo Georgina

    What a great post. Speaking as a technical writer, I found all your points very interesting and, well, gratifying. :) It’s cool to see what tech writer do in the eyes of another.

    In particular, section 3 of your post, on empathy, struck a chord. Empathy seems to be an upcoming theme in the UX world. I’ve written a blog post about what I saw at the recent Web Directions South conference, and referred to your post as well: Empathy in UX design and development. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Cheers
    Sarah

  • http://www.thecontentmotorist.com/ Vinish Garg

    An excellent article. Organizations who have UX teams without a writer often struggle to communicate their brand story. Today, we cannot imagine a UX making an impact without a story. Thanks for this interesting piece!

  • TWilbanks

    I was a technical writer for over a decade before joining our UX team as a Design Communicator (modeled after Cooper’s role – http://designjerk.com/dcdescription.html). I worked so closely with UX as a writer that it seemed logical that I should join the team. Being part of the UX process gives me more context for the writing that I do, rather than coming in later in the process and trying to get up to speed in time to write meaningful content.

    Even though creating documentation was my old job, I like that I can consider ways to avoid relying on documentation to educate and tell a story. As a technical writer, there were many times when I knew that a simple system message would have avoided writing a paragraph or procedure in a document that few people would read; being able to influence that decision is pretty great.

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Sarah, thanks :) Interesting post there! Empathy definitely seems to be more of a hot topic now, perhaps as UX is increasingly seen as part of the “Customer Experience” picture. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re shifting the focus from functionality to benefit/relevance/enjoyment? I hope so!

  • http://csgproject.ru/ Anton Shigaev

    so, why i don’t have a writer in my ux team?

  • Peter Riches

    Excellent article, Georgina. Perhaps as writers we could do more to demonstrate why our skills are important, and what expertise we bring to projects. Your post certainly does a great job of advancing this argument.

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      Thanks Pete! Agreed: I think sometimes writers are a bit reticent to put themselves and their skills forward. I think, too, these can seem like fuzzy skills to try to explain in what has traditionally been a pretty concrete realm. Sarah’s comment below speaks to how recent the rise of empathy and its importance has been. Perhaps now’s our time to start talking!

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Indeed! This is one of the most satisfying things about writing in UX: being able to have a hand in both the product and its documentation or support. Rather than just running along behind, we can influence what’s said within the product, which provides the opportunity for the team to create a much more coherent product *and* user experience overall. Great comment!

  • Barton Phillips

    Why don’t they have writer on ‘action movies’? It is kinda the same mantra, why hire a writer when you can use the money to blow up a couple of cars and a bus.

    I actually agree that a lot of websites desperately need a writer on staff to tell their story. It seems like most of the ‘high tech’ sites I visit never explain what there wonderful new software does. They all start out saying their new program solves the problem, but never actually explain what the problem is. Sometime I just give up after reading a page of incoherent rambling. Couple the lack of a writer with the all too frequent use of light gray type on only slightly darker gray background (or yellow on white) and I just give up.

    Thanks for a nice article.

  • Lesli Schneider

    Great article! Since I started writing copy, I’ve been looking for ways to learn more about all aspects of online communications and haven’t found anything geared towards content – there are a few promising conferences here in Toronto but they’re focused on coding, not writing. Do you have any suggestions for resources (online or otherwise) to help a newcomer learn about UX, and creating effective content?

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