Illustration by Nitzan Klamer

My cursor hovered over a blank rectangle. After weeks of work, we had nearly finished the designs for a new feature in The New Yorker Today app. All I had to do was write the words on a confirmation button—a no-brainer in the UX writing world. Except The New Yorker does not say “Got it!”

“Noted,” or maybe “Thank you.” But definitely not “Got it!”

Such is life as the publication’s first UX writer, a role that balances digital best practices with a voice that has been honed over nearly a century. On any given day, I’m faced with questions like, how do we explain our new augmented-reality feature? And, is an Ed Steed cartoon appropriate on an unsubscribe page?

Questions are the name of the game. And when I’m not investigating the product at hand, I’m being asked about the job itself. Although UX copy has been around for as long as screens have, the responsibility has often been delegated to engineers and designers who write well. In recent years, UX writing has become a discipline in its own right, complete with books, bootcamps, and conferences—but my role still requires a fair amount of explaining. Greatest hits include the one-liner (“It’s like a product designer who specializes in words.”), the novice (“You know, the words you see when you do something online?”), and the deep dive (“Okay, let’s open the Lyft app and the Uber app.”).

The great irony is, for a group of writers, we really haven’t done the best job of explaining ourselves. So, what exactly does UX writing look like in practice?

Designing the process

The question of how UX writing fits into the design world has followed me (or perhaps more accurately, led me) from company to company for the past few years. It cropped up when I became one of the first product-focused writers at Lyft, where we found that the earlier a writer was involved in the design process, the better our features became. Once I joined InVision as their first dedicated UX writer, the answer became even more essential because I was working at an entirely remote company. Communication was key.

The gap between knowing what UX writing is and how to implement it felt so wide that, when I interviewed for my current role at Condé Nast, I decided to address it during my portfolio presentation. Borrowing from frameworks modeled by Stanford’s and Biz Sanford, I illustrated how UX writing fits into a classic design thinking process, emphasizing how writers can and should be involved throughout.

The design process when UX writing is an afterthought, illustrated by Sophie Tahran for her interview at Condé Nast.
The design process when UX writing is implemented at every stage of the design process, as illustrated by Sophie Tahran for her interview at Condé Nast.
The design process when UX writing is an afterthought. Image credit Sophie Tahran.

On the first slide, copy is largely an afterthought—something to be cleaned up during polish. But there is a wealth of context to be gained from the process outlined on the second slide: How would a reader describe this feature in their own words? What do they need to know to accomplish the task at hand, and when? What concerns can we proactively answer?

Among its many benefits, early collaboration also allows us to sketch with words instead of using placeholder text, like Lorem Ipsum. In writing lo-fi copy, we could mock up the most important text (starting with headlines and buttons) to ensure that every essential piece of information had a place. Thankfully, the design team was fully on board with this approach—something that can easily make or break a UX writer’s experience at a company.

Once I joined Condé Nast, my new colleagues brought me into their existing processes and projects from the start, allowing me to leap right into the creation of our new practice. In UX writing, that meant I’d be having a lot of conversations: discussing objectives with design, product, and engineering teams, building relationships with marketing and support, and getting a grasp on our voice with editorial.

The goal was to create a practice that was as cross-functional as possible. UX writers thrive on context.

Our job is to dig into the weeds, ruthlessly untangling a web of user insights, strategy, and functionality.

If all goes well, we emerge on the other side, victorious, clutching a single line of text that explains only what the user needs to do at that exact moment in time. The more we know about and contribute to the product at hand, the better we can speak to it.

Putting theory into action

Of course, among all the conversations with various departments, a UX writer’s closest partner is the designer. Collaboration between the two tends to look like a set of figure eights: regular syncs with arcs of independent thinking in between them. We align on our approach, then split off to gather inspiration for the design and copy. We agree on the platform we’ll use for lo-fi explorations (Figma, Google Docs, or trusty pencil and paper), but aren’t afraid to diverge once we dive in.

As we move into high fidelity, our figure eight starts looking more like a braid. We weave in researchers to user-test whether our approach is as intuitive as we think it is—and because words have been drafted in tandem with design, we can test those, too. We talk developers through our pie-in-the-sky ideas to make sure they are, in fact, buildable. We share our nomenclature with Marketing (“Are we calling this icon ‘Save’ or ‘Bookmark’?”) and get the OK from the editorial team’s art and copy departments. And eventually, we declare our work done. “Design done,” at least.

All of this activity—the bulk of the iceberg—churns below the surface of the screen. Sure, words are the output, but as you may have noticed, the writing itself is a relatively small part of the journey.

UX writers show up as advocates, educators, and listeners foremost.

But for the people who use these apps and websites every day, it’s understandably difficult to grasp what takes place behind the scenes. To a large extent, that’s by design. Whether a word appears on your phone, computer, tablet, or print magazine, it should always sound like The New Yorker—and if we’ve done our job well, you’d never guess what it took to get there.