Words shape design. Real words, not lorem ipsem, should form the ground-up basis for product design. This thought has been paraphrased on this site multiple times, by numerous contributors. Increasingly, the design community seemingly takes this truth to heart and has heartily paid lip service to the importance of “content” (words, the copy). I’ve read several articles written by designers who give sound advice on how to write good UI copy. Many of these pieces, like John Zeratsky’s piece on good interface writing, provide insightful tips on how to write better product copy.
I read a recent piece published here, “Why Content Reigns Supreme in UX Design” with interest because I am a product content strategist at Airbnb embedded within a UX design team. I think content is not just pretty important, but the primary component of many user experiences.
Unfortunately I could feel the collective groan of the UX writer and content strategist community when I read the advice the authors give to the timid designer-writer: “Don’t fret, you can always have a writer punch it up after the fact.” Writers on design teams (in an increasingly design-centric technology industry) are accustomed to hearing about the importance of content. But we’re unfortunately also accustomed to the expectation that we’ll provide a word layer to already-complete designs.
This is pretty analogous to complaints I’ve heard designers register as recently as a few years ago, before their craft was taken seriously. Engineers and developers expected designers to swoop in at the last minute to provide a layer of polish, ignoring the fact that the designer might have strategic input into crafting a cohesive and fluid experience–not just pretty pixels. So now that design is taken seriously as a legitimate craft, writers unfortunately face the same challenge. Despite the nice sentiments about content-centric design, words continue to be an afterthought.
Rather than instruct designers on how to be better writers, let’s instead look at how designers can better work with content professionals. Here are a few tips for both designers and writers:
Designers: involve your writer early.
A good content strategist (or UX writer, or whatever the resident word nerd at your company is called) will do their homework by thinking through many of the same problems and opportunities that you consider as a designer. Plus a few other considerations such as voice, tone, and key messages. Since a writer cares about context and character, he or she will be an indispensable partner to your researchers. We writers are interested in understanding who we’re designing for, as well as the what, when, and how.
Writers should be involved in researching the competitive and inspirational landscape, and auditing existing relevant content. The homework that provides a basis for human-centered design is beneficial to writers as well. We too are crafting an experience, though our medium is words.
As for early stage storyboarding or content audits, a senior level content person could lead these exercises. Both designers and content strategists think of their work in terms of story––an experience should meaningfully build upon itself, relying on exposition and a carefully crafted information architecture to guide users through tasks with ease.
Many writers in tech started out as journalists, creative writers, and even designers. I feel lucky to work with a few poets and playwrights, too. These are people who’ve devoted their education and career to thinking about narrative structure. They actually enjoy obsessing over the subtle messages certain pronouns convey, or how the omission of an article can change the tone of a phrase. Let the word nerds do the word nerding. Getting a writer involved at the beginning means you’ll start design explorations with a more informed perspective of the messages you are working to convey.
Writers: Hold a content kickoff.
The chief complaint I hear from other writers in my field is how difficult it is to get involved at the right moment––ie. right at the beginning. Unfortunately for now, it may take some (polite) elbowing to get your seat at the table in kick-off meetings. Holding a content kickoff with your core team can help everyone get aligned on your contribution to the project, and the best ways to work together. Invite the project manager, the designers, the researcher, the engineering lead, and other key partners. Depending on the project this could be someone from policy, legal, or sales.
Ideally, the content kickoff is part of the overall project kickoff. When this isn’t possible, or if you were invited to contribute after the project has taken shape, you can still outline content’s role. This is a good moment to review your company’s content mandate. At Airbnb we like to rally behind the idea that “Content is design.” It doesn’t always “precede,” as Jeffrey Zeldman memorably tweeted. It doesn’t even need to be “king.” But the words can make or break a user experience, and the message necessarily informs how a design takes shape.
Tying content to business goals can be challenging. Whether you’re looking to increase conversions, decrease churn, or hit a revenue target, the words you write are undoubtedly in service to that goal. By writing for the web is a hybrid of art and science. The positive results of a well-written product are often difficult to quantify, though the impact of a misspoken word and poorly-executed writing is certainly felt.
Content strategists definitely shouldn’t underestimate the importance of validating their work, getting feedback, and tying their process to measurable business goals. You can sometimes prove pretty clear impact by altering a button CTA or other discrete piece of copy, but most of the time changes are part content, part design. Or, the important metric to track––perhaps, long-term user satisfaction–-can be attributed to many successive product and offline experiences. I’m honestly still finding the best ways to design experiments that prove good content’s effectiveness. Research provides a lot of great qualitative insight and data analytics can be an important ally. Learning to speak the language of business and numbers will help you define why your craft is vital to the design process.
Writers: Know how to design. At least a little bit.
The longer I’ve worked in this field the more apparent it’s become that to effectively do our jobs, content strategists can either 1. patiently wait, accepting that our job is partly content strategy and partly just justifying why we should be allowed to do our job in the first place. Or 2. become designers.
Becoming a designer isn’t a truly radical career jump from content strategy. To do this job well you must be visual as well as verbal, you must encounter complexity with a designer’s eye. I’ve learned that being successful on a design team means being able to convey one’s ideas visually. For too long I’ve been comfortable as a long-form prose thinker, expecting my teammates to adapt to my impulse to think through words in a Google doc. I’ve learned the importance of being able to design a simple diagram, sketch, or mock up ideas.
My manager recently gave us a project to print and hang up the emails that certain user groups received over their onboarding experience. We had an entire wall as a canvas. The goal was to display in, in “life-size” format, the communications overload that was resulting at certain key moments in their journey. My coworker and I were flummoxed at how to best use the wall real estate. We didn’t know how to use visual language to make a point. This was one of many aha moments that helped me understand how important it is for content strategists to become visual thinkers.
I’d like to start including more pen and paper sketching in my process. At some unforeseen point, perhaps the role of writers and that of designers converges. I hope we can negotiate a happy medium where everyone feels ownership and pride over the copy. After all, as speaking makes us human, so does writing. The commitment of an idea to words is an act of thinking and an act of identity. No wonder everyone feels so invested in words. I just hope that we add more than “punch,” but also the shape, structure, and meaning of an experience.