One Year as a UX Writer — Everything I’ve (Un)Learned

It’s been a year since I started my journey as a full-time UX copy writer. It’s been one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career. I love writing, I’m not new to the craft, and I love helping people with my words. However, in this past year, I’ve had to learn and unlearn so much, and it has been quite a revelation. Here are my top takeaways from this past year for your reading pleasure.

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Content is Design

I mean, duh, right? But this was my first epiphany. Of course, I came into the job knowing what I’ll be doing — stringing words together to help mankind. But that’s not ALL of it. As one of my wiser peers had proclaimed emphatically, “content IS design”.

It’s not just stringing words together, but rather creating meaningful and delightful experiences for the user. So rather than just replacing lorem ipsum with words in English, I got to think about the overall experience. I got to put myself in the users’ shoes, challenge assumptions, question decisions about copy and beyond. I mean, why use words when they aren’t needed? As a wise person very recently said,

“The best micro-copy is knowing when not to write micro-copy.”

Content is Invisible

Coming from a technical writing background, I understood the power of words. I always assumed that the impact was due to the visibility of my words and what they meant. And in technical documentation, this probably is true. The more a user reads a help article you wrote, the better their chances are of resolving the problem they’re facing.

However in content design, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just visible text that has a great impact. In a world rushing towards everything and nothing at breakneck speed, I realized that truly great content is the one that’s invisible. It’s the one that zooms past you in the opposite direction, as you hurtle towards your goal at mach 26 or whatever, and still helps you get there.

Great content is not fancy; it doesn’t stick out. It in fact blends into the experience so seamlessly that the users would hardly ever notice it. And yet, they’ll remember it forever. As an inspiring writer I know ingeniously stated,

“Content is obscenity.”

Great content is hard to define, yet impossible to miss.

Every Word Matters—Really

Again, as a technical writer, I know a thing or two about being frugal with words, communicating with the user in the shortest and most direct way possible, and what not. I mean, I’m your regular Uncle Scrooge with words.

But as a content designer, I’ve not only had to think about the fewest words I can use, but also the right words to use. To be honest, you don’t get much wiggle room in a micro-interaction that’s just two or three words long. You have to be precise and exacting in putting the right words in place to help the user in the best possible way.

Words for the Whole World

As a technical writer I wrote documentation mostly for the average English-speaking American consumer. I never had to think about the complexity of words, phrases or idioms, and how they’d translate for others from different parts of the world. My writing was international, but not global.

This one year in content design actually started off as a baptism on fire when it comes to creating content for a global audience. Words like localizability, text length, component width, and design layout breaks, became part of my vocabulary very quickly. Thinking about localization issues and constraints, and heading them off even before they occurred, became second nature to me.

These constraints in writing for a global product have made me a more competent and a smarter writer.

Rules are More Like Guidelines

I’m a rules guy; I find solace in them. But some of the micro copy I suggested on the product I’m working on, made the tech writer in me scream blasphemy!

For example, as a tech writer, I have learnt and practiced to spell out single digit numbers and to use numerals for 10 and above. But when I was creating a small notification message that had a numerical element to it, I instinctively spelled out the number only to end up moderating an argument between the product manager I was collaborating with and the tech writer within me.

Finally I silenced the tech writer in me as he continued to scowl, and conceded that it made more sense to not spell out the number as I have come to learn and practice for so many years. At that point I realized that using the numeral was far more conversational, reduced cognitive load on the user, and saved their time and our space on the interaction. My takeaway from this episode was that, in content design, as in the Matrix:

Some rules can be bent, others broken.

I hope this was a helpful read, perhaps broke a glass ceiling or two within your mind. I am sure there will be many more lessons I’ll learn and unlearn as my journey in content design progresses. I’m excited for them, and I’ll be sure to let you in on them as well.

Written by

Grammar police. Design thinker. Curious mind. Lazy blogger.

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