Words play just as important a part in creating human-centered digital products, and require just as much thought, as visual design, branding, and code. Without words, apps would be an unusable jumble of shapes and icons, while voice interfaces and chatbots wouldn’t even exist.
Andy Welfle, UX content strategy manager at Adobe, and his friend and workshop partner Michael J Metts have just written a book called “Writing Is Designing,” which tackles this very topic. Its goal is to empower the “words-person” at any product company — be that a copywriter, a content strategist, a support tech, a project manager, a designer — to think of writing as a design practice, and get the tools they need to write interface language clearly, consistently, and conversationally.
To mark the release of the book, we sat down with Andy to find out more about UX writing and designing with words. We asked him how writing and design relate to each other, the difference between voice and tone and how they create and deliver effective user experiences, and more.
Why is UX writing becoming so popular? How do writing and design actually relate to each other?
There has always been someone who writes the words in software interfaces. But traditionally, it’s been more of an afterthought, or it was done by people in separate silos and in different parts of the practice. Increasingly, though, as UX as a practice has become more and more important to the functionality and system of software, we can see how a UX methodology really aids the writing.
(When I say “a UX methodology,” I refer to a user-centered approach to building a product — something that focuses on solving real user problems, and aims to be as simple and clear as possible.)
Just as UX designers incorporate brand elements into their designs in a usable way, UX writers think about brand voice and how it manifests itself in the product. As designers think about components like buttons, forms, dialog boxes, etc, so do UX writers with terminology and action words.
It’s all the same approach: based on research — iterative, collaborative, and tested. UX designers and UX writers share the exact same goals. They just use different materials to do it.
What will readers learn from ‘Writing Is Designing’?
Hopefully, users will learn some of the core tenets of UX writing — why it’s important to make sure your message is clear and concise, and how to do that.
We dig into error messages and stress cases, and give some tips on what purpose they serve (hint: the best error message is one that doesn’t have to exist at all). And we try to take concepts like “voice” and “tone” and break down the differences between them, and give readers a system to approach them strategically and consistently.
How important are voice and tone in creating and delivering effective user experiences?
They’re pretty important. Voice is a really effective way for a product to build a relationship with the user, and to bring forth the company’s brand. Sometimes that’s one and the same — Slack’s corporate brand voice is identical to their product voice. They make the same word choices, they present the same values, and talk to the users in the same way.
But sometimes, an app’s voice is different than the corporate brand’s voice. And that’s okay, too. Look at how we do things right here at Adobe — our brand speaks to our customers in a way that shows our intersection of art and science — we’re passionate and captivating and really excited to help customers create. Just browse around Adobe.com and see how that manifests.
But once customers become users, and download our apps and start using them, we have to take on a more distilled version of that voice. Our interfaces, particularly for our desktop software, can be complicated and technical, so in order to get users, well, using the app, our priorities switch to being as clear as we can be. We have a different set of goals and principles.
So while voice should stay consistent throughout the experience, tone is what lets you switch contexts and better respond to a user based on what’s happening. Just as I, Andy, have a single voice, my tone changes depending on if I’m talking to my mom, my coworker, my boss, or my college roommate. It can change depending on if I’m happy, or sad, or angry, and it can change yet again depending on if the person I’m talking to is happy, or sad, or angry.
The same should hold true with your UX writing. We can use research to determine what tone to take with our users.
So how do you set the tone for a digital product?
When I worked at Facebook, I learned how important it was to develop a framework of tone, so that this nuanced way of writing can scale across a big writing team. Check out this fantastic article by Jasmine Probst (who I interviewed for the Tone chapter of our book!) and Susan Grey Blue about how they develop a tone framework at Facebook.
One of the most valuable parts of this process is the questions you ask about any given scenario a user might encounter in your product. According to the Facebook content strategy team, you should ask yourself these questions:
- What is someone likely to be doing when they encounter this message?
- What is their mindset likely to be?
- What is the intention we’re showing up with in the UI? What do we want to offer people in the UX?
- How receptive is the person likely to be to that intention?
- How might we express that intention in a way that feels authentic? (Knowing we might be interrupting or dealing with someone who’s got any number of life things going on.)
And that should help you craft the framework of tones!
That’s a lot to get into here. You’ll just have to read about it in the book.
Can you give us an example of a brand, other than Adobe, that gets UX writing right?
I really appreciate the UX writing efforts of transportation network Lyft. Although they had a few writing hiccups in their early days, I think they do an amazing job of not only capturing Lyft’s brand voice, but also explaining complicated concepts simply and in a contextually relevant way.
They’ve been industry leaders in inclusive writing practices as well — among the first to allow users to choose their pronouns, and providing options for disabled drivers and riders.
How do you ensure your design team develops a strong writing practice?
That’s a good question, and a hard one, because I think it varies widely from team to team. Here at Adobe, I was the first UX writer among a 300+ person design team, and for a year or so, before we got headcount to hire more, I took a two-pronged approach.
First, I found a product design team to embed on and really understand the Adobe way of building products. It’s important to find a team that’s flexible and game to experiment with how a writer can make an impact.
Second, you have to be willing to be an evangelist. I invited myself to every team weekly that I could find to spread the gospel of UX writing — not only to ask for resources, but also to get designers excited about words, and how they can be used as design tools.
What inspired you to collaborate with Michael to write this book?
Michael and I met back in 2014 when I attended a content strategy workshop he was teaching at Midwest UX in Indianapolis, and we hit it off right away. I was on the verge of leaving a small web development agency in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to interview at Facebook for a content strategy job, and as he was one of the first product UX people I met, I had so many questions for him.
Later, we met again at the 2015 edition of Confab, probably the largest content strategy conference in the world. We struck up a conversation at lunch about how there really weren’t any workshops or talks that spoke to what we were interested in — writing interface language, and how to collaborate with design teams as writers. Finally, he just suggested, “well, why don’t we make a workshop for that?”
We did, and pitched it to Confab, and they accepted! We’ve been doing that Confab workshop for the last four years, and have done it in other states and countries, too.
Eventually, Kristina Halvorson (CEO of Brain Traffic, the company that organizes Confab) introduced us to Lou Rosenfeld, who owns a UX book publishing house. He was looking for a book about UX writing, and after a pretty intensive pitching and outlining process, we had a book to write!
Michael and I collaborate really well together. Although he’s in Chicago and I’m in San Francisco, our working styles complement each other. Our general interests and practices are different enough to provide well-rounded content, but similar enough to make sure we’re writing to the same goal.
Apart from buying your book, how can designers get started with improving their writing skills?
If you work on a design team at a large organization, there’s bound to be other writers there, even if they’re outside of your organizational silo. I’d recommend connecting with them, and maybe even inviting them to your design critiques. Also: when you test your designs, make sure to spend extra time on the language and the terms you use in your interface. It’s just as important — and sometimes even more important — than the visual layout and interaction flow.
The more you start thinking about the writing as a design process, the more apparent the power of words to share user experiences will be for you.
Learn more about “Writing Is Designing,” and pick up your own copy.