Why your design team should hire a writer
Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about writing in design. Whether you call it UX writing, product writing, or content design, it’s clear that the words in your design matter.
In his 2017 Design in Tech talk, John Maeda spelled it out for us: “Words are really important because the graphics don’t make sense sometimes.” Fast Co Design followed up with a piece called “Forget Coding: Writing Is Design’s Unicorn Skill.”
Sounds simple, right? To be a great designer, you need to know how to write. No biggie. You write all the time. Emails, specs, tweets — ain’t no thang.
Well, I’m a writer and former English teacher, and I think writing is tough. It’s tough to learn and tough to teach. That’s why Amazon has over 500,000 books about writing!
The mechanics of writing are hard enough to get right, but do you know what’s really hard? Those hand-wavy concepts like word choice, tone, and rhythm. Those skills take forever to master.
So what’s a design team to do? 🤔
Have you considered hiring a writer?
In case you haven’t noticed, more and more design teams are starting to hire writers — writers who think like designers.
Companies big and small are realizing the importance of good copy, and they’re hiring writers to design words. Adobe, Spotify, Slack, HBO, GoPro, Intercom — all these companies hired their first product writers in the past couple of years. Product writers are poppin’ up everywhere.
I know hiring a writer isn’t an option for everyone, but just consider it. The next time you’re wrangling with words, just consider it. What if you added a writer to your team? A writer might be that one missing piece to your puzzle.
Below are a few reasons why I think every design team should have a writer.
1. Writers are designers
Designing a flow is a lot like writing a story — an interactive story. And to tell a compelling story, it helps to have a writer in the room.
In product design, a writer becomes the narrator of your story, guiding the main character (your user) from scene to scene, screen by screen.
Whether you call yourself a writer or a designer, you’ll probably be able to spot a lot of similarities between our two disciplines. Just look at all the parallels:
A few wrong words can cause big design problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a writer who could help solve design problems with words?
2. Writers connect the dots
While designers tend to focus on a single product area, product writers tend to focus on multiple product areas. This is a good thing, because it lets writers see connections and discrepancies in the overall experience.
Writers are the glue between different product areas. We help champion consistency throughout a product, especially when it comes to the language.
After all, things can sound jarring if we say “Oh, shucks” in one place, but “Terminal Error Occurred” in another.
So how do we make sure we use consistent language everywhere? At Dropbox, one way we do this is through our style guide. Our style guide has details about voice, tone, terminology, punctuation, capitalization, accessibility, and a whole lot more.
- Can we use the word “stuff?” Check the style guide.
- Do we say “drag and drop” or just “drag?” Check the style guide.
- Is it okay to use emoji in email subjects? Check the style guide.
- Do we capitalize the word after a colon? Check the style guide.
- How do we write confirmation modals? Check the style guide.
We treat our style guide as a living document and update it at least once a month. And we keep our style guide in Dropbox Paper, so it’s easy to search, easy to access, and easy to update.
3. Writers know when to speak up and when to shut up
In most interface writing, it’s important to shut up and get out of the way. Most of the time, you don’t want to force users to read. They’re trying to get something done, and the last thing they want to do is stop and read your interface.
But sometimes, you do want people to notice your words. That’s when you want to speak up and be heard, loud and clear. Maybe the user did something awesome, and you want to shout it from the mountaintops.
Well, it just so happens that writers are pretty good with tone. Writers know when to dial it up and when to dial it down. We know when to be peppy or patient, firm or flowery.
And I guarantee you that a writer will scrutinize every quip, comment, and claim in your messaging, because we care a lot about conveying the right tone at the right time.
4. Writers look after your language
Good writers sweat the details. Whether it’s a misspelled word or a misplaced comma, good writers care about the quality of the copy.
But does language quality even matter? Is it a big deal if there are typos in your product? Does anyone care if it says “log in” on one page, but “sign on” on another?
I think language quality definitely matters. It all comes down to trust. Once users start noticing typos and inconsistencies, they start losing trust in your company. If your company can’t take the time to write properly, why should they trust you with their time and money?
Writers look after your language, so you don’t lose trust with your users.
5. Writers push you to become a better designer
Supposedly, Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This is so true when it comes to product writing.
As product writers, we’re often asked to explain difficult concepts as simply as possible. And sometimes, during the writing process, we’ll realize there’s no simple way to explain a feature. That often means the design isn’t intuitive.
That’s when we’ll go back to the designers and figure out a simpler solution together. Writers aren’t afraid to point out when designs don’t make sense, because confusing designs lead to bad writing.
In other words, writers push you to become a better designer, and better designs lead to better writing. The real magic happens when everyone’s sharing ideas, working together to push for a better experience.
And don’t forget: Writers are your biggest fans. We’re creatives, just like you. We love the craft, the process, and the discoveries. We love design, too.
6. Writers have a way with words
Do you know the secret to writing good copy? Good copy is the result of many time-tested techniques that writers have been refining for years. If you look closely, you can spot these techniques in almost any good piece of copywriting.
To illustrate this, I tried to use a bunch of these writing techniques throughout this story. Here are some of the techniques I used:
- Alliteration: Using words that start with the same sound to make a sentence sound smooth.
- Rhyme: Using words that end with the same sound to make a sentence sound catchy.
- Amplification: Repeating certain words or phrases for extra emphasis.
- Parallelism: Repeating the same grammatical structure to make words more memorable.
- Antithesis: Putting opposite ideas together to make a stronger point.
- Cadence: Creating a tempo based on the syllables and accents in each word.
- Rule of three: Mentioning things in groups of three to create a pattern, beat, or rhythm.
- Metaphor: Referring to one thing by mentioning another thing, often in a clever way.
- Value proposition: Highlighting user benefits to motivate people to act.
- Rhetorical question: Using a question instead of a statement to make a point.
- Question & response: Asking a question to build interest, then answering it yourself. Also known as hypophora.
Did you notice these techniques throughout this story?
In product writing, these techniques come in handy pretty often, especially when you’re designing a promo, landing page, empty state, email, or onboarding flow. These techniques help make your copy more compelling.
Anyone can learn how to write compelling copy, but it takes years to master. Writers have been fine-tuning their craft for years, so why not lean on their experience?
OK, let’s go hire a writer!
After reading this story, hopefully you now see the value that writers can bring to your design team. As you think about growing your team, consider hiring a writer. Your users will love you more because of it.
Every product has an amazing story to tell. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a writer who could help tell your story?
If you’re ready to start searching for a writer, here are some related articles to help you on your way: