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How I work as a UX writer

Hi. My name is Shawn, and I’m a content strategist and UX writer at Capital One. I simplify user experiences.

UX Writer seems to be a pretty hot role in tech companies these days, yet even my mom isn’t sure exactly what I do. Mom, I write the words you see in your mobile app, when you open a new bank account, and more recently, when you ask our intelligent assistant a question. I guide you to achieve your task in the simplest, most intuitive way.

I save you time and money by making your life easier!

That’s it? You just write words? You’re the words guy?

Yeah, I’m the words guy. (And the suit guy.) And I’ve been described as “the glue that keeps everything together.”

So, how do you do it, words guy?

I’ll give you my 6 principles.

Job listings for UX writers at Capital One (Dec 2018). Check out current open roles.

1. Start with relationships

When she first hired me, my mentor said, “Build relationships with all your partners and meet as many people as you can.” So, that’s what I did. I had one-on-ones with all the designers in my lane, the product managers, the business analysts, the marketing team, the research team, legal, compliance, the interns, and the directors.

If you’re going to help anybody, you need the people you work with to know that you care about the same things they care about.

I care about good design. I care about pixel-perfection, color palettes, fonts and easy-to-read content (like designers). I also care about the business goals— the conversion rate, and the average fund rate (like product managers).

There’s nothing more important than the data. How can I access the data? Oh, that’s how you sign up for Google Analytics, make custom reports, and create a dashboard? Perfect, thanks (business analysts).

Oh, so that’s the marketing language we’re using to talk about that product? I’ll make sure to refer to that when we talk about that product in the app (marketing partners).

The interns teach me what else we’re working on, and I get to teach them about the importance of content-first design. The directors help me understand the larger vision, and later get to see how I’ve aligned my work with that vision. And on and on.

Karaoke runner-up: King of the Bank. In this photo are directors, interns, managers, associates, and our VP.

If you want to get anything done, build relationships. So, that’s where I started. And it was fun. Maybe I’m lucky to work with super smart (and fun) people who are happy to share what they’re working on and are open to collaboration. But, I imagine working with less awesome colleagues, that breaking down walls, building relationships, and developing trust would be even more important to your success. This advice my mentor gave me influenced how I work, and ultimately how I can better impact millions of people.

2. Give ’em what they want

After you’ve gotten to know your partners, you can start to have an idea of their motivation. What do they want? What is their success measured by? If you understand people’s motivations, you can align yourself with them and help them get what they want.

Good designers care about quality. As a UX writer, if I can make designs better simply by writing clearer, more concise content, then I’ve helped them get what they want. Product managers care about the KPI’s. If I can rewrite complicated language in a more understandable way, that could reduce drop-off rate and increase conversions.

When I first joined the team, I traveled to Wilmington to meet our engineers. They were unusually thrilled to finally have a dedicated content strategist. One of them half-interrupted the product manager introducing me by excitedly asking “can he look at all of our error messages and re-write them?” The product manager said there were other, more-pressing projects I’d be focusing on to start, but I didn’t forget that engineers request. It was clear to me that the engineering team cared about the experience and having an ex-English professor rewrite the error messages was important to them. I put it on my backlog and made sure to get around to it eventually.

There’s no better way to build trust than to give people what they want. Find out what it is, and do what you can to help them achieve their goals. It builds trust and will help you accomplish your goals later. As a UX writer, it can be as simple as rewriting a few error messages.

3. Bring the customer’s perspective

As a UX writer, everything you write should be with the customer in mind. Understand the audience you’re writing for, and never, ever, forget them. When somebody asks me how to write a better experience, I start with questions. How did the customer get here? What are they trying to do? The truth is, the people I work with often have a better understanding of the customer than I do. It’s my job to remind them of the customer’s perspective.

A fun way to bring the customer’s perspective is to imagine you’re explaining the experience to your grandma, aunt, uncle, or friend. If you were describing this experience to them, or explaining what they need to do, what would you tell them? I have my partners say it out loud. Then, I just write down what they say. The final content often isn’t far from the words they say aloud.

It’s not the job of the UX writer to know all the right words. It’s the UX writer’s job to bring the customer’s perspective.

4. Ask simple questions

There usually aren’t enough UX writers to write all the words for all of the experiences. Writing is everybody’s job. A great UX writer can help educate the team by asking simple questions.

Here’s an illustrative example of an engineer asking for help with an error message: Okay, what do you have so far? The message is “the data you input does not match our system records.” Okay, so what’s the customer trying to do? Well, she’s trying to log in? Okay, and what happened? Well, the data she input doesn’t match our system record. Okay, what’s the data she input? Her password. Okay, is it definitely her password, or could it be her username? It could be her username or password.

Cool. So, how would you tell your grandma? I’d tell her she entered the wrong username or password and to try again. (Me taking notes.) How about “Looks like you entered the wrong username or password. Please, try again.”

Sometimes, asking simple questions to uncover the simple solutions can be the most valuable thing needed from a UX writer. Engineers have a difficult job that involves solving complicated problems in technical languages. Having deep thinkers solving the intricacies of the experience is critical. Balancing the complicated with the simple is what separates the good solutions from the great. Help your team create great solutions by asking simple questions like, “How would you explain this to your grandma?” Nobody loves a simple solution more than Grandma!

Your grandma doesn’t know anything about the data she entered (left), but she knows what to do when you tell her to try a different username or password (right).

5. Ask tough questions

Bringing the customer’s perspective and always advocating for a simpler, more intuitive experience sometimes means you’ll have to ask the tough questions. Should we be doing this at all? Why are we asking for that information if we don’t need it? Are we just trying to make more money here, or is this good for the customer, too?

If you’re not asking the tough questions, who is? And if asking the tough questions isn’t your responsibility, what is? UX writers don’t just write words — they save you time and money by making your life easier!

Asking the tough questions is… tough. It’s not easy. But it’s important. Even if your partners don’t change direction, it’s important you ask. Once you gain enough influence (see points 1–4 above), more people will listen.

I was in the user labs after a full-day of testing with the whole team. We were synthesizing what we learned from the participants. The designer and I had worked on the project for months and after testing our designs in the lab, the engineers were gearing up to build the experience. But, there was a burning question on my mind… why were we building this experience here? Didn’t it make more sense in a different place?

Thankfully, I had built a relationship with the lead on the project, had helped him get what he wanted previously and thus, had built enough trust to ask this tough question. Why are we building this here instead of another team building it somewhere else? No less than 3 other people in the room chimed in that they were wondering the same thing. The product manager explained how our team had the opportunity to influence the design to be best for our customers if we built it here. It was a relief to speak up, and to be assured that we were on the right path.

Ask the tough questions, in the spirit of doing what’s best for the customer and the business.

6. Design with data

Design differs from art in that design solves problems. It’s hard to know what problem to solve if you don’t have data. And you’ll only know if you’re solving the problem better by having data that proves so.

The first major project I was assigned to was a redesign of our account opening (AO) process. The product designer had already gotten a head start and was excited to have a “professional writer” help with the words. I was eager to jump in too, and wanted to exceed whatever expectations people had. Thankfully, the designer I was working with was young, idealistic, and talented as hell. We got together and didn’t just make the account opening experience prettier — we re-designed it.

We rearranged the order of the questions based on conversational design principles and research our colleagues had done. We were proud of the work we did and shared it with the product manager. “This looks great, but why are the questions out of order? We can’t reorder the questions, I just want to tweak the visual design,” said the product manager.

Just the visual design?! But we could make the current order of questions flow more like a natural conversation, and we had the data to prove how that would make the application easier to understand for customers (and impact our business goals).

Data doesn’t lie, so design with data. We presented the research we had and ultimately convinced him to run an A/B/Z test where A was simply the aesthetic changes, B was aesthetic plus reordering a few of the questions, and Z was the current experience. Best case scenario would be that our design (B) would be better than just visual changes (A), and that both would be better than what was live now (Z).

The data came back, and the visual design (A) actually performed worse than the current (Z)! Uh-oh! The aesthetic changes had actually hurt our conversion rate by more than 20%!

But… our redesign with a few data-based conversational design changes (B) actually increased conversions more than 20%. This was not just a win for conversational design; this was a win for designing with data.

Go forth and conquer

Now you know how I work as a UX writer. And if you’ve been paying attention — it’s no different from how anybody should work. The principles that guide how I work apply to almost every job. No matter what your role, you’d do well to:

  1. Start with relationships
  2. Give ’em what they want
  3. Bring the customer’s perspective
  4. Ask simple questions
  5. Ask tough questions
  6. Design with data

Now, go forth and conquer!

I’m Shawn Roe, and I’m a content strategist and UX writer at Capital One. I simplify user experiences. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. You should also check out jobs at Capital One, and join the team.