As companies increasingly look to differentiated user experience as key to meeting business goals and driving competitive advantage, there's been a growing recognition of the value of one aspect of UX in particular: the words.
While text in a UI will always get written, it may or may not get written with business goals and user experience in mind. However, as evidenced by the explosion of the UX writing role over the last 5 years, teams are now realizing the enormous ROI of product copy. When aligned with outcomes, this historically underleveraged area of product development can help with everything from increasing conversion rates to reducing error paths.
We sat down with Yael Ben-David, author of The Business of UX Writing, to discuss how teams can utilize the words in their product to maximize their own business outcomes. Yael first discovered UX writing after her degrees in journalism and neurobiology, falling in love with the content design’s role at the intersection of communication, product, and cross-functional collaboration. Yael has also previously taught UX writing at Reichman University and with O’Reilly.
If I was speaking to business stakeholders, I think the value prop that’s most exciting is that UX writing can be so cheap. For example, if button copy is not getting the job done, it costs very little in engineering, design, and other resources, to change that button copy and to measure whether it worked – so why not try it? This is what I'm hoping will be so attractive to decision makers looking for cheap and easy ways to get big returns. I want to draw their attention to the fact that there's an opportunity for that in the product copy.
However, there's only so much one can do without a writer, and then it’ll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns when it's time to bring in an expert. By that point, I hope the company has realized the potential and is excited to invest in an expert who can do even more than optimizing buttons.
I think one of the hardest unique challenges that writers face is that everyone knows how to write. It's very easy to argue with writers, because anyone who has a pen or a keyboard feels that they can do what we do. It’s harder to show unique value when it feels like anyone can do the work. Unlike, for example, how most stakeholders outside of engineering don't know how to code, so it can be harder to argue with them.
The way to overcome this is to first of all to recognize where it's coming from and to assume good intent, and to take responsibility for the education around this being a unique skill set and an area of expertise. The best way to do that is just to show not tell – by coming back to ROI and measuring business impact and other data points showing that yes, anyone can write, but look at the outcomes when the experts do it.
One thing to keep in mind is that the copy gets written, even if it’s not by a dedicated UX writer. Somebody is doing the work, whether it's the designer, the product manager, or even the developer when they discover an edge case that they end up writing on the go.
If you have no UX writing practitioner, then it's about getting the information you can, applying it to the best of your bandwidth, and documenting it all – everything from the challenges and the successes along the way, to how you achieved them, to the impact of what it looks like with and without access to different resources.
Later on, there is nothing like having a dedicated UX writer. I'm discovering that more than ever, smaller companies are bringing in UX writers earlier. There is a shift in mindset: it's being seen less as a luxury, and more as a vital missed opportunity to not have a UX writer. Companies are realizing earlier, if we can bring in a writer now, it's not going to waste resources we don't have, it's going to get us to scale faster.
By the virtue of the fact that the UX writer ratio is typically very low, writers often have broad product knowledge that nobody else has, simply because they have their hands in more areas of the product than any other single stakeholder. As a UX writer, we find ourselves at this unique intersection because we’re often spread across products that otherwise have dedicated teams, and we're good at communicating, documenting, and creating educational material.
Handing over knowledge is a big part of what can make companies more or less efficient. I think UX writers provide a huge opportunity to scale knowledge within a company and make sure it’s accessible to and usable by anyone else who needs it.
The core framework in my book is called KAPOW, and it’s like a playbook for how UX writers can focus on the business impact of our work on a daily basis.
You'll notice that “Write” is at the end. That’s because there's a lot of legwork that needs to be done before actually writing the strings that go into production if we want to make sure those words have the biggest impact possible.
It starts with knowing your goals. A lot of times the conversation about metrics and ROI and business value starts in the middle and not the beginning, but in order to have the biggest possible impact, we have to go back to understand: What is a win? What does success look like? It might not be as obvious as you think.
Probably the most novel aspect to a lot of UX writers is the O – “Own Your Metrics”. A lot of writers think of themselves as “words people” and not “math people”, but I think when we take ownership over the metrics, we make sure our work is being measured and that we have a say in which proxies we should be measuring to actually answer the question that we're asking.
You can never go wrong with being humble and curious. Authentic curiosity will get you very, very far. Keep asking questions and never be embarrassed that you don't know something because the people you're asking don't know the areas that you know. Companies who are doing a good job won't have that much redundancy; you're not lacking because you don't know the technical – you're not there to know the technical.
Everyone has the same goal in mind, which is the success of the product. You're all focused in the right direction and bringing different tools with which to reach that end game. This idea of just open curiosity and learning and communication and respecting that others have different areas of expertise, can be so fruitful.
Shipping experiences is definitely not the end of our work. First of all, I always recommend that the UX team, including the writer, review and QA what's been developed before it's released to users.
Once it's released, there should be follow-up: owning your metrics, making sure you get that data and making sure you have the time and resources to analyze that data, and making an action plan based on that data.
You don't measure for the sake of measuring, you measure with if-then statements. Once you get that data back, have an action plan and then act on it, whether that's releasing another version or simply documenting an improvement for the future. This means always improving, always looking ahead.
I think maybe we focus too much on the words in a vacuum. Writers often write a screen that they love, and it's perfect, and it follows every best practice. But that's just not reality – we don't work in a vacuum, users don't live in a vacuum, the business doesn't function in a vacuum, there are always confounding factors. Reality is that holistic perspective.
Whether it’s implementation costs or compliance requirements or user constraints, it’s essential to not treat our words as precious and to have a nuanced understanding of what counts as “good” copy.
We've reached this cool point in our maturity as a field where we can start moving from being generalists to being specialists. It was a process to get to a point where there was a clear idea of what a generalist UX writer is and what the basics of the practice are, and I think that we reached that.
Now, I think there's space that there didn't used to be for really deep diving. I predict that teams will grow from not having any UX writers to at least having a generalist, and as those companies mature, the generalist will then hire a team and within the team will be specialists.