From writing about products to building them

My journey to UX and content strategy in 86 bullet points


  • I studied technical writing in college.
  • My professors taught me to write in bullet points.
  • Much like this.
  • Oh look—here’s another one.
  • This was back in the 1990s when we did the Macarena.
  • We did it over and over again, going through the motions of the dance.
  • I wanted to find a way to use language to help people solve problems.
  • Maybe I’d get a job writing manuals for John Deere. I could be a hero to farmers when the starter died on their row-crop tractors.
  • But that’s not what happened.

  • Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers.”
  • Ouch.
  • I mean, Vonnegut’s my hero.
  • Everyone needs heroes.
  • So I’m trying to reveal things about myself just in case Old Uncle Kurt’s still watching.
  • No, no, of course he’s not. So it goes.

  • Bullet points are a powerful tool.
  • They’re a great way to break down a complex idea.
  • Or describe a process.
  • Or show a series of events.
  • You can even use bullet points to make a simple list.
  • That’s really all I’m doing here.
  • Over and over again, going through the motions.
  • Bullet points help people by revealing only a tiny amount of information.
  • Got a problem? A bullet point’s the solution!

  • But here’s the thing.
  • And they don’t tell you this in technical writing school.
  • Bullet points are BORRRRRING.

  • That’s because bullet points are simple.
  • Too simple.
  • They leave out the context.
  • Context, as you know, is a fancy word for story.
  • And story is what that happens between the bullet points.
  • Leaving out the story is an unforgivable crime.
  • Treason.

  • That’s probably why I was also taught rhetoric, composition, publishing, and design.
  • I got a minor in American literature, where I first met Old Uncle Kurt.
  • And I learned about programming. Data. Applications. Systems.
  • And I met people who became my mentors — everyone needs heroes.
  • And I became a writing coach, using language to help people solve problems.
  • And I met a girl. And it didn’t work out.
  • And I met a girl. And it didn’t work out.
  • And I met a girl.
  • And it didn’t work out.
  • So it goes.

  • I’ve worked in many jobs.
  • Jobs in many places, from West Africa to Australia to Seattle, Washington.
  • Jobs in fast food, jobs in department stores, jobs at schools.
  • There’s too many to list, even with all these bullet points.
  • But here are a few—and I’ll try to reveal the story between the bullet points.
  • Technical writer.
  • I wrote software manuals for IBM’s AS/400 server. If you used one in ’90s and had a problem with file systems or TCP/IP, you probably read my work. Sorry about those typos.
  • Peace Corps Volunteer.
  • I was a public health educator in a tiny village in Burkina Faso. Don’t worry, I didn’t know where it was, either, until I stepped off the plane. It was hot and I was sick all the time and I drank a lot and I didn’t save my village.
  • I’m no one’s hero.
  • Webmaster and print designer.
  • I was lucky to work for nonprofits that let me experiment with new tactics and learn anything that anyone was willing to teach me—so long as it didn’t cost any money—all while supporting environmental conservation around the world.
  • Web designer/developer.
  • I wasn’t very good at this. I would’ve been fired if I hadn’t quit.
  • Internet marketer.
  • I was good at this, probably because I was so terrified by my previous failure. I kept asking my colleagues what problems I could solve, what more I could do to help—anything to keep my anxiety at bay.
  • SEO and content marketer.
  • Audits, keywords, <title> elements, <meta> descriptions, canonical <link>s, structured markup, XML sitemaps, link building, content marketing, conversion optimization…
  • Over and over again, going through the motions.
  • It made me wonder about systems, structure, and products. I didn’t really want to market or advertise things—I wanted to make things. Good things.
  • Product UX and content strategy.
  • I learned that language can be a design tool. When you design content for products, you’re building an experience with words. It’s the intersection of language, empathy, architecture, interaction design, and code all within the context of a product: an experience that helps people solve problems.

  • Words are the experience.

  • Listen.
  • Here’s the only secret I know about finding work that you love.
  • I found these jobs and opportunities by asking:
  • How
  • can
  • I
  • help?

  • It’s a long road from school to finding the work that you love.
  • But the road to anywhere worth going is always long.
  • And, from time to time, it’s probably a little boring.
  • Just like all these bullet points.
  • Over and over again, going through the motions.
  • But there are many way-stations along the road.
  • Where we stop for a rest.
  • And we meet people.
  • And we hear their stories.
  • The stories that happen between the bullet points.
  • And we ask the question.

  • How can I help?