Scott Kubie, Brain Traffic
Hey hi I’m Scott Kubie. I’m a writer and designer from Minneapolis, MN. I lead the consulting practice at Brain Traffic, the content strategy consultancy founded by Kristina Halvorson. I’m the author of Writing for Designers, a brief from A Book Apart about how to get the writing done in a design context.
How did you get into UX writing?
Begrudgingly. (I kid, I kid.) But for real, I was fine before “UX Writing” was coined. I was also fine with my flip phone, but sometimes the world moves on regardless of my feelings. (Rude!)
To me, writing has always been part of designing and building digital things. In one sense I started doing UX writing as a pre-teen in the 90s. As an only child and fully-fledged Indoor Kid, computers were my main hobby. I talked teachers into letting me make Hypercard decks and websites instead of writing reports. I wrote for an E/N site (ask your internet Grandpa) and other hobby sites I built in Notepad. I made levels for games like Starcraft and Jedi Knight, which meant writing scripts, release notes, and the odd bit of UI text. One summer me and a kid down the street had a scheme to get free video games by making a review website — I think we were 13? We did a lot of designing but never did write a damn review.
In another sense, I started doing UX writing at an Iowa software company called BitMethod. They initially hired me to write press releases and app release notes. I quickly found myself deep in the designs, doing light IA work and a lot of what we now call UX writing. We were a team of three — a developer, a designer, and me — creating web and mobile apps in the very early days of the App Store. Between our own products and client work I wrote UX copy in categories like news, banking, personal health, entertainment, point-of-sale, and more.
What does your UX writing process look like?
My favorite way of approaching what we now call UX writing was at Wolfram. I started as the sole writer supporting a UX design team working on just about every product in the very large Wolfram portfolio.
I held a weekly check-in with each designer where we went over whatever they’d worked on since the previous meeting, prioritized some screens to focus on, and then dug into the copy together, side-by-side. I got a lot of writing done that way. Anything too complex to solve then and there, I’d take back to my desk, sprint on for a bit, and circle back to the designer. Designers would check back as needed as they continued working. I would usually participate in design reviews to speak to the copy elements and defend my design decisions. Collaborating in this way meant that the UX writing got better and better before it ever reached my desk, which made us all more efficient.
Broadly, my approach was to do as little writing as possible, either by coaching designers toward discovering the right words themselves, or by using a higher-level lens to evaluate whether the words/component/feature/product were even needed in the first place. I’ve often joked that my most honest portfolio would just be a list of everything I’ve talked people out of doing.
What are the top 3 apps you use?
After Safari, Tweetdeck, and Apple Music, the more interesting top three apps I use are:
Ulysses — All of my long-form writing gets developed in Ulysses. I have workflows for my personal blog, personal newsletter, Brain Traffic blog, LinkedIn articles, presentation and workshop abstracts, and two in-flight book projects.
Ulysses helps me know what’s available to work on when I sit down to write and what stage of development it’s in. For example, I put these interview questions into my Ulysses inbox so I would remember to work on them when I had a few minutes here and there after other writing sprints.
MindNode — Mindmapping suits how I think through problems and MindNode suits how I prefer my design tools — as simple as possible.
Drafts — I use Drafts on my iPhone to capture bits of text to follow up on later. Phrases to inspire song lyrics, blog post ideas, quotes to file away somewhere, that sort of thing. I don’t use much of the automation stuff in Drafts, it’s just a handy little omni-inbox.
Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
For design teams, I advocate a reliable, near-boundless source of inspiration: users! You’ll never lack for inspiration if your team is talking to your users.
Personally, I just need a good night’s sleep and a hot cup of coffee. I write for an hour every single day and there’s always something to peck away at. If I’m really feeling stuck in a rut creatively, or just in a low mood, loud live music usually sorts me out. I’m lucky in Minneapolis to have access to so many great venues and bands.
Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?
My oddball choice for a book I’d love for more designers to read is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a manual full of lessons on interpersonal relations that apply nearly as well to human-computer relations.
For some more contemporary reads, you can’t go wrong with:
— Design for Real Life
— Writing is Designing
— Design is a Job
— How to Make Sense of Any Mess
Those are design books, not writing books, but grammar and word choice aren’t really the hard parts about UX writing, are they?
What’s your biggest content pet peeve?
Awesome Talk: Needlessly and/or inappropriately emotional interface writing.
eg “Wow! Congratulations on signing in! You’re a ninja rockstar.”
“Aw bummer my dude, the transaction failed. Try your luck again?”
Just … no. If I want personality and clever interfaces and funny dialogue I’ll play a video game.
What principles do you try to stick to when writing?
Be polite! Per my previous recommendations for the Dale Carnegie book, I find that many interface writing and design puzzles become more clear if we simply imagine how two humans would interact in that situation. The apps we design are often standing in for the role of a service industry worker — bank teller, store clerk, nurse, loan officer, real estate agent, etc. A real person wouldn’t use Awesome Talk, a real person wouldn’t speak in cryptic technical jargon, a real person wouldn’t demand a bunch of personal information without explaining what it’s needed for, and so on.
For refining and editing my writing, I like the “ACB’s” that I picked up from a little book called The 10% Solution. They are: Accuracy, Clarity, and Brevity, in that order.
Do you have any advice for aspiring UX writers?
Where can people find and follow you?
I’m on Twitter as @scottkubie and post often about content and UX writing on LinkedIn. I also have a personal blog, personal newsletter, speaking website, and lots of good stuff on the Brain Traffic blog.
Thanks for the questions, and good luck out there, everybody! Keep fighting the good fight for users.
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Thanks again to Scott Kubie for taking the time to answer these questions.
And thanks to Dickon Gray for helping with the design.