What it is, how it works, and how I got into it.
UX writing is my main craft, and I get a lot of questions about it. Here are a few answers to the most frequent.
What is it?
UX writing is the practice of designing the words people see when they interact with software. It’s about designing the conversation between a product and its user.
In many ways, it’s just writing, so don’t get thrown off by the name. Many of the things that make UX writing good are the things that make other writing good too: clarity, consistency, precision, self-awareness, a whole lot of revision, and thoughtful attention to the context and the audience.
It’s a practice and a role that exists mainly at software companies, and sometimes also at digital agencies. It’s sometimes called content strategy, though content strategy is a pretty broad field that can also include things like information architecture and marketing writing too.
How is UX writing different from other kinds of writing?
UX writing is a specialized form of writing because of its context (software) and the environment in which it’s produced (technology companies).
Because it exists in the context of software, UX writing has unique constraints. It often has to be extremely concise and yet communicate a lot of meaning at the same time. It has a lot in common with poetry: it’s concentrated language. It has to help both users and businesses achieve their goals. It works together with interaction design and visual design to create an experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
UX writing (and design) needs to be accessible to users with different abilities, so that everyone can have a great experience, whether they navigate software with their eyes or ears, whether they see certain colors or not. UX writing needs to be inclusive, so as not to alienate any potential audiences. Often it needs to be easily translatable, so it can be internationalized across linguistic, geographical, and cultural boundaries.
You encounter UX writing every time you use an app or the internet. When it’s doing its job well, you don’t even notice it.
How does UX writing work?
Here’s an example I often turn to, to help make UX writing more tangible.
These two screens show the same interaction from Lyft Line and uberPOOL. In both, you’ve chosen a shared ride, and the service needs to know how many spots you need.
Lyft begins with an imperative statement, telling you what you need to do— “Confirm number of passengers”—and explains why there’s a limit. Uber begins with a question: “How many seats do you need?”
Both services give you two options to reply with. Lyft lets you say “Just me” or “Me + 1 friend,” and shows the cost difference right there. Uber gives you numbers to reply with: 1 or 2.
This is a pretty simple interaction, and both approaches are quite clear. But each service sets a very different tone here. Lyft guides you, informs you, then offers you two very casual, friendly replies. By using “Just me” and “Me + 1 friend,” they’ve planted two hints with you: 1) Lyft is for riding with friends, and 2) you can engage with the Lyft service in a casual, friendly way.
Uber, in contrast, is extremely minimal. They’ve removed any potential clutter, any information that might not be absolutely essential. And instead of asking about “passengers” or “friends,” they ask about “seats.” This approach is a lot more transactional. As a reader you may prefer one or the other, but personal preference isn’t what really matters when you’re the writer on the other side.
If I were working on either of these screens, I’d have lots of questions for the team, like:
- What does the quantitative data look like? Are people getting stuck here or at another point in this flow?
- If people are getting stuck, what does the qualitative data show? Let’s find out why people are getting stuck. There are all sorts of factors that can contribute to hiccups. There could be confusion about phrasing or word choice; there could be an engineering, interaction, or visual design issue; it could have to do with the information that’s provided (or missing). It could also be an interesting behavior: maybe people drop off a lot here because they just wanted to check the pricing and availability—they actually weren’t really sure whether they even wanted to take a ride.
- How does this language fit into the voice of the product and brand as a whole, and the direction it’s headed?
- Who are the stakeholders that would approve or contribute to any potential changes? What are their needs, goals, and concerns?
- How’s it going with internationalization? Does everything still fit and make sense when translated?
That might sound like a lot of questions for just one interaction. But the sum of the answers—multiplied by all of the interactions within a product—are the foundation of a customer’s relationship with a product or service. These kinds of things can have a huge impact on revenue, customer retention, and brand perception, especially as a company scales.
How did you get into it?
You can read about my own career path in this interview from when I worked at Dropbox. After Dropbox, I worked on self-driving cars at NIO. And now I work independently, as a consultant and a leadership coach.
How can I get into it?
There isn’t a single path into UX writing, which is mainly good news (but also potentially bewildering). People get into it from all sorts of directions. Here are some of the paths I’ve observed:
If you already have writing expertise:
- Begin as a writer at a small company. Sometimes small startups are open to hiring promising people with less direct experience. There’s often less structure and constant change, so you get to try a lot of different things and figure them out as you go along, learning by doing.
- Begin as a writer at a large company. Sometimes larger companies are open to hiring entry-level UX writers and providing mentorship.
- Begin as a consultant. It’s a flexible arrangement that allows you and a company to try one another out. You could begin by identifying small companies you love and pitching projects to improve their product language.
If you’re already at a small technology company:
- Begin from a different role. You can be a designer, a copywriter, a product manager, or an engineer who is also bringing UX writing into your toolkit. At small startups, there’s often opportunity (and need) for each person on the team to try on and wear a lot of different hats.
If you’re already at a large technology company:
- Begin from a different role. At bigger companies, there’s often opportunity to learn from specialists, by working directly with them or arranging a formal mentorship.
If you’re in school, or willing and able to return to school:
- Most schools offer writing programs, though I’m not aware of UX writing programs, specifically. You might want to check out the design programs at the School of Visual Arts in New York or Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. You could also design a program of your own by combining coursework in writing, design, and computer science.
If you’d like to work and take courses at the same time:
- Create your own education. If you already have mastery in writing, try taking a General Assembly course in UX design. If you already have mastery in design and are interested in UX writing, take a local writing class.
If none of the above sounds right:
- Create your own path. This is probably the most common way into UX writing (and technology in general). Try to stay calm, patient, open, and curious (easier said than done) as you find your way.
Who hires UX writers?
Dropbox, Facebook, Airbnb, Pinterest, Google, Spotify, 18F, and lots of small and medium-sized technology companies have UX writing, content strategy, or content design teams. San Francisco isn’t the only place to do it, but there’s certainly a high concentration of UX writing jobs there.
What does it take to be a UX writer?
UX writing is extremely collaborative, so it helps a lot if you are friendly, patient, kind, helpful, and articulate. You’ll spend lots of time in meetings and working sessions, writing together with people from many different areas of expertise.
You’ll probably also spend a lot of time writing and resolving comments in a document editor like Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, or Quip. It helps to be very self-motivated, to keep your craft moving forward no matter what.
It helps to have curiosity and interest in design, research, and data science, so you can work well with people who specialize in these fields and incorporate different kinds of information and feedback into your work.
It also helps to be curious about the technical underpinnings of whatever product you’re working on. You don’t need any technical expertise, but you do need to be willing to learn from engineers about what they’re working on. Often the best way to get to simple is to barrel right through the complexity yourself first.
If you made it all the way down here, and you’re still curious, go you! Keep learning and practicing with whatever resources and possibilities you have at hand. If you’d like to keep reading, here are a few more things I’ve loved, by writers I admire.
- Everything by John Saito, UX Writer at Dropbox
- Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
- Our Narratives, Ourselves by Jessica Collier, co-founder of All Turtles
I design conversations with people too, about their next right steps. If you’re on the cusp of change, check out Cocoon for coaching, workshops, and resources.