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Is Technical Writing Part of UX?

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 24, 2015

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses the need for the work of technical writers to be an integral part of the UX design process. Strong technical writing can play an important role in a product’s success. Unfortunately, the prevalence of product team’s ignoring technical writing until the latter stages of product development detracts from the ability of technical writers to positively impact product success. Therefore, our panel also discusses some possible ways in which technical writers can encourage teamwork and ensure that they’re involved in a project before it is too late in the product-development lifecycle.

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In my monthly column, Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dana Chisnell—Principal Consultant at UsabilityWorks; Co-author of Handbook of Usability Testing
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal, Phase II; Co-author of Presumptive Design (forthcoming)
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Author of UX Careers Handbook (forthcoming); Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist

Q: I am a digital writer for a financial services/insurance company. My company sells complex products that have weird names like universal variable life insurance and inland marine insurance. The industry is highly regulated, and we have to speak about products in a specific way, accompanied by legal disclosures. Because many people are uncomfortable with personal finance, I feel that it’s my job to make things less scary for them. However, the mentality of the UX team is that writers are an afterthought. So, often, I’m not included in meetings or brainstorms about how we present information, and I don’t go a week without hearing, “It’s just copy.” Maybe my understanding of user experience is off base, but isn’t reading a part of the user’s experience?—from a UXmatters reader

“You are absolutely correct,” replies Leo. “Technical communications is an inherent part of user experience. Anything that involves people interacting with something is inherently part of the user experience. Your situation, sadly, is not uncommon. In many of the organizations for which I’ve had the honor to work, the technical communications (TC) folks are often the last to know what the UX team is doing. Ironically, these professionals are usually the first to point out usability issues. They need to understand how something works so they can describe it to somebody else. When they’re brought in at the end of the process, they don’t have an opportunity to influence the design as they should.

“Now, counter all of that with a paraphrase of Don Norman’s adage: ‘If you have to hang a sign on it, you’ve lost the battle.’ Meaning, if we rely on training or Help to enable the user to actually move through an experience, we’ve got bigger problems. My response has been to bring TC in to work with the design team as early as possible. In the old days of waterfall, we would actually try to write the Help or manual first, as our initial attempt at designing the experience. How little could we write? How much would be so intuitive that it wouldn’t need any documentation at all? As we worked to trim the manual, we were baking in good design.

“In agile UX environments, we apply the same principle of ‘less is more.’ Can we name the fields, menus, and the like in such a way that our targeted user population can guess their purpose correctly more often than not? Can we design workflows through the experience that emphasize the most likely needs or desired outcomes? Quite often, today, training and manuals focus on helping users to improve their domain knowledge rather than navigate a specific application. Even in such cases, though, it’s best to engage TC folks early—especially as we go out on ethnographic field trips.”

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Content Is the Experience

“Content actually is the experience,” insists Dana. “You can have a minimalistic design and great content, and people will be happy—for example, see craigslist.org—because they can do what they came to do. Or you can have a lavish design and crappy content, and no one will be happy—including the people looking at the bottom line for your company. So, yes, reading—or skimming and scanning—is part of the user’s experience, especially in situations in which customers are reviewing, comparing, and making decisions. So, my advice to you is: Don’t wait to be invited to those meetings. Just show up. Stay until they kick you out. You are a designer, too.”

“Absolutely!” exclaims Cory. “Text and, more generally, any content is just as important as the user interface and structure. There are multiple UX-related professions and skillsets that deal specifically with content—including content strategy, technical communications, information design, and content writing.

“But legal disclosures can also be a funny thing. By definition, you sometimes have to display exact words, no matter how confusing they are. If you have a situation like this, create a simple, plain-language explanation of what the legalese is saying. Emphasize this more understandable text for users, while displaying, but doing your best to deemphasize—to whatever extent legal constraints allow—the stuff that nobody can understand.”

Teamwork Is Key

“User Experience is multifaceted and informed from many sources,” answers Gavin. “Content certainly is an input to the user experience. Often, when we’re designing user interfaces, we neglect to recognize the influence of user expectations. A user interface can be more successful when user expectations are understood and the interface maps to them. If the entry point into a user interface involves a user’s making a decision, the content is very important.

“Sometimes, as UX designers, we think, if we build it, they will come. But the reality, as we’ve found through eyetracking and thousands of usability testing sessions, is that nothing is 100%. A problem can be as simple as: the user did not go down the right path. Is it because the design made the path difficult to see or find? Or was it that the user saw the path, but when they read the copy, it didn’t match their expectations or provide the right value proposition to prompt them to take that path?

“UX design needs both sound user interface design and great copy. But the two together, working in concert, can ensure that, when users expend effort considering a choice, they make the intended choice. So, creating user experiences really is a team effort. I’ve seen many very good, well-designed user interfaces fail because of poor copy—or, rather, copy that doesn’t integrate well with a user interface to support the value proposition.”

“While we like to repeat our frustrations, saying things like ‘No one reads,’ naturally the whole point of the design of any system is to distribute information and allow people to perform tasks,” says Steven. “Text is almost all of that. Your problem with communicating how to use complex products in specific or legally mandated ways is sadly typical. While we’ve known this deep down for years, there is lately a whole movement of content first design, so I’d encourage you to read such recent articles as the following:

“This is very much like the principles of starting with good, well-vetted feature lists; stories, information architecture, or any approach that starts with the structure,” continues Steven. “If the UX team is ignoring you, I tend to think they are spending a lot of time in Photoshop and not so much time thinking of users, contexts, and interactions.

“This may be a good time to use your collaboration skills. Don’t just insist that the team lets you get to work—all alone—first, but bring a set of cards printed up with the content you must have, and get them to do a design exercise with those as a constraint. I am a big believer that the no-wrong-answers style of brainstorming is a recipe for wasting time. Constraints are what drive design in good, interesting directions.”

The Oppressed Become Oppressors

“Your saying, ‘The mentality of the UX team is that writers are an afterthought,’ brings to my mind the famous Paulo Freire quotation about how the oppressed become oppressors,” responds Baruch. “First, let me offer an apology on behalf of the professional UX community. I am sure many will agree. Not too long ago, user experience was also considered an afterthought. Now, in what very well may be our golden age, we are dismissing other discipline’s contributions as an afterthought?! You are not off base; the content is critical to the overall experience.

“I also work, at times, on projects in highly regulated industries, and I know the pain of wordy, seemingly inflexible information that has to be on pages. The ability to transform so-called copy into something a user can easily digest, understand, and take action on is an incredible talent to have. The best design in the world will fall flat if there is too much content crammed into it.

“Showcasing the need for clear text might be the key to unlocking the value that you offer by ensuring that the content in the user interface supports the design rather than gets in the way. As UX designers, we sometimes spend too much time using fake text when we should be using the real content that we need to put in the user interface. Using the real text exposes areas for improvement in the design and that is something you can certainly help drive.”

Shared Values and Understanding

“The best technical writers share many of the same values that UX designers have—empathy for users and a passion for clarity, consistency, and logical flow—as well as a deep understanding of user needs, task flows, and usability,” answers Pabini. “They’re often the first to try out our designs and find them wanting. Not leveraging their feedback to improve our products’ user experiences is simply wasteful.

“These shared values and common understanding are the reasons many former technical writers, including myself, have broadened their skills and become UX designers or researchers. For those UX professionals, writing is a core skill that enables them to communicate more effectively with users by writing clear, concise UI text and error messages. It also enables them to communicate with teammates by writing clear design documentation.

“Today, many schools and even colleges do a poor job of educating people on writing well. Sadly, many UX designers lack strong writing skills—even some who think they’re pretty good writers. This is an impediment to becoming a great UX designer. So much of our work is writing—creating UI text, writing specifications, preparing presentations, and more. I strongly recommend that designers work hard to improve their writing skills. Study syntax rules and style guides. In the meantime, rely on the technical writers on your team to help you create better user experiences by crafting good UI text for you. Acknowledge the value that the technical writers on your team provide and learn from them so you can become a better writer yourself.” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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