For the last few months, I’ve written a weekly email about UX writing jobs, so I’ve seen my fair share of nonsense job posts.
It’s nobody’s fault. The main problem is there is no clear pathway into the role. UX writing as a discipline is still in a nascent stage. People come into it from different angles. Some are UX designers already. Some are psychology, communications or human-computer interaction grads.
Others hop over from marketing, copywriting, or journalism. The point is, apart from years of experience, there’s no definition in the field for hiring managers to gauge the right profile for a UX writer on their team.
So what’s the problem?
I’ve spoken to a number of UX hiring managers this year who are struggling to hire good UX writers. They have trouble at both ends of the spectrum, from hiring junior writers to hiring senior folks.
Twitter crashed every day for the first two years of its life, but people didn’t care. They didn’t use the site for the code; they used it to write.
Keep your priorities straight
The advice I’ve started giving is, if you’re hiring for a UX writer, a good baseline is to hire for a writer first and everything else second.
Let me say it again: Hire for a writer first, and everything else second. You can train a writer in the other stuff. There are courses for that.
Hire someone because they can condense complex ideas into a very small space and still make things crystal clear.
Don’t hire someone because they can sell. Yes, you’ll have good applicants that are copywriters or marketing writers. But you’re not selling a product, you’re guiding people how to use it.
Language can get someone to buy a product but you need different words to get them to use it. Better words. Stronger, cleaner words. If you need to keep selling, hire another copywriter.
Words = code = design. It takes as long to write one good clean line of language as it does to write a good line of code or a high-fidelity mock-up.
Know what a writer is, and isn’t
The next time you’re in a meeting with a writer, don’t turn to them and expect the words to come fully formed. It’s a craft, it takes time. That’s what you’re paying for. If you want a writer who can churn out 100 words per minute you’re in the content game. And that has a different set of rules.
And if you’re still struggling to find good writers, find an out-of-work or underpaid journalist. Short of finding a published author who majored in HCI, it’s the best field to hire and train UX writers from.
When I left journalism in 2012, I always knew I’d eventually come back to writing, I just didn’t think it would take six years. When I was looking around for other things to do there were only a few jobs that required the same skills: PR, copywriting, marketing content writer.
To go and work in either of those was considered “selling out” by my grizzled 24-year old colleagues. So I went to work in tech for an education company. I did a bit of writing on the side but my day job was now in business.
Turns out, I loved learning about that side of things. I also got lucky, the startup I joined went from Series A to acquisition during the time I was there. In many ways, the last six years have been an MBA’s worth of education without the price-tag.
What do actual UX writers say?
Today, things are different. In the last few years, UX writing has offered a better path for journalists looking for something different. But pathways into the role are still difficult to find.
As Tiffany Lee (a former journalist turned UX writer at Google) says, “a lot of potential writers still don’t know about this field, and it doesn’t help that companies use different titles for essentially the same role.”
“The next time you’re in a meeting with a writer, don’t turn to them and expect the words to come fully formed.”
In lieu of a formal training route into the industry (although this will change soon!), companies are increasingly looking for people who have had formal training in journalism, technical writing, creative writing, communications, public relations. Really, anything that directly relates to writing.
As Kristina Bjoran points out, this is an interesting diversion from other more “traditional” UX roles, in that it expects an intuitive understanding of how to effectively design communications rather than, specifically, interfaces.
And as Alex Schmidt notes, the skills required to be a good UX writer are very similar to those prized in journalism. Both roles require you to be a question asker. It’s never sufficient to take the status quo for granted but to “always dig deeper to find the truth”.
They’re both highly collaborative fields that are interested in uncovering the “why” behind how people behave. Both disciplines require condensing a large amount of information into a small amount of space, and making it digestible.
As a journalist, you are never a subject matter expert, but you have to know how to get all the necessary information out of people who are. Same with UX writing. You aren’t your products main user, but you have to learn how to think and act like them.
And a huge part of the job is not knowing the full picture, whether that’s trade negotiations or how your users are going to interact with your product.
Want to learn more?
My name is Gordon Macrae. By day I run UX, Product Management, and Data programs for an education company. By night I’m a freelance UX writer. By week I run a UX writing newsletter.