Words Shape Design

Writers should be deeply involved in product design

Categories: Perspectives — Joscelin Cooper

Words shape design. Real words, not lorem ipsem, should form the ground-up basis for product design. Increasingly, the design community seems to take this truth to heart and has heartily paid lip service to the importance of “content” (words, the copy). I’ve read several articles written by designers who give sound advice on how to write good UI copy. Many of these pieces, like John Zeratsky’s piece on good interface writing, are well-referenced guidelines for our nascent discipline.

A few months back, Fast Company published a piece, “Why Content Reigns Supreme in UX Design”. As a content strategist who works alongside designers, it follows that I believe content is not just pretty important, but the primary component of many user experiences.

Unfortunately I could feel the collective groan of the UX writer and content strategist community when I read the advice the authors give to the timid designer/writer: “Don’t fret, you can always have a writer punch it up after the fact.” Writers on design teams (in an increasingly design-centric technology industry) are accustomed to hearing about the importance of content. Unfortunately we’re also accustomed to the expectation that we’ll provide a word layer to already-complete designs.

This is analogous to complaints designers registered as recently as a few years ago, before their craft was fully embraced as part of the product design process. Engineers and developers expected them to swoop in at the last minute to provide a layer of polish, ignoring the fact that the designer might have strategic input into crafting a cohesive and fluid experience–not just pretty pixels. So now that design is taken seriously as a legitimate craft, writers unfortunately face the same challenge. Despite nice sentiments about content-centric design, words continue as an afterthought.

Rather than instruct designers on how to be better writers, let’s instead look at how designers can better work with content professionals. Here are a few tips for both designers and writers:


Designers: involve your writer early.

A good content strategist (or UX writer, or whatever the resident word nerd at your company is called) will do their homework by thinking through many of the same problems and opportunities you consider as a designer. (Plus a few other considerations such as voice, tone, and key messages.) Since a writer cares about context and character, they’ll be indispensable partners to your researchers. We’re interested in understanding who we’re designing for, as well as the what, when, and how.

Writers should be involved in researching the competitive and inspirational landscape, and auditing existing relevant content. As for early stage storyboarding or content audits, content people could lead these exercises. Both designers and content strategists think of their work in terms of story––an experience should meaningfully build upon itself, relying on exposition and  carefully-architected information that guides people easily through tasks.

Many writers in tech started out as journalists, creative writers…even designers. I feel lucky to work with a few poets and playwrights too. These are people who’ve devoted their education and career to thinking about narrative structure. They actually enjoy obsessing over the subtle messages certain pronouns conveys, or how the omission of an article can change the tone of a phrase. Let the word nerds do the word nerding. Getting a writer involved at the beginning means you’ll start design explorations with a more informed perspective of the messages you’re working to convey.


Writers: Hold a content kickoff.

The chief complaint I hear from writers in my field is how difficult it is to get involved at the right moment––right at the beginning. Unfortunately for now, it may take some (polite) elbowing to get your seat at the table in kick-off meetings. Holding a content kickoff with your core team can help everyone get aligned on your contribution to the project, and the best ways to work together. The project manager, the designers, the researcher, the eng lead, and other key partners should be included. Depending on the project, policy, legal, and sales may be involved too.

Ideally, the content kickoff is part of the overall project kickoff. When this isn’t possible, or if you were invited to contribute after the project has taken shape, you can still outline content’s role. The kickoff is an ideal moment to review your company’s content mandate. At Airbnb we like to rally behind the idea that “Content is design”. It doesn’t always “precede”, as Jeffrey Zeldman memorably tweeted. It doesn’t even need to be “king”. But the words can make or break a user experience, and the message necessarily informs how a design takes shape.

Getting a writer involved at the beginning means you’ll start design explorations with a more informed perspective of the messages you’re working to convey.

Whether you’re looking to increase conversions, decrease churn, or hit a revenue target, the words you write are undoubtedly in service to that goal. But writing for the web is a hybrid of art and science. The positive results of a well-written product are often difficult to quantify, though the impact of a misspoken word and poorly-executed writing is certainly felt.

Content strategists definitely shouldn’t underestimate the importance of validating their work, getting feedback, and tying their process to measurable business goals. You can sometimes prove pretty clear impact by altering a button CTA or other discrete piece of copy, but most of the time changes are part content, part design. Or, the important metric to track––perhaps, long-term user happiness–-can be attributed to many successive product and offline experiences. I’m still finding the best ways to design experiments that prove good content’s effectiveness. Research provides a lot of great qualitative insight and data analytics can be an important ally. Learning to speak the language of business and data will help you define why your craft is vital to the design process.


Writers: Know how to design. At least a little bit.

The longer I’ve worked in this field the more apparent it’s become that to effectively do the work, content strategists have two options: 1. patiently wait, accepting that our job is part content strategy and part justifying why we should be allowed to do our job in the first place. Or 2. become designers.

Becoming a designer isn’t a truly radical career jump from content strategy. To do this job well you must be visual as well as verbal and you must encounter complexity with a designer’s eye. Writers on design teams should be able to convey ideas visually. For too long I’ve been comfortable as a long-form prose thinker, expecting my teammates to adapt to my impulse to think through words in a Google doc. I’ve learned the importance of being able to design a simple diagram, sketch, or work within wireframes.

I’d like to start including more pen and paper sketching in my process. At some unforeseen point, perhaps the role of writers and that of designers converges. I hope we can negotiate a happy medium where everyone feels ownership over the copy. After all, as speaking makes us human, so does writing. The commitment of an idea to words is an act of thinking and an act of identity. No wonder everyone feels so invested in words. I just hope that we add more than “punch”, but also the shape, structure, and meaning of an experience.
A version of this article was published in Fast Company.

Joscelin Cooper is an Experience Design Content Strategist at Airbnb. The weather is a valid and intriguing conversation topic. Weather makes moods and shapes history. Don’t listen to the naysayers. | Hand lettering: Adam Glynn-Finnegan

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