Moving on from contract work to in-house UX writing
A UX writer’s first 3 months in a permanent role
“When does it end?” I asked the recruiter. Three months into a pandemic-era job search, I was weary, but hopeful. I had just completed contracts at two Big Tech companies and wasn’t sure I wanted to go through it all again. I was a foster, Little Orphan Nerie. A scruffy terrier with my face pressed up to the shelter window, waiting for my forever home.
“There is no end date. This is an in-house position,” she chirped. My ears perked up. A few years ago, I’d interviewed for Booking and passed two interviews. However, I lacked key UX design process experience fundamental to any product writing role. That is, until now.
Four interviews later, I signed on as UX Writer for Booking.com’s Machine Learning track in Tel Aviv. I did it! I got accepted to a company I’d been following since 1998, on Windows 95 with dial-up internet.
Wait. Record scratch. Freeze frame. I celebrated briefly before imposter syndrome got the best of me. I rang the previous UX Writer and asked if I’d need to prepare and what to brush up on? “Nothing,” she said. “Just enjoy the onboarding.”
My first week
Before starting the next week, I dug into every article I could find. Every blog, tweet, and YouTube video to get a glimpse of what would await me behind the scenes of this multinational travel agency. It was so exciting! It was the same routine, but I would perform as Beyonce rather than Solange. I wondered where the differences and similarities would lie.
Would working as an in-house writer be so different from contracting? I reflected on the past decade. I had headed copywriting and strategy in full-time roles before. In fact, I’d worked for Israeli-owned startups and SMBs for most of my career. Contracting through an agency was in stark contrast to how I was used to working as a writer. I got this. I’ll ace this onboarding, I thought.
My first week came and went, and I kept a mental checklist in my head. I couldn’t help but compare what was the same, what was different. I’d felt a little rusty, maybe even intimidated. Would they give me, a UX Writer, copywriting tasks? Would my role answer to Marketing instead of Product? All of my concerns were alleviated within the first few hours of meeting my manager.
Meeting the team
Booking.com’s onboarding process was so organised and planned, down to the most minute detail. Within the first conversation, I heard how my manager understood my craft, how my role was important and how it was valued. How I was valued. The Product teams were warm and welcoming and my predecessor had already laid the groundwork for copy evangelising. I didn’t need to fight for a seat at the table. Within my first week, they had already invited me to a brainstorming session.
Meeting with senior leaders and stakeholders went a long way in settling myself in at Booking.com. Instead of having my meetings cancelled repeatedly as a contractor, colleagues were eager to welcome me to the team.
Learning the craft
Here it comes, I thought. Hit the gas and brace yourself. Would my onboarding be rushed, in favour of being put to work immediately, as I’d experienced in the past? Would I learn anything new about UX writing that I didn’t already know?
Actually, new employees have access to an elaborate learning framework. New UX writers are assigned a craft-specific lesson plan that takes a month to complete. Each week, I was greeted with a new training module and was not required to join stand ups and take on projects.
I could finally slow down and take the time to onboard properly. Instead of delivering 110% value immediately, which inevitably leads to burnout, I could take my time and absorb how things worked. Gone was the proverbial ticking clock that was my contract.
Instead of not being able to set up my own meetings or speak with ‘non-contractors’ by myself, I was actually expected to reach out and collaborate on projects. “You own your onboarding and the copy,” were words I was delighted to hear in my first week.
Ownership as a contractor can depend on many factors, and sometimes you don’t own your copy, the writing process, or the timeline. It was refreshing to have complete and total autonomy over my work. I was no longer working blindfolded, with one arm tied behind my back.
I remember my first All-Hands meeting, a regular company-wide gathering where all employees meet with leadership to discuss company affairs. For most, this is routine. For me, a former contractor, it was a privilege. I could view the agenda and vote on the questions I wanted to see asked. This overarching vision, directly from the mouths of senior leadership, gave important context to my budding role in the Product team.
Writing the words
Writing the words is the easiest part of being a UX writer. Maybe you’ve heard this before, and it’s true. When you put pen to paper, you own more than just the words. You’ll carry each project or task forward, from start to finish, without handing off to a senior writer. You won’t be hindered by long lines of communication. You’ll be seeing it through to the end, from developer hand-off to monitoring metrics.
Part of my onboarding process was getting my work critiqued. Many writers, like artists, loathe this part of the process. It’s not unlike presenting artwork to a panel of judges in art school. Getting feedback from your peers can be awkward, and I’ve witnessed a few end in tears. Critiques, when done right, can be a friendly exchange of ideas and I left mine feeling refreshed and ready to iterate. Everyone, from your product managers to developers, are trained on how to give feedback in the right way, so you aren’t left guessing or frustrated.
Working in-house for an international product means your words will be seen on multiple platforms and translated into dozens of languages. At the time of this article’s publication, Booking translates content and copy into 40+ languages. You could write for chatbots, internal platforms, and wearable devices, as well as websites and mobile apps.
Your copy in 40+ languages
Some writers don’t get to experience hands-on localisation and translation work. They could work through a third-party, and miss out on the direct one-on-one collaboration with translators. Maybe they send their work to a localisation coordinator, who then sends the work to an agency.
Writing for other cultures requires experience with other languages. Writing for such a large company means considering how your words will affect and scale for global audiences. Besides the surfaces where your words will appear, UX writers must consider how their words will translate. What if there is no word or concept of the topic in another culture? It simply doesn’t exist. How will you instruct language specialists? Some of them won’t have access to your product, especially if it’s not available in their country or an internal platform used by full-time employees.
Translating and localising English copy, without the help of a UX writer knowledgeable in the caveats of getting it wrong, can lead to some hilarious, costly, or even dangerous blunders.
Every writer at Booking.com coordinates their own translations, avoiding the game of telephone. Part of my onboarding included meeting regularly with a Senior Language Specialist, who prepared in-depth presentations into the world of localisation at Booking.com. My first month included meeting with a local team of Hebrew language specialists and discussing how I could help assist their work and what common pitfalls to avoid.
Research and testing
How do you know if your words were successful? What if you’re writing in the wrong direction or completely missed what users were looking to do? You could iterate ad nauseam, without UX research to guide you.
In my experience, sometimes contractors don’t have access to user testing tools or research. They could be locked out of important documents and need to rely on second or third-hand stakeholder information. You may not conduct user interviews or only have access to simple surveys and public feedback forums. And, since you may not always know how long your contract is, you could struggle with deciding where to place your energy and talent. Research and testing fall by the wayside.
I was thrilled when I met my onboarding buddy, a UX researcher. Finally, I had access to any research tools I required. There were enough logins to go around and I could ask any inane questions I could think of without judgement.
User testing and copy testing at Booking.com is accounted for in the process, not an afterthought or skipped altogether to “move fast and break things”. Every UX writer at Booking.com has access to set up their own copy testing experiments. Every iteration goes through experimentation. There is no room for headstrong stakeholders to go rogue and claim they “know the user”.
I hope this article answered some questions for you or challenged your perception of UX writing. I’m excited for what the next 90 days at Booking.com will hold. I’ll bring you along for part two.
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