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Date: 29 September 2020
Time: 09:30 - 10:30 GMT
This article describes, from a top-down perspective, some of the challenges in UX Writing.
At a low level of abstraction, UX writing is the challenge of making a zillion choices about language structure, terminology, voice, brevity, punctuation, capitalization, etc. The voice of an experience is made up of those many choices in the text. That filtering process begins with the ideas we choose to include or exclude, even if those words don’t seem, on the face of it, to make a difference to the action to be taken. It continues with the words we choose, how many we use, and how we organize them. The smallest change (one character) can make all the difference. I remember making a request to a former manager, to change the time of a meeting. She replied that, “I just resent the message”. And I couldn’t understand why she might be offended by my request to change the time. Then I realised that the message that she intended to convey was: “I just re-sent the message”.
When an organization prefers everyone to work in a way which is responsible and independent, it might seem logical that all the choices related to UX texts should be the sole responsibility of the UX writer. But, UX writers are not omniscient, and it’s best for them to resist the temptation to work in isolation, just as it’s best for organizations to resist the temptation to hand that sole responsibility to the UX writer. The UX writer’s main goal is to develop multiple, good options for a given UI text. Sometimes, there may be only one logical choice; at other times, it may be necessary to choose between a number of good candidates. In the worst case, it’s necessary to choose between several candidates, where the structure/terminology differs significantly between those candidates. The experience that UX texts create will reflect the people who choose the UX texts themselves. So, ideally, the minimum team to take part in creating good UX texts include representatives from product, design, sales, marketing, research, development, leadership, and support. In this scheme, the UX writer is responsible for shepherding the team through the process of defining texts, preferably ending in a final decision by consensus.
If I had a penny for every time that someone said, “We need to fix the words”, I’d be rich indeed. But fixing the words is like fixing the walls of a house which is falling down. Fixing the words (the walls) will never be enough.
If only one wall is broken, but the rest of the house was built properly from the ground up, and the hole in the wall doesn’t affect the electrical, plumbing, or architectural support the building needs, then we can fix the wall. When an experience is built with consistent terminology, voice, information architecture, and ways to find, maintain, internationalize, and update its content, then we only need to fix the words.
If you take a close look at any software product, language is everywhere. The challenge is how to introduce a more strategic approach to fixing the underlying experience created by the language. To fix the walls (and support the house), we need to apply some engineering principles to UX writing itself, and to how the UX writing process fits into the overall engineering process.
Stephen Eastham, Technical Copywriter, Platform & Tools
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