UX writing: A lesson in letting words go

Hello, world!

Hello, you!

My friend and mentor Paul Stairmand, celebrity judge, UX writer to the stars, told me you’d probably be wondering who I am, and who the hell this article is for.

Me: UX writer at BlaBlaCar, a sharing-economy platform helping people find other people to carpool with to places far and wide. I use it myself all the time. It’s cheap and fun as hell.

You: Anyone who loves and toils over the power of content in product and design strategy.

Let’s get into it.

When I moved to France to take a job as a Product content specialist (Update: UX writer) at BlaBlaCar, a few brave souls had the audacity to ask me how the hell I ended up there. To which I responded: I’m only here because I’m a writer. I love writing. Design and product strategy are how I choose to make that passion useful. It’s fun. I like it. Really.

This article is about the biggest lesson I learned since arriving: Writing, and UX writing in particular, is 90% ideas and only 10% words. As someone who usually obssesses over the word choice rather than the strength of the message, that could have been bad news.

It’s actually pretty awesome.

Turns out, writing for an international company means very few people outside the product team will see my pretty little English words. The subtle differences between using ‘pick’ or ‘choose’ when asking someone to select a Profile picture were suddenly obsolete, unimportant, and worst of all, a waste of everyone’s time.

This is by no means to say that fascinating linguistic subtleties don’t exist in other languages, I know they do, and likely in more interesting and nuanced ways than English. However, unless I learned 15 languages in a month, I wouldn’t be the one making those kinds of decisions anymore.

So what good was I?

Have you ever seen your writing in Polish?

I had only one way to be powerful as a writer, by having powerful ideas. By providing translators and local teams with indisputably clear, concise ideas to represent with the symbolic tools of their own languages. To give them a framework of ideas that frees them to apply a layer of creativity to those ideas; one that works for their language and their audience, both culturally and linguistically. Any shadows of doubt or fuzzy edges around an idea of mine would echo from Russia to Brazil with amplified complexities that undermined the most important part of great UX design/writing: simplicity.

The hard part isn’t over. I still fall back on pretty words, petty sentence structure debates and “cool sounding” shit that won’t help 99.9% of our users do what they come to do on our platform.

The incredible thing is, the most wide-open space for creativity lives in the strongest ideas. Your peers (designers and product managers) will trust you and you’ll trust yourself that with a militant grasp on what you want to say, you’ll find yourself with a lot more time to enjoy figuring out how beautifully you want to say it.

Next time I’ll spare you the meandering personal story and tell you how we get to those strong ideas at BlaBlaCar.

Thanks to John Saito, Paul Stairmand, and Travis Tarr for advice and inspiration. And to Etienne Servant for going to his car late at night to help me publish this.