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Words as Design: Systemizing Product Copy

September 24, 2022

As we’ve built Ditto, we’ve been lucky to be able to work directly with hundreds of product teams and see how they manage text and how text fits into their design processes. As we’ve learned about their workflows, we’ve worked to build tools to make the process easier for writers, designers, product managers, developers, and anyone else who touches product copy.

In presenting at Figma’s Config conference earlier this year, we wanted to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in the process of building Ditto, and how these insights have shaped the tool we’ve built.

The role of text in building product

Text is central to all digital experiences. Whether it's CTAs, instructional messages, labels, or error messages — text shapes how a product is used.  For example, a product’s copy makes expected behavior explicit, guides users when they venture off the happy path, defines a company’s brand, and bridges gaps in expectations.

As digital products become more complex and encompass more aspects of our lives, text has become even more important.  Tools for managing healthcare, complex legal processes, financial transactions and more all rely on copy to communicate nuanced information in high-stakes circumstances.

Why managing product copy is so difficult

Because there’s often no central place where text is managed, it can be easy to overlook text in the product development process. For many teams, there’s no single source of truth for copy. Instead, it's scattered across mock-ups, spreadsheets, Slack messages, JIRA tickets, and even the codebase itself.

Many product teams find themselves constantly wondering where to find the latest version of text, and whether it’s been reviewed and approved. Many teams even struggle to keep track of who wrote the copy in the first place.

Because copy can be so difficult to manage, it’s often an afterthought.

Thinking about text as a system

At Ditto, we’ve found that the process of managing product copy becomes easier when text is thought of as a system. Systems exist throughout product development — seemingly for every aspect of product development except the text. For example, instead of re-determining the font, size, and color every single time a designer creates a new button, they use a design system. Why should text be any different?

When thinking about text as a system, the text becomes more cohesive and the relationship between text items becomes more clearly defined.

Because text is inherently reusable and interconnected, thinking about text as a system allows copy to become more cohesive. Rather than one-offs, repeated copy can be thought of as connected building blocks. When users enter a similar context, they’ll encounter familiar copy, allowing for a more consistent experience.

With this concept of systemizing text in mind, we built Ditto’s core features: components and variants, allowing teams to build a reusable copy library and manage text variations.

How will design change in the next decade?

Building Ditto, working with hundreds of product teams, and seeing how both content design and product design have changed over the last few years, we’ve gained insight into what we might see in the next decade of design. Today, copy has a similar role that used to be held by design — it’s ad hoc, and often only considered at the end of the product design process. Design has since evolved to have its own tools and is now considered central to building products, rather than an afterthought.

In the next decade, we think a similar process will happen with text. With increasing interest in content design and content design systems, it’s likely that we’ll see content and copy travel the same arc that design has in the past decade. Just as design has evolved from something that's a nice-to-have to something that's recognized as critical for every product, we expect that copy will come to be seen as a first-class citizen in building product, with its own tooling and systemization. We've already seen teams starting to recognize the value of text and actually invest in it, and we expect that to become more and more common.

This blog post is a summary of a talk that was given at Figma’s 2022 Config conference. To reference slides of the talk, head here.

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