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What does it take to be a Professional UX writer?

Every year there are articles examining industry UX trends for the upcoming months. They look at what methods are changing or gaining popularity and cover the broad scope of user experience, dealing with topics as wide-ranging as aesthetics to testing. In this year’s trends, it was eye-opening to find that companies that offer UX solutions were only now looking at a role they were calling the “UX Writer.” Fast Company even went so far as to call writing a “unicorn skill,” insinuating that developers and designers rarely have the tools to put words together for the products they’re creating.

Some background of what a UX Writer is

The role of the UX writer is to write copy for the user. What does that error status popup say? What’s the tone of that login screen? Does that button say “Begin” or does that button say “Let’s Party!” As a UX designer, the work is about influencing the relationship between the user and the software. They are speaking for the application, almost literally, establishing the tone of the experience a user is having.

The seemingly sudden realization that copy affects the user experience is eye-opening. When I started designing apps in 2010, I was brought in as a writer. I might’ve been taking for granted that the industry wasn’t overly concerned with injecting personality or tone in the UX process, but the companies I worked for always made it a priority. In fact, at Rocksauce, the only times I’ve been allowed to use phony Lorem Ipsum text is when the turnaround time for visual design is simply too tight to fill blocks of text with original content.

In the same way that the client understands that UX doesn’t represent final art, they can understand that the copy in UX doesn’t represent final copy (and is actually the one element of the whole process that’s easiest to change at the last minute of the development cycle). Often, we’ve found the copy that’s included from the very start is the copy that ends up in the version of the software that’s released to market. This makes writing in the UX phase extremely important.

Understandably, not everyone is a writer. Rocksauce Studios had an advantage from the start in large part because the company was founded by storytellers (our founders were filmmakers; my background was in sequential art and comics). There was always an understanding that we wanted to bridge the gap from the client’s imagination to what their final product could be, as early as possible in the process. It makes the lengthy time on a project go so much smoother if they can see it in their mind from the very start.

Even for someone who doesn’t consider themselves a writer, it should still be an expected consideration to make any part of the regular UX process. We’ve broken it into three simple strategies.

1) Context is King

The first step is to ask yourself if the text reflects actual text that might be in the application at all. One of the earliest apps I worked on was about retail tools. For the copy, I went to tool retailers and tool manufacturers and grabbed some standard specs and MSRPs just to make the screens I was working on looked real and handled actual data, which can sometimes lead to new interactions. A lot of times we find a designer is, at the very least, doing that, mostly for sizing purposes. “Will all of this copy fit in a cell?” for example. Often, this is some kind of reflection of data the user might see. Even a person who thinks they can’t put a sentence together can at least come up with phony profile names and faux-profile data.

2) Instruct the User

The second consideration is “are the instructions clear?” I often struggle with “swipe to delete” as a common mobile UX experience because there are demographics who simply don’t realize you can do that. For those apps, I might drop a bit of text, somewhere that makes sense, in a smaller font that reads “swipe to delete.” In other apps, I might not. It comes back to the user, and consideration for each individual screens interactions. Are the icons and buttons that guide a user enough or does there need to be some instructional text? Is it for first-time use only or is it complex enough to live on the page? Can it be handled in a well-worded tutorial, and if so does it something a user reads once and dismisses or is it guiding them through the actions step by step.

3) Get quirky with it!

The third step toward thinking like a UX writer is to take a second to consider the identity of the software and whether the placeholder copy for screens they’ve worked on accurately reflects the personality of the app. Working on a game app recently, we changed “login” to “let’s play.” Simple enough, but you can see how even in such a small example that “let’s play” evokes the kind of inviting tone you’d expect from a game over the dry “login.” Which is not to say “login” is never appropriate! “Let’s play” certainly wouldn’t work at login if we’re creating an app for security at a nuclear plant. Go back to your user personas, think about how you want the audience to feel, and make thoughtful tweaks that enhance the user experience where appropriate.

If you’re not a writer, make the three steps part of your regular process, and, like anything else, it’ll become second nature. Suddenly, your work will feel more alive and you’ll have a hotly desired new skill to boot. Don’t be afraid to have others read the words you’ve chosen and offered their feedback. There’s value in writing, and there’s no reason it should be considered a “unicorn skill” if UX artists are smart about it.

At Rocksauce, we are experts at UX content and strategy. We also pilot, create and develop new ideas, solutions, and software for companies big or small. Reach out to us today to see how an innovation or design sprint workshop can encourage goal-setting, ideation, and innovation at your company.