The Evolution of UX Writing at Microsoft
How UX writers became the voice of the customer
Who wants to read a Help topic? Nobody.
UX writing has come a long way over the years, with a huge increase in demand especially in the last few. When I first started UX writing for Microsoft Office back in the mid to late ’90s, it was more like a “side job” to my official technical writer role. If a stranger on a train asked what I did at Microsoft, my answer was usually something like: “I work closely with engineers, and my job is to translate technical concepts into plain, everyday language to make it easier for everyone to use our products.” This was usually followed with a little friendly banter, where the other person would often share a personal story — sometimes humorous, sometimes painful — about trying to figure out how to do this or that in Word or Excel.
Those stories served as critical reminders for me to always focus on the customer. Working alongside engineers, I found the world we inhabited sometimes obscured that. Some of the features we designed made perfect sense to us “Microsofties” inside our company walls, but less so for our customers around the world. We needed to think beyond ourselves and really put ourselves in the shoes of the customer.
We realized that developing strong design sensibilities paired with customer empathy and the desire to be advocates for our users would be vital in making our products easy and wonderful to use. How could we make simple design changes and communicate them effectively for more intuitive workflows? How could we name and market our features to be less intimidating, and resonate with the way people out in the world think and speak?
My personal benchmark became simple — how can I make core experiences so highly intuitive that I don’t need to write a Help topic to explain it. You could say I was trying to put myself out of the help topic business.
The rise of UI text writers at Microsoft
For other writers like me who began to focus more on helping to shape core experiences, the “technical writer” job title started to make less sense. Fortunately, the need for this specialized UX writing skill became more apparent to product leaders. When Windows 2000 was nearly ready to ship, the first official “UI text writer” position was created. And then another one. And the next one. I moved out of my technical writer job and was delighted to fill one of these early UI text writer roles. Around this time, the Windows execs realized that the product UI was in need of some serious customer love. I was given a basket full of headcount to hire more UX writers. And just like that, the first official Microsoft UI Text Writing Team was born.
We were a team of eight, and we considered ourselves pioneers, forging a path in a brand new space at the company — working upstream and side by side with designers, user researchers, program managers, and software engineers to create product experiences our customers would love. It didn’t take long to realize that we had an enormous mountain to climb — not only to craft and edit a huge volume of UI text strings, help to shape and define core experiences, but to also drive a significant culture change within the organization — starting with the need for a much higher degree of customer empathy, followed by figuring out how to earn our place at the UX table.
One of our biggest challenges was simply positioning ourselves as UX writing experts, who could fully apply our skills to help enhance and improve core product experiences. We needed UI text writers, designers, researchers and program managers to all work on equal ground. This led to our first formal set of UI Text Writing Guidelines. However, to really seal the deal we knew we needed something more than basic best practices checklists on our internal website. With work underway to publish The Windows User Experience handbook, the timing was perfect for us to slip in a section on UI text, which we wrote in partnership with our design, research, and PM partners. Life suddenly became much easier for the UI text writer: “Yes, we need to remove the periods from the check box text, per the official guideline on page 243.” There was less ambiguity and less frustration for our writers, which led to more consistency in not only our UI text, but also the customer experience.
Fast forward a few years, with mobile devices entering the scene. This was the “timely and relevant content when and where users need it” era. UX writers began to partner very closely with their technical writer counterparts — how can we simply integrate “user assistance” into the product UI itself when the UI text alone wouldn’t cut it? We began to talk about primary, secondary, and tertiary layers of content, while also brainstorming about all kinds of interesting “better together with” mobility scenarios. Our ideas always kept the customer at the center — but the technology wasn’t quite there yet to realize our vision.
Amid the many challenges we faced, we learned to keep a sense of humor, starting with our scrappy Talking Heads-inspired T-shirts, which read:
We also enjoyed our glorious “hall of shame” showcasing the most silly and embarrassing UI text strings and error messages the world has ever seen. Despite our lighthearted approach, our product team and UX partners knew that we were on a mission, and it didn’t take long for everyone to get on board. We then created a formal v-team, code named Paris, bringing UI text writers, designers, and program managers together. Our collective mantra? It just works.
Flash forward: a customer-centric approach
The UI text writer of yesterday has become the UX writer of today. Writers at Microsoft are multi-dimensional, functioning as UX experts, content strategists, customer advocates, data analysts, voice and tone gurus, and more. With the exciting culture shift at Microsoft as a company that fully embraces customer obsession, a growth mindset, diversity and inclusion, and empowerment at all levels, it feels like a new beginning.
UX writers at Microsoft now work to change the game with the maturity and growth of machine learning, AI, predictive analytics, chat bots, conversational UX, always-on experimentation, and more data insights than we could have ever imagined just a few years ago.
Today’s focus is on “shifting left,” where UX writers move further upstream to help shape and define core experiences that our customers will love. The UX writing journey at Microsoft has been an exciting, challenging, and adventurous one, with so much terrain ahead waiting to be explored. But there is always one constant — to continue being the voice of the customer.
How has your writing team evolved? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below.