Hiring Your First UX Writer

Deciding to hire a dedicated copywriter can be a tough decision for many design teams. It means prioritizing things that are often seen as nice to haves, particularly for startups — voice and tone, brand and personality, and wordsmithing. There’s often the perception that a copywriter will be merely polishing already-adequate copy written by designers, product managers, or engineers. Faced with the choice of hiring a writer and hiring another designer, many teams will have trouble choosing the role that is “only” writing, especially if getting resources is already a battle.

A writer probably won’t be your first (or fifth, or even tenth) hire. But do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • Users don’t trust our checkout flow or understand our value prop, so our conversion rate is low.
  • We’ve been fighting for weeks about what to say on the homepage, and we’re just going to let the CEO write it.
  • Our product voice is all over the place. Sometimes it sounds like we’re yelling at users, and sometimes like we’re pleading with them.
  • We’re adding email and push notifications left and right, and no one is keeping track of them or their effectiveness.

If so, a writer can help you.

The business case

Good writers are good thinkers. Writing well requires understanding and clearly defining problems, accurately identifying audiences and shaping writing toward their needs, and taking input from multiple sources and synthesizing it into a coherent narrative. As a student, these skills are used to translate research into arguments and term papers. In the product design process, these skills mean a resource who knows how to take an ambiguous situation and act as a force for clarity.

Good writers build consensus. A strong writer will know when to do research, will have internalized how your users think and feel while using your product, and will be adept at getting your marketing, product management, support, sales, engineering, and executive teams to all feel heard and validated. Good writers understand that their job is sometimes 25% writing copy and 75% making all their stakeholders feel good about that copy.

Good writers aim to do more than write grammatically perfect strings. Writers can name features and products, craft narrative experiences, and help your product develop stickiness and emotional resonance. They can set up frameworks and strategies for help centers, notifications, and messaging about sensitive user issues like privacy and payment. They can tell the whole story of your company in a way that resonates with users, press, job candidates, and investors.

Good writers also — no surprises here — write well. Clear, effective copy can influence metrics such as conversion, NPS, and task completion and has broader effects throughout the product. Best of all, writers can scale their impact by creating style guides and templates so that everyone in your organization is empowered to create consistent, accurate, on-brand copy.

What to look for

Rather than prioritizing specific previous experience, look for smart, flexible, confident candidates who have strong portfolios. When hiring your first writer, look for breadth over depth in the portfolio — microcopy, product tours, headlines for marketing campaigns, and FAQs. Specialization in one area can come as your team grows, and you can’t forsee what the work will look like in six months. Hire a general athlete who can adapt.

Writers with backgrounds in travel writing or help documentation are often particularly good at writing with clarity and precision, since they have experience writing about complicated procedures and logistics. On the other end of the spectrum, experience in advertising or marketing can be invaluable in helping communicate your product’s benefits and shaping your brand voice. Typically, though, a writer who is strong in one area can quickly pick up new skills.

Administer a quick writing test to all candidates, no matter how dazzling their portfolios. Particularly if this writer will be writing, reviewing, and shipping her own language with minimal review, make sure she’s got a good grasp on mechanics. On the other hand, beware of candidates who overemphasize their copyediting chops. You want someone who can spot the grammatical errors in your job posting, but who doesn’t think that qualifies her to do the job.

When interviewing, look for all the qualities you would in a strong designer. A good writer (like a good designer) will care about user research and usability, about measuring the impact of her work, about the product voice and which words will communicate it well, and about having a strong team around her to set her up for success. She’ll be low ego and empathetic to stakeholders’ concerns, but won’t let empathy get in the way of leadership and advocating for the user.

What writers can’t do

Here’s the bad news: one writer can’t do everything, and there are specific things writers can never do, no matter how many of them there are.

Writers can’t fix larger UX problems. If copy is all that stands between your users and failure, you have a bigger issue. A writer can, however, help you see all the places you’re relying on copy as a crutch, and improve these the weak points in your UX.

Writers also can’t fix your business. No matter how good they make your product sound, if there’s no market for it, they can’t make users pay. A good writer will tell you when you’re asking them to lie to sell a product, and you should listen.

A good writer isn’t afraid to try defining a product that hasn’t existed before, but she can’t do it alone. Writers need the same things designers to do flourish: an understanding of business priorities, a clear product vision, enough time to practice their craft well, actionable and substantive feedback, and plenty of sticky notes.

What’s next

We’re building a UX writing and content strategy practice at Coursera. We’ll share more updates as we grow.

Oh, and we’re hiring.

Written by

UX Writing Lead @Coursera.

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