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Book Review: Strategic Writing for UX

February 24, 2020

Cover: Strategic Writing for UXSome years ago, I noticed a funny thing happening in the Web-design industry almost overnight: quite a few Web designers had changed their title to UX designer. This seemed to me to be an obvious attempt to cash in on the growing popularity of the term User Experience. Even worse, their seeming to assume that User Experience might merely be a better version of Web design demonstrated their fundamental misunderstanding of what User Experience actually is.

This trend to append UX to titles has continued. We now have UX librarians—a particularly clumsy construction as I see it. While I accept that information architecture is largely a reapplication of information-science concepts, as far as I can tell, a UX librarian is essentially a UX professional who likely has an MLIS degree and happens to work in a library.

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Taking this trend to its logical conclusion, we might end up with UX bankers, who focus on applying User Experience in financial services; UX medical professionals, who happen to apply User Experience in the healthcare industry; UX teachers, who don’t actually teach User Experience, but apply UX methods to improving education. We could have UX salespeople, who use empathy to really understand their customers—as though salespeople have never thought of this before. But we would just end up with handy labels that seem confer professional credibility among the uninformed. Does it matter whether a UX professional applies User Experience in libraries, hospitals, or manufacturing? The methods and skills remain the same—even though the resulting user experiences differ.

We’ve now arrived at the term UX writer. Is this an author who happens to write about User Experience, similar to a sports writer who writes about sports for a newspaper? Not quite. It’s more like a UX designer or UX researcher. UX should be a descriptor of a role’s activities. So many traditional roles now have UX appended to them!

It is with this background in mind that I have skeptically approached the challenge of understanding UX writing.

Book Specifications

Title: Strategic Writing for UX: Drive Engagement, Conversion, and Retention with Every Word

Author: Torrey Podmajersky

Formats: Paperback and Kindle

Publisher: O’Reilly Media

Published: July 2, 2019

Pages: 194

ISBN-10: 1492049395

ISBN-13: 978-1492049395

UX Writing at 30,000 Feet

Torrey Podmajersky brings a wealth of experience to her book Strategic Writing for UX, having made contributions to user experiences at Microsoft, Google, and a variety of startups. She has been an instructor at the School of Visual Arts and was previously a science teacher. The combination of her focus on education, creating quality content for students, and applying her skills at technology firms that deliver software user experiences seems to have served Podmajersky well.

When first encountering UX writing, one may see an obvious overlap with copywriting—and more specifically, copywriting for Web sites. This is an important distinction because writing for the Web requires significantly more restraint, brevity, and empathy for site visitors and understanding why they would read the content in the first place.

Is UX writing the same thing as content strategy? Not necessarily. But Podmajersky mentions that UX writers sometimes have the title UX content strategist.

Is it copywriting? No. As Podmajersky suggests, copywriting in a traditional marketing context is more about persuading people to take a particular action and is involved in the creation of press releases, social media, and other promotional content.

Podmajersky defines UX writing as “the process of creating the words in user experience (UX): the titles, buttons, labels, instructions.... It’s also the setup information, first-run experience, and how-to content that gives people confidence to take the next step.”

So what we may have here is a form of copywriting that is cognizant of the needs of users, not simply an organization’s messaging. UX writing may also focus more on the interactions that the user has with the content rather than the user’s simply reading the content passively.

Start at the End

Podmajersky advises that, to deliver good UX content, a UX writer must begin by understanding the goals of the user—just as a UX designer does. In Podmajersky’s words, “Just like design and coding for UX is a design and engineering process. It is an iterative process of creation, measurement, and iteration.”

Podmajersky describes a virtuous cycle in which stakeholders—both organizations and their users—interact with content to facilitate this process. This is similar to the familiar user-centered design process, although it focuses on specific phases of the customer experience such as convert and onboard.

Conversational Design

I was especially happy to read this passage: “Our words aren’t there to be read, savored, and appreciated, but to pass unremembered while they help somebody to the thing they want.” This brilliant sentence is a distillation of what writing for the user experience means. Contrast this goal with that of uninitiated copywriters, who seem more interested in flexing their vocabulary. You might think get paid by the word.

Utilitarian conversation is sparse, focusing on outcomes rather than people’s ongoing consumption of information. Podmajersky provides an exercise that helps align the goals of the user and an organization: diagramming a conversation. The resulting alignment of goals—the exchange of value with reduced friction—is the basis of UX design.

By mapping out a conversation between the user and the organization, while focusing on a shared desirable outcome—for example, renewing a subscription—UX writers can develop the user’s clearest, most efficient path to goal completion. This conversation could easily serve as the skeleton of a wireflow diagram.

Measuring Effectiveness

UX professionals excel in measurement, and UX research—both qualitative and quantitative—is fundamental to any UX professional’s job. It is what separates a UX designer from a traditional designer. While both may iterate on their ideas and produce sketches that evolve into well-crafted designs, only bona fide UX designers incorporate insights from user-focused research to inform their design recommendations. Only the traditional designer’s experience, taste, and intuition inform his work. Even though such designers may design in service of the user’s experience, if they lack insights from research, they can only give it their best guess.

This may be an area in which UX writing diverges significantly from traditional copywriting. While your experiences of copywriters may differ, mine suggest that writers who develop ad copy or marketing materials focus almost entirely on communicating from the organization’s point of view. Certainly the customer is the intended target of their writing, but incorporating research findings into the development of copy and post-launch measurement are rarely part of the copywriter’s purview.

Obviously, both the UX writer and the copywriter leverage the skills of their writing craft—knowledge of grammar, spelling, and so on—in the execution of their work.

Podmajersky describes in detail how to measure the effectiveness of copy by using established UX methods such as A/B testing, Web analytics, and of course, key performance indicators (KPIs). The book’s very first chapter introduces the importance of testing within a UX writing group.

Consistency

The consistency of labels is a particularly important component of user experience, and Podmajersky provides a useful tool for achieving this goal. While we know from basic usability and information-architecture principles that consistency in user-interface elements reduces doubt and confusion on the part of users, Podmajersky provides a useful tool for developing labels and content that are both distinct to a particular user experience and maintain internal consistency.

One of Podmajersky’s assertions with which I disagree is that “[UX writers are] one of the very few team members with a broad yet detailed view of the whole experience.” My experience differs on this, but I expect that this is more likely to be the case within agile environments where individual contributors may focus on a distinct aspect of an experience. Generally, I would expect any senior-level UX professional to be interested in all parts of the user experience—hence the need for UX research, journey mapping, and so on.

Podmajersky’s voice chart serves as a guide for developing content that supports a unique personality across various aspects of UX writing, including vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. This goes beyond typical style guides—such as those of the Associated Press (AP) or American Psychological Association (APA)—because it allows flexibility on those conventions, while supporting a consistent experience.

This idea is fairly reminiscent of the concept of brand voice, as articulated in branding and marketing guidelines. However, the voice chart gives UX writers a place to start, so we don’t have to imagine what parts of the written word we might standardize to support a user experience.

Conclusion

Strategic Writing for UX gives fantastic advice on the application of UX principles at a very granular level. The book’s practical advice for mapping conversations as a method of understanding a user’s interaction is helpful, as is a framework for establishing consistency in labeling and voice.

The question I’ve frequently asked myself is: who is this book for? If you have a solid background in interaction design, taxonomy, and information architecture, it may seem a bit unnecessary. If you are a person with a strong writing background who is doing more writing for the Web or contributing to a UX project, this book offers a very good, accessible route to understanding User Experience.

However, the book raises more existential questions in my mind. While I generally agree that more roles and professions should embrace UX concepts, I’m not certain that this necessitates new titles or better versions of old roles—for example, UX accountant or UX business analyst. This leads me to another question: is User Experience a profession? A debate for another time.

After more than a decade of holding job titles with the identifier UX, I still need to explain what User Experience is to relatives who ask me what I do for a living. Creating more UX specializations could ultimately reduce people’s broader understanding of what User Experience actually is and should be. So, rather than focusing on professional differences, we might do best to define ourselves by the methods and principles we employ. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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