Over the past few years, a fairly new term has started popping up on job advertisements and descriptions. For those in the UX community, it might be old news, but for others, it’s a completely new term: the UX writer.
A quick LinkedIn search will show you the types of companies searching for UX writers: Spotify, Netflix, Dropbox, Nordstrom, Uber, Patreon. All up, as of July 2018, there are dozens of openings for dedicated UX writers, and that’s just in the United States.
There’s a dedicated newsletter for locating UX writers and getting updates on the latest job postings. Even blogs are talking about UX writing, and what it means, more frequently.
This title isn’t going away, and what happens in the tech industry soon filters through to other businesses. So as a creative, a business owner, or a producer, it’s important for you to understand what makes a good UX writer: How are they different from a content strategist, and what value can they bring to your team?
Why are UX writers so important?
The future is in writing.
Coding is an important skill. But the growing number of coders is making it easier to find good talent. Still important, still a skill to develop, but a profession that’s well established.
What’s going to be one of the main differentiators between brands in the future?
Your writing. Your voice. This is exactly why copy is being called Silicon Valley’s “unicorn” skill: It has more importance than you think. Design teams are now fully realizing that words embody just as much design ethic as a wireframe. And with such an emphasis on visual design—and fewer words—choosing the right words becomes even more important.
There’s an old quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” This is exactly why UX writers are becoming more deeply-integrated into design teams. Crafting the right words to accompany the right designs with the right word choice is as much a design exercise as an illustration or animation.
And the future world runs on copy: virtual assistants, chatbots, Alexa skills, even phone calls with robots. All of these interactions need to be written and designed.
As Susan Stuart writes, “A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios. These are the skills of a writer .”
“Design teams are now fully realizing that words embody just as much design ethic as a wireframe.”
In some companies, UX writers have been a staple role for years. But after the UX boom, writers have become even more integrated with design teams. That experience is now expected at many companies, giving rise to the abundance of UX writer job postings.
So…what is UX writing?
The industry is starting to blend a number of definitions together, but it’s important to understand the difference between UX writing and other writing and content roles. It’s crucial that businesses and applicants know what they’re looking for.
The UX writer
The key here is “UX.”
“It’s fair to say that UX writers should be content strategists, but not all content strategists should be UX writers.”
UX writers are those who write copy for products and web experiences and collaborate with design teams. They conduct research, understand best UX practices, and create entire user experiences from end-to-end.
UX writing is not simply receiving a design and then add copy at the last minute, barely interacting with design teams.
Some typical UX writer responsiblities might be:
- Creating copy within products and on web experiences and flows (One job at Netflix even asked for experience with fiction or screenplays—which just goes to show that narrative and design appears in many forms)
- Creating and maintaining guidelines and style guides that include tone of voice
- Creating a long-term strategy for content
- Understanding data and how to use it for content strategy
- Working with different stakeholders like legal departments and support to ensure your copy and strategy align with overall company goals
- Understanding key product strategy metrics and tying them into your content strategy
That last one is crucial: UX writers can’t just work in their own little bubble and create microcopy without understanding what’s happening with the rest of the business. You need to be a strategist.
It’s worth pointing out that a lot of writers tend to view UX writing as just writing microcopy. Microcopy is one part of UX writing, sure, but it’s not the only part. Content strategy is really the game here. And that covers a variety of content: videos, forms, images, surveys, etc.
“In the end, it doesn’t really matter what your title is: what matters is your skillset.”
If you’re a UX writer implementing an entirely new information architecture and designing new content flows with design teams, then you’re writing a hell of a lot more than just microcopy. UX writing encompasses a lot of different forms.
In short, UX writers work with designers to create and implement a complete content strategy.
What skills do you need?
Different companies need different types of skills, but after browsing through 50+ job descriptions for UX writers at companies all around the world, there are some common themes:
- Experience in writing with a UX component, whether that be in product or on web experiences. (For less experienced writers, web pages are the easiest to create.)
- The ability to create copy in a variety of different formats, from microcopy to long-form.
- An understanding of product design and how that relates to business strategy.
- Experience with data: tracking it, understanding how to gain insights from it, and creating actions based on that information. It’s not enough to just understand what the numbers mean.
A lot of businesses even want UX writers involved in user research, working alongside dedicated researchers.
Wait. Then what’s a content strategist?
This is an interesting one. Many companies are looking for content strategists even if they’re looking for a UX writer.
It’s fair to say that UX writers should be content strategists, but not all content strategists should be UX writers.
If you’re a content strategist, you should be able to plan out a viable content strategy for your business—including information architecture. But you might not necessarily have the responsibility to create that content yourself.
UX writers, on the other hand, should have the ability to do both of those things. At least, that’s what employers will be looking for in the future. I predict this job description will be folded into the UX writer description in the next few years.
“The future world runs on copy: virtual assistants, chatbots, Alexa skills, even phone calls with robots.”
It’s all about the skills
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what your title is: what matters is your skillset and the work you’ve been able to deliver. But as the industry begins to set new standards, it’ll help both businesses and applicants if we operate on a common understanding of what a UX writer is, and what they do.
Because one thing is for sure: They’re going to be a critical part of any company’s success.
Want to learn more about UX writing?
Patrick Stafford is an experienced digital copywriter and journalist, having worked at companies including MYOB, PwC and Private Media. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Polygon, and Lifehacker, among others. His business, Stafford Content, provides copy for many businesses including KPMG, SelfWealth and Data Republic. He doesn’t like coffee—but loves video games and books.