Don’t tell me what I can’t do

Building the right kind of feedback culture for UX Copywriters

There are a few universal truths when it comes to being a copywriter. The first, and easily the most obvious, is that everyone’s a critic.

Designers know the user journey inside and out. Product owners know how to drive particular metrics. Developers know exactly how you wrote that one button in that low-traffic area ages ago when you were still learning the ropes (and getting away with murder).

And everyone uses words.

I remember the first time I submitted some copy to a sign-off process at a previous job. Six people in total. A dog-leg chain of command that didn’t make any sense at all and seemed more to be about bolstering ego than, you know, deconstructing a byline for caravan insurance or whatever it was.

Everyone had something to say. I was green around the gills, I wanted to satisfy everyone. But none of that feedback was actually useful — I just didn’t know it yet.


Just make this sound good

For a copywriter, the bulk of feedback you get on your daily work often falls into one of two piles.

First, there’s the not-constructive pile. The entitled-to-my-opinion pile stuffed with all those half-baked remarks with words like jazz or magic, or make it sexy — overlooking why and how the copy needs to work within the context.

For a time though, this is the only way of developing your own sense of what’s good and what’s not. You learn how to defend your decisions and fight for them, how to believe in your own ability and critically analyse every tiny decision even when you don’t have much to go on. Especially in smaller companies without access to A/B testing and where shipping a product means restless nights and red-raw fingernails, this approach keeps you on your toes. It keeps you hungry.

But that kind of feedback loop is defensive in nature. It’s retaliatory, not constructive. It’s an isolating, aggressive place.

On the other hand, there’s feedback which is genuinely helpful, considerate and from a place of commercial and craft awareness. When done right — with the right kind of company culture and the right initiatives that it helps develop — constructive feedback helps you become much more humble and flexible in your craft. It gives you a sense of what it means to put the customer at the centre of everything you do. And even if that means shelving the once in a lifetime pun, ultimately it makes you much better at what you do.

So how do you work towards encouraging good feedback culture in a company like ours when it’s so hard to come by?

Factor in that we’re not just copywriters anymore— we’re UX Copywriters, writerly anomalies no longer confined to sign-off processes and separated from the results of what we produce. We’re right there in the thick of it, chipping in on product design, development and data. What does the right kind of feedback mean then?

I’m not going to lie, we’re not at that happy place just yet. But at Booking.com, we’ve been given an unparalleled amount of freedom to define what the destination looks like.


Why feedback culture matters

It’s worth stating up front that we need that feedback.

As a copywriter, I bounce ideas around constantly. 99% of my copy comes from knowing what not to write, and having an open feedback loop (with all the different roles working in a product team) is crucial to that process.

Together with designers, I look at how particular copy works in the user flow.

With developers, I’ll work through technical limitations and implementation (which is invaluable when it comes to writing with variables and code conditions), and with product owners I’ll investigate how certain copy triggers work to influence business and behaviour data points.

Other copywriters, too — it’s hard to count how many times they’ve saved my fragile sanity by reminding me how words work.

Even before that step, it’s necessary that everyone around you knows the value that copywriting brings. How to involve and support you within the product development cycle so that you’re not a service-level afterthought, but a properly considered cog in a strategic wheel.

Our performances are calibrated depending on craft feedback from the people we work with. Having these other roles know how to critique the work we do (and being able to productively give feedback, copywriter to copywriter) is key.

To that end, we teach, update and sing from the rooftops. We run initiatives both for copywriters and other roles: critique sessions, trainings and onboardings, brainstorms and experiment post-mortems. Central to many of these is the idea of building a space where we’re free to challenge each other’s craft in a way that elevates quality, rather than shutting people down and making them doubt themselves.

The problem is, we’re not quite there. We’re more prone to talk about everything but the copy in our quest for self-definition.


Not guided by gut, but malleable to metrics

At the beginning of a copywriting career, it’s very easy to feel personally chafed by anyone having a say. It’s too close to the bone. From this kind of previous experience, we get used to going with our gut — there’s rarely the data to support one person’s opinion, changes take a lot of time and effort to get sign-off, and pride (especially swallowing it down) really comes to the fore.

But Booking.com is a little different. It’s fast and adaptable. There’s a culture of openness and both the velocity and tools to be able to put your product in the hands of millions of users a day.

As copywriters, we’ve found ourselves in a unique position here — one where, thanks to the autonomy of developing, running and iterating upon multivariate copy experiments (both with and without help from developers) on desktop, mobile and apps environments, we can test the boundaries of tone, persuasion and impact. We can leverage the power of millions of daily visitors to find the precise data difference of something as seemingly small as your or my.

They’re ultimately the ones who decide just how good your work is. Not the highest paid person in the room, not the loudest voice and not ‘the way it’s always been’.

Photo by Tyler Easton on Unsplash

The humbled-by-data stage comes fairly quickly. We’re quick to give up our defensive nature which we used to rely on. At that point, we’re no longer guided by gut, but malleable to metrics.

And from that moment on, all bets are off. It’s too easy to forget to put the craft first when you offer feedback, where “I suppose I could test that too” is a get-out clause for just about any oblique feedback.

This is also where a critique session becomes a conversation about commercial models and drop shadows, rather than the words on a page. While that’s great at developing commercial awareness and learning design and development basics, it actually risks taking us further away from developing the right kind of feedback culture which would help us develop — because we’re no longer just talking about what we’re being paid to produce.


So where to now?

We’re finding out. But that’s the beauty of it. We’re carving out that space for UX copywriting in a company like ours, by teaching others what we do, how we’ve done it and why it matters.

Things move lightning-fast here — one day’s Reserve is another day’s Book, and while we work to align all our copy to best practices, there are very few instances where anything’s ever set in stone. Because of that, it’s hard to teach others that just one particular way works better than another, and we risk missing out on a crucial part of the conversation.

Then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe some crucial part of UX copywriting ought to be quicksilver, flexible, ever-changing. Perhaps being humble and justified only by actual customer behaviour is better in the long run for a role like ours which is still learning the ropes.