What we do is much more than just writing

Susanna Agababyan
Booking.com — UX Writing
8 min readMar 21, 2022

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How to thrive as a non-native UX Writer

You’re here. You made the cut. It’s your first day as a UX writer at the company of your dreams, headquarters no less. And you’ve accomplished it despite the caustic remarks from all the armchair experts about how difficult it is to make an international career as a non-native English writer.

But now you’re completely terrified.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

You walk into a room full of native speakers and can’t help but feel overwhelmed. When it’s your time to speak in a meeting or write your first lines of copy, you find yourself in an endless “am I good enough?” loop and almost forget all the words you knew in English.

And this happened to me too. During my first week at Booking.com, I turned to my colleague, Tanja Matic, to ask her how she deals with imposter syndrome. “I live with it day in and day out”, she told me. And so do I. I felt quite anxious when my native English-speaking colleagues rolled up their sleeves to help me polish this article. Which is quite ironic, if you think about it.

Here at Booking.com, non-native UX Writers aren’t exactly a small bunch: we represent roughly one sixth of the UX writing community. And there’s something empowering about that statistic. But in the vortex of everyday life it’s very easy to forget that we were actually interviewed by native speakers who graded our take-home test and portfolio and chose us because of our strong command of the English language (and not only because of that).

According to the Lead UX Writer and native speaker involved in the hiring process Chris Cameron “the only difference there is between native and non-native writers (which should be an advantage to non-native writers) is the perspective they may have from speaking another language”. And in a world where there are more non-native English speakers than native ones (approximately 743 million versus 378 according to Ethnologue), this perspective matters.

And it isn’t just other non-native speakers who benefit. Clarity and natural simplicity of language improves the user experience for readers with different levels of literacy and a wide range of accessibility needs, including dyslexia, temporary cognitive impairment, anxiety, stress and fatigue.

So what else do non-native UX writers bring to the table and why should you strive to have at least one on your team? Here are some thoughts from non-native and native UX writers involved in the hiring process at Booking.com

Whether English is your native language or not — doesn’t really matter. But speaking multiple languages — matters a lot.

UX Writers at Booking.com need to be keenly aware of localisation issues as their work is translated into over 40 languages and dialects. According to Chris Cameron, this gives non-natives an advantage over their native counterparts. “Speaking another language can give a non-native English writer a better understanding of important intricacies of localisation, like phrases that don’t translate well or how plurals and other grammar functions can impact translation”.

Zsolt Tóth, UX Writer and native Hungarian speaker, leveraged his multilingual skills to spot an inconsistency with gender agreement that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. “When I joined my teams, I inherited some copy strings where we used a variable for reward types (e.g. ‘miles’, ‘points’) in sentences like ‘Your {reward_type} will be awarded by Booking.com’. Because ‘miles’ and ‘points’ have different gender in many languages, and because the form of ‘your’ depends on the gender of the word following it, the sentence rendered ungrammatical structures. That is, in Portuguese the copy read ‘seus milhas’ instead of the correct form ‘suas milhas’. I solved this problem by creating variables that include the ‘your’ part so that sentences like the one above can render a grammatical sentence in all languages”.

And it goes far beyond just grammar. Multicultural awareness allows non-native UX Writers to pinpoint things that can be improved to match users’ needs better on some markets. It can be displaying copy and elements from right to left or adjusting the calendar setup to have Sunday as the first day of the week instead of Monday for Arab markets. Another thing is having a more flexible approach to localisation. “Sometimes letting translators use whatever is more natural to their culture works better,” — says Yinquan Chen, UX Writer, previously Localisation UX Writer for the Chinese market. One of my previous teams worked on Wishlist — a feature that helps customers save what they like for later. We noticed though that users couldn’t find what they’d saved, or weren’t aware of this feature at all. And then I discovered that even within Asia various languages would call this tool very differently, so I suggested giving translators more freedom. As a result, more users were able to find this tool and booked with us”.

In some cases this multicultural background can help avoid making decisions based on stereotypes that wouldn’t help the actual users. Ghinwa Abou Zein, UX Writer, previously Localisation UX Writer for the Arab market: “Contrary to what non-Arabic speaking developers were planning to do, I advised against using Eastern Arabic numerals. One would think an Arab audience would find them relevant, but instead, native speakers are expecting to see Western Arabic numerals (0–9) online. This was validated through a series of experiments on prices. People would try to change the language or to find an alternative to do the price comparison, because they were not used to seeing Eastern Arabic numerals”.

And it all comes down to one simple truth: what we do is much more than writing. According to Serena Giust, former UX Writing Manager at Booking.com, to be successful in this role you need to be a strategic thinker, have good stakeholder management skills, and collaborate with different crafts. “I started my career at Booking.com as a UX Writer in the Localisation track. Our aim was to optimise content for specific markets and cultures. This required a lot of quantitative and qualitative research. We explored different cultural backgrounds, psychological concepts and messaging strategies to satisfy specific needs of our target audience”.

Imposter syndrome might be here to stay, but one can learn how to live with it

Up to 82% of people suffer from imposter syndrome, and it’s quite common among non-native writers as earning a living, using your second (or third or fourth) language as the primary tool is something that makes you feel like a fraud sometimes. For some it even becomes a career obstacle. But there’s only one way to deal with it — to accept things as they are and learn to focus on the value you bring as a non-native. Yinquan Chen admits: “It takes time. But I treat my non-native-speaker self as a stakeholder — just another person my UX-writer self has to sell my copy to, using everything I’d present to other stakeholders: research evidence, data or fair gut feeling. And I leave the rest to user testing and experiments”.

Another thing is to ask for feedback from more senior writers to be able to grow and gain confidence. UX Writing Manager, previously UX Writer and Localisation Specialist, Tanja Matic came up with a solution that she calls “copy sandbox”: “I’d write multiple variants of copy in a Google Doc and add my own reflection on UX approaches next to the copy. I’d ask a senior writer or an area expert writer to comment on that. This way I created a safe environment for myself and learned that making mistakes is ok”.

And then we all have a “bad English day” sometimes. It’s unavoidable. But it’s important to know how to deal with it and still go about your daily tasks in a professional way. “People see that I know what I’m doing and they have trust in me delivering optimal copy solutions”, says Zsolt Tòth.

To current or future UX writers who want to start writing in English and are scared of the interviewing process: don’t be

Truly good hiring managers won’t have blanket expectations or assumptions about all non-native or native speakers, and they’ll treat each applicant the same. According to Kelly Chambers, Director UX Writing & Content Design, in her experience many non-native speakers have impeccable English writing skills and many native speakers not so much. So this is something that she pays attention to with any candidate. But as the written work is only a small part of what UX Writers do, one of the main skills she certainly looks out for is self-awareness.

“I ask how copy is reviewed in the candidate’s current company and how they approach safeguarding the written quality of their work. In some companies, there is a copy editor that does a final pass on everything before it goes live. We don’t have that, so it’s important to build a review process into your workflow”.

One word of advice here would be to search for companies that put “native level English” in job descriptions rather than “native speakers”. Phrasing it like this is already a green flag.

Final thoughts on the importance of the supportive environment as a premise of growth — personal and professional

Five months later, I feel much more confident in my new role and more vocal — in the community of UX writers, in my teams and even outside the company. Recently I got invited to join a panel discussion about being a non-native UX Writer where I’ll be able to share my experience and encourage those who’re still struggling to find their place as non-native writers.

All of this was possible for various reasons: because I worked a lot on myself, because empathy is one of the biggest human values in our company, and we’re not only preaching it, but are really practising it quite rigorously every day. And also, because the teams I work with created a safe space for me to speak up and unleash my potential. The narrative in my head changed from “how lucky and privileged native English speakers are” to “how can I leverage my bilingual skills and knowledge of six languages in the most efficient way possible?”. That’s why my main conclusion here is that one should never give up and when choosing (company, environment, colleagues) — choose wisely.

We’re always on the hunt for new writing talent. Wanna join us? Apply here.

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