Expectations vs reality as a UX writer
What is UX writing really like? Get a peek behind the scenes.
The world of UX writing gets a lot of hype at the moment, and it sure is a rewarding job. Still, we have to be realistic about what our craft can accomplish. Read on for some honest insights into everyday content challenges, and get some tips on what you can do if you find yourself in a project disaster area.
So you discover UX writing, learn best practices and the latest methods, and get to grips with new tools that will help you create perfect UX copy. The result will be delighted customers, happy clients, soaring conversions, a better world, oh and a well-deserved promotion along with a fat pay rise. Right?
Sure, that’s what we aim for! Sometimes though, reality gets in the way. Just as in any project, you may encounter clients that don’t listen, feedback that doesn’t make sense, and a general lack of communication. Not to mention erratic design decisions that affect copy and stakeholders who have a rather limited understanding of UX writing.
Here are a few insights from myself, who do project work for an IT consultancy, and from Julia Haleniuk, UX writer at Recruitee.
UX writing consultancy work
For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in the content department of the IT consultancy NoA Ignite, which means that we get all sorts of long and short projects for different clients. The best thing about this is that we get a lot of variation: UX writing for apps, content marketing for company blogs, localization and web publishing for multilingual websites. Many of these projects have been fantastic working experiences.
Fix the words
On the flip side, it also happens that companies reach out to us because they’re in a real pickle and see no other way out than to hire an agency. For UX writing and other content-related projects, this usually means that they have neglected or underestimated the work involved. We’re rushed in to “fix the words” by filling in the gaps at the last minute and making sure it “gets done” by an unrealistic deadline that for some reason can’t be changed.
Leaving content last
In one of my most recent projects, we had a few short weeks to review, edit and migrate hundreds of customer support pages to a new website. As still happens in many projects, the code and the design had been developed without taking the content into account, including who would work with it and how long it may take.
It was a content disaster area. And you know what the worst thing was? No matter how hard we worked, we had no chance to do a good job. Shudder. The so-called content-first approach is a thing for a reason.
Inhouse UX writing work
The disaster project described above left me feeling a bit… meh. It made me wonder what it’s like to work as an inhouse UX writer.
Does it differ a lot? What kind of challenges do you face as a full-time employee in a product team? To find out, I had a chat with Julia, who also came up with the idea for this article. She is the sole UX writer at Recruitee, an applicant tracking software company.
Here are a few things I gathered from our conversation:
New features are prioritized
Many of us probably imagine that once a UX writer is in place, they will rewrite the whole product copy from the ground up. In reality, it’s more likely that we will work on a product that’s already live, and mostly on new features. Existing features can also be taken care of but one at a time, not at all once.
This makes sense because let’s face it, there are no projects with unlimited time and resources. This affects everyone, including UX writers, and it means that it can be hard to find the time to tidy up those dusty corners.
A good practice is to first sit down and set some writing rules for the product (aka content style guide) and then adjust the microcopy according to these rules.
As a UX writer, you may hear that your suggestion can’t be implemented because a certain element is hardcoded, or has other technical limitations.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done. More likely, it simply means that a developer has to dig into the code and the project plan doesn’t allow for that. Again, time and resources are limited. Hint: If you think your suggestion is really important, it is worth asking more than once :)
Lack of context
UX writers often get random writing requests from developers, marketing specialists, and product owners via Slack, and they expect a reply within minutes. It’s just a few sentences, right?
That’s not how it works, unfortunately. It’s easy to spend hours researching the context and finding out where these sentences belong in the flow. What does the screen look like? What happened just before and what will happen next? What does the voice and tone say? Asking lots of questions can be a good way to build awareness of the kind of input we need to do a good job.
Tools and systems
For many UX writers, it has been a real pain not to have access to the design tool used. Luckily, Figma and Adobe XD are changing this. But companies that haven’t embraced collaborative design tools yet still have to work out a way to effectively review and update copy, probably through copydocs or spreadsheets.
Luckily, as stated by Julia, this isn’t the case at Recruitee, where the UX designers and the UX writer have processes and tools in place for a seamless collaboration.
Thanks for your input, Julia! I recognise many of these points from my own project work, so I bet they are common across the board.
What to do if you’re struggling in a UX writing project
So what if you end up in a difficult project, where everything is a mess and nobody seems to listen? Here are a few tips:
First of all, see it as a chance to practise your communication skills: this is the time to speak up! This can be easier said than done if you’re faced with an authoritative CEO/department head/project manager with very strong opinions about what you are meant to do. In that case
- Discuss the situation with any available colleagues who will understand and can offer advice/support/understanding/sympathy/coffee
- Ask for a 1–1 with the responsible project manager
- If you’re a one-person band, ask for advice in forums or SoMe groups like the Microcopy and UX writing group on Facebook (just be sure to discuss general principles without revealing any details about the project, unless you are absolutely sure it’s OK to do so)
- If SoMe is not your thing, look for a mentor or UX writing buddy you can have regular contact with
- Actually, look for a mentor or UX writing buddy anyway! It can do wonders to have someone to chat with regularly. You can look for a UX writing mentor at UX Coffee Hours, or reach out to someone you think would be suitable on LinkedIn
- If you feel that people don’t take your copy suggestions seriously, try explaining your choices by providing a short rationale
- If that doesn’t work, try backing up your thoughts by referring to thought leaders like Torrey Podmajersky and Sarah Richards
- You can also back up your thoughts by referring to data. Here are three articles with concrete examples of how microcopy has increased conversions:
How UX copy drives better business results
Microcopy: Tiny words that have a huge impact
The ROI of UX writing
- Be patient, take a deep breath, and try again ;)
I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone from entering the world of UX writing — it’s a great field even if you have to jump over a few hurdles on the way to perfectly crafted copy.
What are your own experiences? Do you recognise these challenges, or do you have other things on your mind at work? Would love to hear about it in the comments!
Before we call it a day, what about my own disaster project? As it happens, the client got back to us after launch and asked us if we could help them improve the situation. So we took a big step back to the place where we should have started and joined forces with a content audit :)