Want to work in UX? Pay attention in English class.

With special guest Andy Welfle, Adobe Senior Content Strategist Lead

Building the Perfect Designer

There seems to be a bit of an arms race to standardize the skill sets that are required by employers when it comes to UX-ers, digital product designers, UI designers, or whatever you want to call “us”. I’m acutely aware of this arms race specifically, because I’m in it. Over the past few years we (Adobe and myself) have been working with the University of Utah on developing curriculum for their Digital Product Design program. The core question driving most of our decisions has been a simple one:

What do we want the designers that we hire in the future to look like?

Some of the answers to that question have been pretty straight forward. We need Adobe designers to have a strong understanding of design thinking principles. We need Adobe designers to have a process for discovering problems. We need them to be able to work through those problems with that process to deliver designs that improve the user’s experience. We need those designs to be visually compelling and thoroughly tested using best practices. We need those designers to be able to pitch those ideas through presentations to cross-functional stakeholders.

There’s a lot we need from our designers.

Being that this has been a topic that has been so top of mind for me, I’m constantly looking at parts of my day-to-day process and trying to incorporate the skills needed to complete those things into the curriculum we’re developing. And that’s when I had the “aha” moment a few days ago. There was one aspect of my job responsibilities that touches every single step of the process that we hadn’t accounted for: writing.

Sharpen Your Pencils

Want to set up user testing? You’re going to need to write an email. Are you defining a persona? You better write that thing up. What’s the user’s journey that you’re shooting for? You’re probably going to need to write a narrative. Need to sell some stakeholders on a design? You’re definitely going to be writing up a presentation.

However, if writing isn’t one of our strong suits, it can leave us in a bit of a quandary. So I pinged a colleague of mine, Andy Welfle, who is Senior Content Strategist Lead here at Adobe on the design team. He also happens to be a super awesome guy willing to bestow some of his writing knowledge on us. I asked him a few questions about writing in the UX world and he had some incredibly valuable insights not only just in terms of writing, but specifically for writing in a UX context.

Andy Welfle

As a UX content writer, what similarities have you observed between writing and digital product design?

It’s obvious when it’s pointed out, but a lot of times, designers don’t think about words being part of the user experience. At best, they blend seamlessly with the visuals and the UI, and at worst, they’re jarringly noticeable.

UX content strategy has a lot of parallels with UX design. In fact, when designers ask me what I do, I tell them that I write using design thinking. Instead of traditional copywriting which is usually very linear and finite (and often comes much later in the software development process), UX writing happens at or near the same time UX design does. We iterate alongside designers, and think about the system of language as they think about the visual system.

Here are a few similarities I see in our disciplines:

UX Designers think about…
Brand manifesting in the product. How do we use color, typography, animations and illustration to both reflect the brand and help users through the flow?
UX Writers think about…
Voice and Tone. How do we speak to the users to both sound clear and understandable, but also to personify the brand?

UX Designers think about…
Components and Patterns. Products often have a design systems that helps many designers build consistency across a big team. If, say, there’s one style of form in one part of a workflow, and a completely different style of form in another, users can become disoriented and confused.
UX Writers think about…
Terms and Taxonomies.How do we describe similar terms across a big product, or suite of products? What’s the difference between Open In, Save To, Export, and/or Convert? Do they do the same thing? Are they in the same place in the navigation throughout?

If everything’s working well, UX designers and writers are learning and developing this together, and alongside each other.

Are there writing mistakes that you see specific to the UX community?

So, so often, I see products that try to use whimsy or humor to lighten a tense situation, in perhaps an error message or empty state. It’s usually the result of direction from PMs or executives: “Our copy is boring,” they might say. “Can we make it a little friendlier or more conversational?”

Imagine spending a couple minutes entering your credit card information to make a big, important purchase. But maybe you put your card number in wrong, and once you submitted it, the error message said, “BUMMER: Your payment couldn’t be made. Add some more cashola and THEN come talk to us.”

(This is an extreme example, but not unrealistic. I’m sure you’ve seen over-the-top messages like this.)

Well, not only is it assuming the worst (that you couldn’t pay for it, rather than just entering your information incorrectly), but it’s also being a smart-ass. Imagine if a cashier loudly said that to you when you swiped your card too quickly at Target.

It’s not so fun then, right? Well, it’s not going to so much fun in an interface.

How can a designer go about honing their writing skill?

Honestly, if designers do what you’re doing and write, that’s half the battle (GI JOOOE)!

Writing is a muscle, and like drawing or running or solving math equations, the more you exercise it, the better you get. And while UX writing isn’t the same as writing, say, Medium posts, it lights up the verbal part of your brain.

There are a few continuing education pursuits that I think would be helpful — journalism or technical writing. My minor is in journalism, and I use those skills every day: customizing my words for a particular audience, and distilling a concept down to the simplest, most concise way I can. And technical writing teaches you how to chunk out a complicated process for the easiest possible consumption by the user.

If continuing ed isn’t an option for you, join a creative writing group or take a writing workshop! It’ll still teach you how to choose your words, structure a narrative, and write in different tones, or even different voices.

In Closing

A special thanks to Andy for taking the time to give us some really great tips. Be sure to follow his Medium account, his very enjoyable Twitter account, and if you want to get in touch, check out his website.

There are a million “soft skills” that we should constantly be working on. But let’s not forget the one that we’ve been working on since grade school. It could be the difference between us being good designers and great designers.