A familiar but incomplete process
Product managers look to designers and developers to solve problems. They analyze data, brainstorm, and come up with feature ideas together. They iterate and reconcile with technical constraints together. Designers are the de facto owner of the user experience. Developers implement the design and the words in the design regardless who wrote them.
Many people would reckon that as the way they’ve always done things.
Until someone called a writer is brought in. People think it’s great to have writers but have all sorts of assumptions about their role:
Writing is wordsmithing. Writers can work their magic into the copy at the last minute, just like that :sparkles:.
Designers can write UI copy themselves because most of it is straightforward. They’d ask a writer only if they need a second opinion.
“Content first” only works for landing pages and tutorials where there are a lot of words. When designing a tool, you can’t know the content without knowing the shape of things.
Writers provide proofreading service. “Can you check the grammar and spellings?”
Writers’ identity, explained
Your product probably has many competitors. What would make yours stand out?
A product is made of hundreds of interactions. Every interaction is like a conversation — be it first-time use, task flows, buttons, fields, navigations, messaging and notifications, help instructions, or error messages. As the user interacts with your product, the words in it have the power to make or break the experience and to shape people’s perception of your brand.
Your writer holds the key to great content.
Writers ask big-picture questions such as “What kind of experience do we want our users to have when they’re interacting with this flow?” and “What is the sequence, focus, and timing of a flow,” and make sure the messaging is cohesive at each touchpoint.
Writers invest their feelings in your product values so they write from their heart, with the best words for your audience. That authenticity and precision are what makes your product—more intuitive than complex, more inviting than off-putting, more engaging than mundane.
Writers can introduce new dynamics and new thinking in the design process. They’re always observing and on the lookout for details that they can craft into the story you’re trying to tell.
Writers are systems thinkers. They can organize elements across an experience and write meaningful copy based on that structure so the experience is easy to grok for the user.
Last, but not the least…Writers know the company style guide and make sure your product features are communicated in a consistent, learnable way.
In other words, writing is such a huge responsibility that it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of a non-writer, if you can help it.
So how can you tap into the full capability of your writer? Try these steps.
1. Let your writer in on all conversations.
Writer: Hey, how’s it going with project X? I’d love to discuss the user flow.
Designer: Sure! I’ll let you know once [PM’s name] and I figure out what to do.
Product managers and designers tend to think that they can simply schedule meetings with the assigned writers to “fill them in” after certain decisions are made. However, it doesn’t work well from a UX standpoint and isn’t the best use of everyone’s time.
Invite your writer to your kick-off meeting and all the subsequent meetings where information and insights are shared and ideas are bounced around and formed. By doing that, you’re actually saving time from explaining things again and again.
“But what we talked about had nothing to do with content.”
Ideas and concepts, shapes and flows, are all content. Rather than deciding for the writers on what they need to hear or what they don’t, let them discover and learn just as the designers do.
2. Include a design and content phase in your development cycle.
Chances are, your organization uses Agile, as it has become the most popular software-development methodology in recent years.
Unfortunately, Agile is not so UX-friendly. And the Nielsen Norman Group will agree. Design and content teams have not always worked in harmony, in part because of the amount of pressure on designers to deliver.
To create more space for UX activities, some companies run content and design sprints. At Clover, we run design and content planning meetings, where the product manager shares user stories one to two engineering sprints ahead. It gives time for the designer and writer to research, test, and co-create. And JIRA tickets are not open, i.e., can’t be worked on, until design and content requirements are final.
That process has ensured that we don’t develop our product without thinking through the words the user will interact with.
3. Embrace co-creation.
Have you been in design review meetings where people still raise questions about the text even though they’ve been told to “only look at the design”? That’s because it is almost impossible to give and get robust feedback with placeholder text.
From screen to screen, context to context, how would you push for an experience that supports the user at every turn?
Mapping out all the content needed throughout the flow will help you get there.
Imagine that you run a coffee shop and you’re helping a customer reload her gift card. A flow without real content goes like this:
Notice a few issues? Instead of “reload amount,” what phrase would resonate most with the user? Does “total” mean the “total amount to be paid for” or “total balance”? Can we break down the numbers and give clear labels so the user knows what they’re looking at? Why use “check out,” which is often associated with retail and e-commerce, while we could use a more inclusive word like “Pay” or “Add”? Also, what happens after the user decides to pay?
See the difference when you map out all the words you need for this experience. Now you’re telling a cohesive story and have a better idea how you should arrange UI elements to support that story.
Designing a landing page with two buttons? Instead of starting with something like this, map out what you want to communicate, i.e., what’s the hook, what are the details, what are the primary and secondary paths, and make sure your design supports the communication goal.
Working on a matrix of UI navigations? Use the same mapping technique to organize the content and write meaningful labels and descriptions for the concepts and relationships. This will lead to a strong foundation for the information architecture.
In any project, invite your writer to work alongside you and provide all drafts during this iterative co-creation process, so you can focus on making the best designs.
4. Co-edit design specs.
A co-creation work model begs for a design tool that supports real-time collaboration.
At Clover, we tried out Figma for one of the recent projects, and it worked well not only for the design and content collaboration but for review and implementation. The designer and I worked side by side to map out all the content and design elements needed for a series of first-time-use flows. Then I edited the content directly in Figma.
That was a much faster turnaround. Previously, if content mistakes were introduced, I’d point out edits in screenshots to the designer. If updates needed to be made again, I had to tell the designer again. The back-and-forth was tedious and could drive people crazy!