Why a Copywriter Like Me is Showing Up in UX Meetups

Besides frequently asked about my decision in trading my 9-5 desk job for self-employment as a copywriter, friends often find it strange that I talk a lot about UX when I’m not a designer, product manager, or even a web developer. I repeatedly get asked the following: 

  • You’re a copywriter, why the sudden interest in UX?
  • UX is all about design, right? What do words have to do with visuals?
  • Why are you showing up in UX meetups? Everyone’s either a developer or designer. You’re probably the only copywriter in the room. Are you even in the right meetup?

I got an anonymous tip that a kitten dies of starvation every time I fail to give out a decent response to these questions. So I came up with this part-FAQ page, part-love letter to friends and family who are curious about my sudden tweetfest about UX. The kittens are definitely worth saving!

Why the sudden interest in UX?

Dear friends and family,

It started when one of these marketing agencies I’m freelancing for asked me to ghostwrite a blog post* on what sets great design apart from good design.

While going through design websites to gather references on the subject, I was running out of meaty points and examples to write about. Put simply, I was at a loss about good versus great design.

It was tempting to dial 911 and request for someone who’s in charge with writer’s block. But I got myself together, thought about Stephen Pressfield’s take on writer’s block in his book The War of Art (this is just Resistance disguised as writer’s block!), and decided to put on my professional writer hat.

So I turned to a designer friend via email, and asked (or maybe pestered him a bit) for examples of products or services that perfectly illustrate what it means to have good versus great design.

His reply was:

Great design is humanistic and solves problems. Check out IDEO and their YouTube channel.

So I made my way to the IDEO website and stumbled upon the concept of design thinking for the first time.

As I went through their content on design thinking, my initial thoughts were:

  • So people actually do this? And it’s a job? I’ve found my calling!
  • This is psychology, product design, and business development rolled into one. Cool stuff!
  • How do I become one of these folks?

By the time I submitted my ghostwritten post, I already had a bird’s eye view of the design thinking process. My curiosity further led me to the UX design rabbit hole.

Design thinking is figuring out the right problems to solve

My designer friend was right. Good design is product-centric and aims to impress. Great design, on the other hand, is user-centered and helps solve problems.

Design thinking is the process of spotting the right problems to solve. The problem itself doesn’t have to be associated with design in a visual sense.

For instance, you can apply the design thinking methodology to solve problems that’s been bugging you or mankind— from rekindling a lackluster relationship to coming up with better healthcare information system in an hospital.

If you like the idea of coming up with a Friday date night prototype that meets your needs (and your partner’s of course), you are going to like design thinking. 

In fact, design thinking is the same process that shoe designer Tinker Hatfield employed to create the famous Air Jordan shoes. In a Mental Floss feature  about Air Jordan’s conception, Foster Kamer narrates:

Hatfield stood up and started asking Jordan questions. He asked him to recall what he’d said earlier about the shoe’s height, its weight, about his Italian shoes and leather patterns. Hatfield started showing the sketches to Jordan, who was beginning to warm up: For the first time, someone had actually paid attention to what he wanted and needed. Jordan asked to see the sample.

In hindsight, design thinking begins by paying attention to problems.

What does UX have to do with design thinking?

Let’s backtrack a bit and understand what UX means.

Smashing Magazine defines it as:

User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Those who work on UX (called UX designers) study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at such things as ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, efficiency in performing tasks and so forth.

So how do you study and evaluate users like shoe designer Hatfield did?

You go out, talk to your users via research, empathize, define the problem, ideate a solution, prototype, test, and implement. Rinse and repeat.

This is what design thinking is about.

Am I starting to make sense now? Are the kittens going to be safe?

So what do words have to do with UX?

If UX design is about delivering better products and experiences via design thinking, what do words have to do with it?

Why am I showing up in UX meetups when I’m neither a UI designer or software/web developer? I’m supposed to rub elbows with digital marketers and not with the product development folks, right?

The more I learn about the design thinking process and the importance of user research, the more I got hooked on figuring out how I can incorporate the methodology, user research to be specific, into my copywriting toolkit.

I intuitively knew that words matter too in solving problems and designing better user experiences.  And as a copywriter,  I have this knack of creating multiple what-if scenarios in my head. It turns out that this constant what-ifing (and sometimes destructive overthinking) can be put into good use in UX design. Hurray!

As UX Designer Susan Stuart explains in Why UX Design is a Lot Like Writing:

To sum up, when looking for someone to lead the design of your complex application, look for enough visual sensibility to lay the foundation in a “blueprint,” but consider giving weight to experience with writing (and psychology), where the designer has a strong imagination for characters, actions, scenarios and general “what if-ing.

From what I’ve been learning, it looks like content strategy and information architecture are the subsets in UX that closely resemble what I do as a copywriter and content marketer. Figuring out the right words to say is the common denominator of both fields. They both deal with language, information, and content.

Can you call it UX writing?

These days, what is often referred to as UX writing is writing interface copy, mainly in the realm of product development, with user research thrown in the mix.  This is what John Saito of Dropbox described in 2016 when he wrote about what he does for a living:

As UX writers at Dropbox, our goal is to make sure every word we write makes sense. One wrong word can break a user’s experience. A vague button label or unfamiliar term can easily frustrate users.

 In 2014,  Jessica Collier also wrote about this new-ish field that’s shaping up to be a mix of writing and design—Narrative UX.

Jessica writes:

Design, in other words, is narrative. Yet the actual writing that a person sees when using an app is rarely the result of careful consideration. For all the lip service paid to storytelling in the tech industry, we pay little or no attention to the language that goes into product design. So what happens when we finally realize that reinventing ourselves as storytellers necessitates bringing writers into the design process?

And last month, UX Booth wrote about UX writing and referred to it as the “new job in town”. 

As UX Booth’s Kristina Bjoran writes:

It may seem like a bit of a fad but writing-focused user experience designers will be a critical part of the way we design for experiences from here on out.

Whether it’s a fad or not, I’m thrilled to learn that folks who do words (and not just code and pixels) are gaining more recognition in their role in designing better UX.

Whatever label or name it gets — narrative UX, UX writing, content design etc — they all have the same goal:  find the right words (and speak the same language) to help users solve a problem, while taking product and business goals into account at the same time. User research helps accomplish this purpose.

As I once tweeted, I would like to think that UX writing is the lovechild of user research and copywriting.

Saving kittens by answering one question at a time,

*It turned out that the ghostwritten post I did on Great vs Good Design got the highest number of organic traffic for the specific quarter that it got published. 🙂

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