UX [Ghost] Writing?

The term of UX Writer appeared out of the blue a couple years ago as part of the “UX Madness” agenda when subtle things in web design began to matter. If you break down user experience, it becomes one of the most abstract, yet accurate representations of ends and means in design. All of a sudden words became part of the UX game. Advertising copy is not a staple of content writing anymore. Lorem ipsum is done. Google Docs is a design tool.

Hit-And-Miss Writing

Words have always been there. Writers have written tons of content for every issue, trend, industry imaginable. Companies did have their signature voice. The thing is that voice was a common one (shout out to Don LaFontaine). The copy was being ghostwritten by an elemental force. Somehow, linguistic styles dictated the nature of the content.

Before the eclecticism burst open to blur the edges and combine the best (or worst) of all worlds, everything seemed to have its place. That is how generic content patterns came together creating false canons.

For the longest time, writing was in a stylistic and conventional loop so that took years of technological synergy to get out of.

One of the areas indicative of this trend is help documentation, user guides, and manuals. During my days as a tech writer, I had to memorize hundreds of speech tokens and patterns accepted in the technical documentation regardless of the product. The Chicago Manual of Style, The Microsoft Manual of Style, plus multiple internal style guides provided an almost universal toolkit to assemble a copy with.

The same way some UI designers complain about the loss of creative interest when only working with UI kits, tables, and graphs, I felt like the non-creative and de-personified approach to writing results in the unengaging and plain impression on users. Technical writers know what it’s like being Sam Tarly…

UX [Ghost] Writing?| Shakuro

Giving the industry-specific software its due, there is not much room for creativity, but there is always a place for better UX. Including the F1 interaction experience. Things began to gain perspective with the advances in conversational design, artificial intelligence, and interaction design. Oddly enough, the first conversational design snippets came from the context help of the early operating systems. Remember Clippy? The Clippies of today redefined writing and contributed to the emergence of UX writing.

Nonetheless, the technical approach has its benefits and can teach UX writers a lot of skills, such as:

  • Copy formatting. The academic knowledge tech writers posses can’t be compared to the skills of a general writer. I’m talking HTML formatting, DITA, multiple hundred-page document consistency, hidden content mastery, etc.
  • Technicality (duh). As a UX writer, chances are you will have to decipher a lot of first-hand developer and engineer content. The drafts that tech writers receive often times bring cuneiform-scale decoding tasks.
  • Standardization. The ability to adhere to certain standards is the sword cuts both ways, as you can’t over standardized your style and kill its vibe, and you can’t scatter your brand voice around either. Techies are good at maintaining consistency.

UX Writing Is Not Marketing

As a software technical writer who dove into the UI/UX design, I struggled with opening up and not writing robotic. The first mistake I made was approaching writing from a marketing standpoint. As John Saito puts it in his 10 things UX writers hate to hear:

UX [Ghost] Writing? | Shakuro

Turning your writing into the content users want and how they want it is somewhat an easy road, is it the correct one though? No doubt SEO is a huge factor in reaching people and getting the product out if that is the main objective.  However, content design goes far beyond just that.

Language is not an explanatory assistant, it is one of the most sense-bearing parts of the UX design process. Decades of marketing products in a cheesy, meaningless, and pushy way resulted in the “sale text” style of writing where the beat up phrases had been used over and over again to sell the newest products. Generalization was a logical trend of the time when you could only know your product audience as a category. In order to reach as many users as possible, marketers had to address categories, not individuals.

Technology changed that. All of a sudden people of today are individuals and there are more of them on the planet than ever before.

“When I was a kid, it felt like they made something new every day. Some gadget or idea. Like every day was Christmas. By six billion people, just try to imagine that. And every last one of them trying to have it all.”

Donald, (Interstellar)

This is an extremely accurate characteristic of our time, given by one of the future us. With everybody having their voice today, building relationships with customers takes a personal approach. In this sense, visual design has paved the way for UX writing. Addressing multiple user-facing touch points in an equally effective way is the essence of it. The copy does not just accompany the UI design, it adds significance to it.    

Writing For Conversational Design

The increasing role that conversational design plays in the UX today, makes narrative design the core of the interaction. In a nutshell, we can now communicate with chatbots like we would with humans. This means the bots are capable of decoding and comprehending. All of a sudden, computers acquired personalities. Previously, they were the extension of a creator’s personality, transmitting their ideas, reactions, and outlooks. Conversational design came to change that and empower professionals of communication to contribute to UX.

UX [Ghost] Writing? | Shakuro

Image credit: Dribbble

Custom-tailored conversation machines capable of solving individual problems are parts of a multi-sided diamond of a brand. However, the biggest challenge becomes the application of chatbots, as simple tasks need no conversation to be performed, the annoying pitches can play in reverse and turn users away.

The context where conversational design is applied is half the battle for good UX.       

The implementation of chatbot UX requires deep knowledge of the psychology of communication, information submission, and stylistics. On top of that, it has to fit the contextual function of the product or service. This is where UX writing comes into place. Coming in as a second force of visual UI design, good writing amplifies the experience and prevents it from going the wrong way.

How To Write For Chatbots:

  • Develop your brand’s voice and tone. In order to maintain a consistent brand voice, it has to come from a team of [ghost]writers. Each of them contributing to one identity through multiple touchpoints in a unified manner is the key to creating a strong and recognizable connective voice.
  • Create a character identity. One-on-one chat is different than addressing the public in a lot of ways, one of them being the intimacy. In order to get a user to open up, the ice needs to be broken by a bot. Quite a task… This is where the personality of a bot created by the writers can shine with humor, wit, and charm. That combined with the objective to help and create a delightful experience is what builds great conversational design.
  • Converse from a face-to-face perspective. One of the most difficult tasks a chatbot faces is the reaction. Human behavior can be unpredictable and surprisingly simple at the same time. Perceiving a conversation from the one-to-one standpoint and writing for that type of communication can help establish empathy and avoid the machine talk problem.

At the same time, a chatbot does not have to pretend like it’s a human. Instead of acting like one, it has to be clearly stated that a bot is another way to help users solve their problems. The most impressive effect might follow if you make the journey exciting and fun along the way.  

Cooper: Humor, seventy-five percent.
TARS: Confirmed. Self destruct sequence in T minus 10, 9…
Cooper: Let’s make that sixty percent.

UX [Ghost] Writing? | Shakuro

Image credit: Dribbble

Content First

This year we decided to take a different approach to our sustaining own website. Before, we used to create page layout designs with lorem ipsums, and then write some content fitting the boxes. This time we decided to brainstorm the concepts we wanted to build the pages around. This left us with a list of talking points allowing us to build the narrative upon.

One of the common misconceptions of today’s marketing department is that people don’t read anymore. THis couldn’t be further from the truth. People do read. Fast, subconsciously and at times unintentionally. To a large extent, this is due to the marketing writing paradigm created. Information for the sake of information resulted in pattern recognition beyond any 19th century psychic’s abilities. The difference in writing that UX brings is in the presentation that is useful. A huge flashing banner is visible, but is it empathic? At the same time, a clever subtle personified message written with wit is as helpful as it is pleasant.

Story Mindset

One of the most remarkable pivots social media industry took this year is the shift towards the immediate and temporary type of content. It has different names, but I believe ‘story’ is the best one. The narrative of the moment. The story frame capturing the mood of the situation without banking it. It’s a live performance as opposed to the museum statics. Living in the heat of the moment, sharing it, and displaying information in its primal form.

Every page we wrote content for displayed its own story in the voice and tone of the company and with product values exuding from every part of the copy. This also helped our designers soak the mood of the narrative and come up with better metaphors that resonated with the textual content.

UX [Ghost] Writing? | Shakuro

UX Writing Skills & Tools

So with all the above, is UX writing a skill that designers/content strategists should add to their game, or is it a separate discipline with its own professional skillsets and tools? I truly believe it is a solid specialty. Doesn’t mean it can’t be acquired by other field professionals though.

Tech writing, as well as content creation, requires cross-functional team members to contribute to the same process. By default, UX writers are pretty damn cross-functional because they come from different backgrounds. One thing they are strongly different from the specialists with good writing skills is their mastery of language in general. They deal with language turbulence, have the feel of language and see the effect words have on different people.

Another thing UX writing is irreplaceable in is localization. You can’t consider the same design patterns to fit textual content in every given language. The subtle meanings of certain words and phrases can’t be translated by machines to their fullest. This requires deep language knowledge paired with the cultural awareness that can only be transmitted through first-hand human experience.

UX writers are not the first-priority employees in a company and you can certainly drag along without them, however, I believe Kristina Bjoran put it best:

“The need for a dedicated professional for the content increases in direct proportion to the complexity of the product, the time frame and the fragmentation of the UX tasks. The higher they are, the more necessary it is.”

Originally published on Medium.