every word matters
Published in

every word matters

Rachael Mullins, OpenCities

I’m a product content strategist at OpenCities in Melbourne, Australia, and I’m passionate about plain language, content-first design, and using words to build better experiences. Outside of work, you’ll probably find me reading, eating pasta, or travelling to cold places.

How did you get into content design?

My first job after uni was as a technical writer, pumping out printed manuals that explained how to use accounting software. At the start, my team had almost no input into product design, but over the years we began taking ownership of the words in the interface — a job that had traditionally fallen to others. It made perfect sense to me that the people who had studied writing and language — and had a knack for clear, concise communication — should be the ones who designed the product content.

In my current role at OpenCities, I do a mix of product content strategy, content design and UX writing (there’s a lot of overlap between the three). As part of the Experience Design team, I work with our product teams to consider content from the start, and give it the same care we give our visual design and interaction design.

What does a normal day look like?

Each day is different, but it usually involves some combination of these tasks:

  • Draft, get feedback on, and revise copy
  • Collaborate on the design of a new feature or improvement
  • Name a new feature and figure out where it fits in the information architecture
  • Run a tree test or card sort to see how our users go about finding what they need and organising information
  • Check in on the user feedback and analytics for our help center
  • Review notes from a user testing session to see if there are opportunities to improve our copy
  • Update our writing style guide
  • Review marketing copy and ad hoc wordy stuff
  • Attend sprint planning meetings, sprint reviews and sprint retrospectives. I like to get involved at the planning stage to make sure content work is factored in from the start.

One constant is our daily lunchtime trivia, where we gather around the kitchen table and I cross my fingers we get to do the Dictionary round (everyone else’s worst nightmare).

What are the top 3 apps you use?

  • Google Docs — Always and forever my go-to for collaborative work.
  • Workflowy — For taking notes, making lists and even drafting bits of microcopy. It’s where my to-do list lives.
  • Spotify and Noisli — My two favourite noise-blockers for the times I need to focus. My ears are frequently saved by my ambient and shoegaze playlists on Spotify, and my favourite nature sound combo on Noisli is seaside with a touch of wind. 😏

Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?

To paraphrase Stephen King, I read a lot and write a lot.

As a lifelong bookworm I try to get a little bit of reading in each day, whether it’s literary fiction, graphic novels, dystopian and post-apocalyptic thrillers, or nonfiction.

One of these things is not like the others

Whatever the medium, I think you can learn a lot by paying attention to how people use words to express their ideas — whether in song lyrics, food labels, street art, or conversations you overhear on the train.

I try to improve my writing through Medium posts on language and tech, tweets (great practice in crafting short, sharp, focused messages), longform pieces on travel, feminism and pop culture, and dumb little Instagram captions about pasta. For me, trying a range of writing styles that aren’t UX writing not only flexes my creative muscle, but also helps me make sense of my thoughts.

Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?

Books: Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee, plus anything I’ve rated highly on Goodreads.

Email newsletters: The Word Doctor by Georgina Laidlaw.

Communities: Content + UX on Slack and Microcopy & UX Writing on Facebook.

People: Beth Aitman, John Saito, Amy Thibodeau, Jason Fox, Ryan Cordell.

What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?

I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of being the first product content person to join the OpenCities team. I’ve been responsible for proving the value of great UX writing (this is an ongoing job to be honest), creating a writing style guide, auditing our product content, defining a process for working with development teams, and helping decide exactly how we’ll measure our content.

Along the way we’ve brought a junior technical writer on board to share the load, and although there’s still a lot to do, we’ve taken the first steps towards fostering a culture that cares about content.

You know your job is done when the developers start schooling each other on punctuation ❤

How do you approach getting stakeholders and teammates on board?

  • Find allies — Join forces with others who care about content. If you can find, say, one developer who sees the value in what you’re doing and will happily consult you when needed, others will mirror that behaviour.
  • Explain the why — Don’t just tell people what to change; offer reasons. Something something teach a man to fish something something.
  • Connect the dots — Scour support tickets and talk to your customer success team. Users confused by the name of a feature? That’s where you come in. Support folks continually answering the same questions? Maybe better content design can help. Show how you can improve your teammates’ lives, not just your users’ lives.
  • Evangelise! — Hijack meetings and showcases to share what you’ve been doing and bring everyone on the journey with you.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a content designer?

It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the value you bring. If a user successfully does The Thing, is that because of how it looks, how it works, or what it says? I’m still figuring out how to best quantify the ROI of great product content.

What’s your biggest content pet peeve?

☠️ Lorem ipsum in wireframes ☠️

Do you have any advice for aspiring content designers?

Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. If you don’t have the time or backing to create your own writing style guide, piggyback off one of the excellent ones already out there (MailChimp, GOV.UK, Shopify).

Likewise, make use of free tools. The Hemingway Editor helps you improve the readability of your writing, and Google Trends gives you insight into word use across time and region (if you can’t decide between two words, pop them in and see which is more common).

Is there anything you want to promote?

Come work with me! We’re growing fast, and we’re always on the lookout for people who are passionate about helping governments transform how they serve their communities. https://www.linkedin.com/company/opencities/

Where can people find you?

On Medium at @rachaelmullins, on Twitter at @rachaelamullins, and everywhere else via the links at rachaelmullins.com.

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