Learning how to write again

Illustrations by Susan

Take a look at any design centric job board and you will quickly see the role of a product designer isn’t consistent between companies. Many job posts ask for the legendary full stack designer and read, “We need a user experience expert who can also implement their own pixel perfect UIs, who can also plan and run a usability study, who can also illustrate stunning visuals for our homepage.” Without consistency, it’s hard to figure out where you can improve to progress in your career. We constantly read opinions about what designers should do, which often conflict and mostly boil down to, “It depends.”

What is Product Design?

Product Design can mean different things on different teams ranging from working knowledge of web design, mobile design, visual design, interface design, user experience design, design engineering, just to name a few areas of expertise. Full stack anxiety is a real thing! Every Product Designer at Treehouse is a generalist. We are capable of creating user experience flows, creating icons and illustration assets, and writing front-end code. However, there is a fundamental that’s often overlooked in this full stack of skills: Writing. No matter how the Product Designer role is defined for your team, you’ll want to be working with those who care about writing well.

Why Writing?

Often times, the inquiries I receive from emerging designers are focused around tools. What should I learn first? Do designers at Treehouse use Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketch? Or platforms. Should I specialize in web or mobile? iOS or Android? What’s the future, VR? The truth is the early stages of the Product Design process do not involve Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or the newest tool of your liking. It’s all about the written word. Written text is the ultimate starting point where design begins. Clarity in presenting your early thoughts and documentation of your process are essential to your success as a designer.

We all know how to write. After many years of neatly formatting essays with five paragraphs following the MLA format, it is my pleasure to tell you that none of those formalities are necessary. No one’s checking if you’ve added two spaces after each period. Again, the clarity of how you present your work is what matters. For all the weight we place on hotkey mastery and design tool optimization, we mostly talk about words in design as lorem ipsum generators. There’s one for cats, carnivores, herbivores, and even desserts.

Writing matters before you even start the job

While Product Design roles may be different across teams, you will always be applying to the first round of the interview process with a written application. A large number of Treehouse Engineering is remote, so for us, how well you communicate your answers in this first step makes or breaks your application. For the design position specifically, your online portfolio will be scrutinized for both the actual design work and the effectiveness of how you present it. Photos and videos may show the most beautiful visuals, but without the written companion, it’s impossible to understand what your process is. It’s safe to say, this isn’t exclusive to our team — It’s something all design teams are looking for. Writing well is especially important if you’re aiming to work remotely because it is the first line of communication. Writing is a strong indicator for how well you will communicate over other means too.

How writing fits into the design process

Before you even begin drawing boxes, write everything you know and don’t know down. Your writing should show:

Research on your own product. Before starting any design, it helps to know the history (or lack of thereof) of the feature you are trying to push forward. What are the current state of things? What is the problem we are trying to fix? How can I document all of this so that when conflict, confusion, or questions rise during the process we are able to point to what we were originally trying to solve? Being able to write a clear design mission statement helps hone in the process. You can think of this design mission as your North Star.

Consideration of other products. Chances are, if your company is pursuing a worthwhile mission, you aren’t alone in that journey. Take note of your competitors’ latest moves. You’re trying to observe what’s being done well. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, you’re also trying to figure out how to distinguish your product from theirs. You’ll be annotating and documenting everything along the way while observing their design decisions.

Perspective outside of the interface. Starting the design process outside of your favorite design tool makes it easier to remember to think of the user. At the end of the day, Treehouse is trying to improve lives by empowering our students to change or level-up their careers. We’re not out to make them addicted to the interface itself. What is the user’s story? How are we fitting our decisions to serve their needs?

Starting points for strong design artifacts. Having all of the above ready and documented will make creating the first shareable deliverables easier. Instead of starting a user journey, user flow, or early wireframe with a blank slate, you can start by filling in the ‘Lorem ipsums’ with realistic data. Writing copy is much like the iterative design process, you’ll rewrite, cut, and add words along the way. The first pass is never going to be perfect. While larger teams may have the benefit of a dedicated copywriter, often times, products ship the text that came with the wireframe. If your product’s voice and tone gets sloppy, it’ll be hard to reel in everything later. Written debt is akin to technical debt. “We’ll update it someday” often becomes never. Empower yourself to make that text as strong as possible from the get go. When you’ve put the time in to do the research, look outwards, and focus on your user, you’re going to be off to a great start.

Why writing will keep mattering

As you invest more time and energy into this skill, it will pay off. For example, if you care to elevate yourself as an industry leader, how effectively you share thoughts will matter. Talks need to be written. The slides you write are often linked along with the recording. Blog posts live online and will be discovered. Finally, there has been research that writing brings happiness and productivity, amongst other psychological benefits.

Of course, writing can’t be the only skill you invest in to succeed in design, but is an overlooked component. You can’t master everything, but if you can better communicate what you learned about the design problem and what your intentions were to address it, that thoughtfulness will show up in your work. It definitely doesn’t hurt to spend time documenting everything — For yourself and for your team.

Here are ways to get started

Eager to start integrating writing into your process? Here are a few specific things you can do:

  • Start a work journal. Treat it like a stand-up for yourself. You can try out a tool like Day One or I Done This which will prompt you to write daily. Or you can keep a running note in Evernote or Simplenote. My personal preference is the latter. I keep my thoughts related to work organized by titling the notes with ‘Treehouse.’ There aren’t any rules other than keeping your efforts up.
  • Specifically, keep track of ideas that do not move forward. Write about anything that didn’t move forward in the design process. It’s handy to be able to refer to thinking you’ve already done. It may not make sense to implement the solution now, but the problem will persist. Try to record facts like how the problem originally came up, what discussions have happened around it, and why it was not the right time to implement it. Naming specific teams and people involved in these discussions gives credit and accountability.
  • Make your words visual. Use tools such as Pinterest or InVision Boards as aids collect your thoughts as you do research. Make sure to fill out the captions or comments with relevant context.
  • Write as if you will run a user research session. Even if you aren’t conducting an actual interview, writing your questions down as if you will at some point helps boil things down to the essentials. Think about what users you would recruit if it were an actual research session.
  • Document your designs as a system. Even if your team hasn’t spun up a style guide, you can start making a document of rules and best practices. Write it as if you were to articulate the information to a new team member. Make it beginner friendly. Imagine if they had to rely solely on this documentation to get started. And remember this could apply to different platforms such as web and mobile. There’s a wealth of resources about creating style guides.
  • Practice presenting internally. If you are intimidated by having to post or present publicly, arrange a share internally within your team. One easy and productive topic: If you attend an event or a conference, you can bring back a summary of learnings for your team.
  • Ask for feedback on your writing. Make a point to let your team know you are trying to write better. Your team will be able to give you better feedback when you make it known.
  • Observe how others write. If you are trying to break into the industry, check out resources like Designer Fund’s post for creating an effective portfolio. Ask your peers about portfolios which have stood out to them. Study how those folks shared their work.
  • Learn from experts. As mentioned, copy written inside wireframes often become the final word. Be proactive and consider reading a few books. I personally found value from reading Nicely Said, a book about copywriting by technical copywriters. This way, you’re prepared to write the best you can by default.

Susan is a Product Designer on the Engineering team at Treehouse. We’re on a mission to design, build, and maintain the best online learning service in the world. Sound awesome? Join us!