Tell the Story Together

Designers and writers each have a piece of the puzzle.

Image compliments of Helloquence on Unsplash.

Writers, like designers or any other craft, have a toolkit. Designers have colors, textures, patterns, scale, et cetera. Writers have words, sentence structure, sequence, among others. When a writer is crafting a narrative, they’re using these tools to elicit a particular feeling within the reader; they’re building a maze and guiding the consciousness down a path. The best writers know how, and when, to crack open a window that’ll anchor the reader to something in their own life. The best stories are the ones that help readers realize something that was true about themselves the entire time. The point, most times, is to get the reader to feel something.

Things change when we start to deal with product writing. When you start writing copy for a product, for a user interface, your toolkit dwindles. You don’t have the space to expand an idea anymore, so you can’t rely on sentence structure, or rhythm, or sequencing, as much as you might be accustomed to. You’re stuck with a hyper-focus on word choice. You start counting in characters instead of words, and you become mindful of high-value words. But then, of course, these high-value, calorie-dense words are often inaccessible for users. You need to strike a balance between writing exactly what you mean and finding the word that’ll resonate with users (when you’re writing for user experience, you don’t have readers anymore).

I used to think that the ‘designing the consciousness’ model only applied to narrative writing, but that’s not true. With product copywriting, it’s simply narrower. You have fewer materials (words), but you also have a more specific goal (convert, tap the CTA, whatever). So the question becomes, which word, or limited combination of words, will prime the user into taking the action the product wants them to take? What’s going to make them comfortable, grant them understanding, sprinkle them with delight, and ultimately get them to use the damn thing? Obviously, words alone can’t accomplish everything. The unique thing about copywriting vs. narrative writing is the symbiosis with the design. Instead of using cadence or rhythm, your tools are replaced by the designers’ toolkit. You work together to set a rhythm and craft a feeling that’ll elicit the desired reaction.

This piece had been sitting in my drafts for a few months, because my focus was elsewhere, but recently I read about the idea of “storyframes” from Fabricio Teixeira. That rekindled my interest in this concept of narrative writing for products, and how designing and writing have a lot more in common than you or I might naturally assume. I’m tired of that old dichotomy between “visual learners” and “verbal learners” because it’s isolating. We shouldn’t work in our own lanes.

The point is that neither writers nor designers can craft a story on their own. Their toolkits complement each other — this is probably why the agency world figured out the art director and copywriter pair long ago. If you’re a product designer, work closely with the copywriter or content strategist on your team. (Don’t have a writer on your team? You should! We can be helpful, I promise.) Come up with the narrative together, and treat your products like a story. Writers, your toolkit is limited, and you need to rely on the designer to create that tempo, that rhythm, you could rely on when writing in a more traditional setting. At the end of the day, your product is a story, but neither side of the equation — neither words nor designs—can tell the story alone.