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Michael J. Metts & Andy Welfle – ‘Writing Is Designing’

John Carter
January 23, 2020
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The Power of Ten Show
January 23, 2020

Michael J. Metts & Andy Welfle – ‘Writing Is Designing’

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Andy P: Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels.  Zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation and onto changes in society in the world.  My name is Andy Polaine, I’m a designer, educator, and writer.  Throughout my career, I’ve learned more about creativity and design through writing than anything else.  I think it’s partly because words are so universal, yet so tricky, and partly because writing, or good writing at least, forces you to slow down.  There’s no short-cut or menu item for an instant second draft, you have to write the first draft first.  

My guests today are Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle, authors of Writing Is Designing, Words and the User Experience, about to be published by Rosenfeld Media in January.  Michael has a background in journalism and says he frequently finds himself talking about the role words play in designing useful, useable experiences.  When Andy was eight, he wanted to be poet and a palaeontologist.  28 years later, he’s neither, but he uses those skills in his day job as a content strategist on Adobe’s product design team, writing under huge constraints and uncovering artefacts from big old software interfaces, Michael and Andy, welcome to Power of Ten.  

Andy W: So exciting for being here, thanks for having us.  

Michael: Yes, thanks, Andy.  

Andy P: First of all, congratulations on the books, it’s finished.  Did it take you longer than you thought?  No one ever says, “This book took me far less time than I imagined it would.”

Andy W: It was nothing really, we just breezed through it, it was fine.  Michael, I don’t know what your experience is, but I think we stuck pretty close to deadlines, right?  

Michael: Yes, the deadlines, I think the actual writing the words didn’t take as long as all of the other pieces of putting it together.  

Andy P: Yes, or the sweeping up at the end takes ages, right?  

Michael: Exactly.  

Andy W: Totally.  

Andy P: It’s coming out in January, right, because I read a preview, I think?  

Andy W: Yes, I think the official date is January 14th, or 14th January to our British and European friends.  

Andy P: The 14th January, I would say, that’s right.  I love that we’re already getting down in the nitty-gritty.  

Andy W: Localising it, yes.  

Andy P: If you guys go to Rosenfeld Media, you’ll find it there.  I’m sure you’ll find it on Amazon and a few other places too.  My very first question is, there are quite a lot of content strategy books out there.  There are quite a lot of FU content design books out there, is this a content design book?  Quite early on, right at the beginning, you talk about being designers of words.  It made me think that you’re wanting to make a differentiation there.  Just before we were recording, you were saying how there’s a bit of European versus U.S.  understanding of this?

Andy W: Yes.  I think in the U.S., content design and content strategy, at least when applied to a UX context, a product context is a little bit more muddy.  It’s certainly different wherever you go in the U.S., but we had a long talk with our publisher about what audience is and what roles we want to target.  At some point, we just realised that we’re trying to instil a good UX writing practice among anyone, not just UX writers, among PMs, among designers, anybody on a product team.  We tried really hard to remove roles from the responsibilities here.  Just because these are good things for visual designers to know too, or PMs.  We’re pleading the fifth or at least trying to eb silent about what roles this is for.  Really, anybody on a product team who’s thinking about the user experience needs to write the words would get something out of this book, we think.  

Andy P: I think there is – I talked in the introduction about words being universal yet tricky, my experience, I have the same publisher as you, I’m a writer too.  I don’t necessary use it, I’m not a content designer or a UX writer, but I think that the tricky thing with words is that everyone uses them.  In the archetype, everyone’s a designer, what they mean is everyone has actually got an opinion about design, it’s even worse with words in a sense, because everyone writes emails, right?  

Andy W: Yes.  

Andy P: Is that part of the manifesto, if you like, that you’re trying to get across, to actually be just more considered about the words you’re using and to get everyone to understand that these things that are kind of ubiquitous everyday things actually really matter?

Michael: Yes, absolutely, one of the things we touched on just slightly in the book is how in a more traditional design job, you’re going to have a tool that typically serves as a gatekeeping mechanism and allows you to be the person that is doing the designing, because you have this complex tool.  Maybe it’s Sketch or Envision or Acuter or something like that.  So, you have a design tool and because you know it really well, then people are relying on you and looking at you to make these design decisions and see where the button should go and what colour they should be and all of those kinds of things.  

I think it’s more of a challenge with the language because you don’t have that thing to rely on constantly, but it means that you just have to work around it in a different way.  You have to solve the problem.  You have to rely on influence, you have to rely on helping people learn about it through evidence and data.  That’s more challenging but I think better in the long run because you have to really build this mentality amongst this team that language is important and that it really affects the experience people have with what you’re building.  

Andy P: That’s interesting, what you described there is just design or at least visual design or some of those other forms of design as a secular priesthood where certain people have access to the truth, if you like, and other people are outside it.  In fact, they use Latin, don’t they, for their words, you know, Laura Mipson.

Andy W: Yes.  

Andy P: Yes, in your cases, the masses use words all the time, so there’s a recalibration that needs to happen, but you talk about being a designer of words.  You talk about fitting the idea of design and writing together in your brain.  Can you unpack that a little bit because it’s a slightly different approach to thinking about, well, it’s a different approach to thinking about writing, I would say, actually, as much as anything else.  

Michael: I think that the approach is different, as you said, so when you’re designing with words, it’s a matter of how intentional you’re trying to be about them and making your decisions visible to the people you’re working with.  You have all kinds of options, so you could write things in sentences, you could write things in short phrases, you could write things that sound goofy and whacky, or you could write things that sound very serious and formal.  Making those decisions visible instead of just going with them and just using whatever you end up, that’s kind of what we’re getting at with designing the words.  You’re applying a level of rigor to what you write and you’re helping people see the decisions that you make.  I think that’s really important.  I think another aspect of designing with words is that you’re relying on users to shape what you write and not just what you want to write.  With the book, it was very much when we wrote the book, it was very much about what we wanted to say on this topic, but when you’re writing for an interface, you’re not writing about what you want to say, you’re writing to solve a problem for someone, or to help them through a flow, or to help them accomplish a goal.  That’s a very different way to write than a lot of the writing that people do day-to-day.  

Andy W: I think we’re just trying to show the full stack of strategy behind it.  Like, we get into voice and tone strategy, which is very high-level and abstract and find ways to make it a little bit more concrete and then we actually zoom into writing stress cases and error messages and writing for clarity and we really zoom into the specifics of how that manifests.  I think that full spectrum of strategy into the chrome, into the actual writing of the words is what we’re trying to get at.  

Andy P: Yes, you have a lot of really good examples, and you do, you’ve got a whole section on inclusivity, and one of the things you talk about, the fact that, Andy, I think you talk about your sister, right?  

Andy W: I do.  Yes, we try to fill the book in a little bit with just some personal anecdotes and stories and I talk a little bit about one of my sisters.  I come from a pretty big family.  I have four younger sisters.  One of them uses a wheelchair, although, she’s not paraplegic.  She uses it to get around.  She is an amazing athlete.  She plays on the wheelchair basketball team for the University of Texas in Arlington.  They’re kind of an incredible talent.  She played on the U.S.  team for the USA national team, which won a world championship last year.  I was just talking to her a little bit about the language that people use throughout digital experiences when referring – really anywhere – when referring to people with disabilities, or disabled people, as we talk about in the book.  

There’s a lot of talk about, “This person has overcome so much odds.  It’s inspiring.” I really try to get her reaction and get her opinion to this.  She’s like, “Well, I really want people to know that I’m just overcoming the odds of being an athlete and getting good at basketball and not because I’m in a wheelchair.” I think we just try to frame some of the language people use when talking about disabled people or LGBT people, or autistic people.  Just try to reframe that and get some opinions from people in those populations themselves.  That was a fun thing to write about, for sure.  

Andy P: Yes, it’s interesting also because most inclusive design, it works in reverse really well in the sense that if you think more carefully about those cases that might not be in your general everyday life, and you talk about quite a lot of the cases where people say, “It’s only five percent of our users that are going to care about that.  Or it’s not such a big deal.” The classic thing about educators aren’t actually educators, they’re millions of people in some cases.  You talk about, just going back to your sister, you talk about saying avoiding language that assigns values to traits.  Instead of saying she’s confined to a wheelchair, or she’s wheelchair bound, you just say, well, she uses a wheelchair, which also implies freedom.  But you also do it when you’re talking about trying not to exclude users.  I thought this example was really good, where you say, “Avoid saying Adobe Photoshop is for graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, and 3D artists, and instead say: Adobe Photoshop helps you create graphics, photographs, illustrations, and 3D art.” It’s just such a subtle shift and a reframe that shifts it from being prescriptive and exclusive to something much more inclusive.  

Andy W: That’s a really good point and for sure something that I think crosses the boundaries of in-product UX writing and into marketing and into advertising, as well.  There’s a lot of really good work on our team that my co-worker Sarah Smart did just around inclusive UX writing practices.  That was a big piece of it.  When we presented that to a lot of the writing teams, you know, writing marketing copy at Adobe, they were like, “That’s brilliant, that’s great.” We’ve been able to cross silos and influence other parts of the company, which is cool.  

Andy P: You talk about also in your description of yourself, of writing under huge constraints and uncovering artefacts from bit software interfaces.  Can you talk about that a little bit more?  

Andy W: Sure, we could go all day about this.  

Andy P: Well, what kinds of constraints, let’s start with constraints, when you say you’re under huge constraints, what kinds of constraints do you face in your day job to make it more real for people?  

Andy W: A big part of it is organisational constraints.  Like, Adobe is a big siloed tech company that was founded 36 years ago or something like that.  Photoshop, for example, has been around for 30 of those years.  There’s often just a lot of product siloes that Adobe Design, which is the big product design team that we cross over but still have to operate within.  Often times, there are different levels of review and change that happens when you have to dig into changing some words.  Photoshop, for example, has so many layers of code that is hard baked into it.  I’ve encountered error messages before that me, a designer, and an engineer have sat down and tried to dig into and find, so we can change it, and we’ve had trouble doing that because there are errors messages that have been baked in for decades.  

We have constraints like that, but then we also have constraints about terminology.  We have such a wide suite of products; we want to try to make sure we’re staying consistent.  Often times, some products come into being through acquisition and comes with their own set of terminology.  Do we change terminology to be consistent with the system and alienate some users, some existing users?  Or do we make it easier for newer users that are coming to the product by changing.  That’s the age-old question, isn’t it?

Andy P: Yes, it’s interesting when it’s something like that because there is a lot of professional jargon too.  My dad, he’s 82 and he was a graphic designer, so if he uses Illustrator or something, or InDesign, he understands a lot of the terminology.  He probably understands Ms and Ns and all of the rest of it better than many of us do because he knows how to do it in actual print design.  He can use it, but he comes really unstuck when it comes to saving a file or save as or something like that.  He has no mental model of the desktop and the filing system stuff.  

There you’ve got to think where professionals are used to seeing certain kinds of language.  As you shift it, if you shift it to be in some respects more inclusive because instead of using the jargon, you’re making it less technical, you’re then going to start alienating those professions who are used to using it.  You have a section in the book which is about the use of jargon.  It’s not like taboo.  It’s not like, never use jargon.  It’s kind of avoid it but sometimes use it.  Can you talk about that a little bit?  

Michael: Yes, I think jargon is an area where maybe we take an unpopular position because I think there’s been a big movement that’s really largely good and that movement has been all about making sure that you’re using plain language when you’re communicating with your users.  There are so many good reasons to do that, there are reasons that makes it a less cognitive load, it’s more useable, easier to read, easier to scan, all of those things.  In some cases, jargon can actually help you and there is an example in the book of a piece of software that I worked on that was designed for people who are designing machines.  

They’re putting together conveyer belts and systems of drives and pullies and all of the different bits that go into making this machine.  It uses terms that if you were someone just opening up that software with no context for this world of machine-design, you wouldn’t really understand anything.  There were things like load and mass and incline, and all of those different pieces were being put together in this interface.  It would have been the wrong thing for me to try to make those more plain language in that case.  

Now, there are pieces of the software that we should have tried to make simpler in plain language, like if they encounter an error message, knowing how to recover from that, that’s really important to write in plain language, but you also need to learn about the people who are using the interface and make sure what you’re using reflects their mental model for the system.  

Andy P: Yes, absolutely.  You talk about error messages; can you talk about errors and stress cases?  Errors always strike me as being the most under designed touchpoint ever and a real missed opportunity.  You probably travel quite a lot; I see so many errors on some kind of Windows, it must be NT or something, but there is some kind of Windows thing driving displays in airports, they show you your flight times and stuff.  You just see these error messages flashing around.  I always think, do you know, you are just broadcasting how rubbish this is to everyone in here.  What a lost opportunity.  Famously, like Slack, you use Slack, there are quite a lot of examples in the book where the way they talk about errors has a lot more personality in it.  Errors also obviously lead to stress because people get caught.  It’s a classic, it goes right back to Don Norman’s early books of a classic moment where the rising panic around an error, particularly in the context of a parent trying to do something for their kids, creates more stress and then panic and then you really don’t know what to do and you get that rabbit in the headlights thing.  You make a point of talking about them in terms of stress cases instead of edge cases.  Can you talk about that reframing?  

Michael: Sure, that framing didn’t come from us, that came from the book: Design for Real Life by Sarah Watcher-Boetttcher and Eric Myer.  That concept I think is important to keep perpetuating as an industry.  Just flip the notion on its head that it’s not about a small group of users that don’t really matter, but it’s about a big important group of users that could be alienated from what you’re creating if you don’t accommodate them.  Stress cases, rather than thinking them about stress cases or errors states or edge cases, it’s a really important way to exemplify that this is a moment where someone could be going through something really difficult and it’s important to meet them where there are.  

Another thing that we talk about that I think is really important is for teams to think of errors not as something to write but as problems to solve and as opportunities to help people.  The framing we give is like the best error message is one that doesn’t even have to happen because you anticipated it and resolved it before it occurred.  That’s another reason why I think writers will really benefit from beginning to think of themselves as designers because sometimes you’ll get a spreadsheet sent over to you and someone will say, “We need you to write all of these error messages.” You don’t even get to have that opportunity to have the conversation with your team around what’s really happening here?  How can we meet people where they are?  

Andy P: What’s the context?  

Michael: Yes, exactly.  There’s real-life happening in the midst of this.  How can we figure out how to resolve those problems for people rather than just writing a message and then moving on?

Andy P: There’s one that you use in the book and I think it’s about an insurance company, I think one of you actually had this as a case or in your work.  In that, there was a thing about, we need an error message for when someone puts in an age that’s greater than 100 years old because the system doesn’t allow or the policy or something doesn’t allow anyone to put in an age more than 100 years.  What happens with that is, you start laddering up because you go, well, hang on, if I could just write an error message, but why does that policy even exist and what’s going on here?  What was going on there?  

Michael: That was a story that I had, and it was a difficult scenario to even unpack what was going on.  The engineer came to me and said, “We’ve got this issue with the policy and we need you to write the error message for it.  “I just couldn’t believe that this existed because it would just be like a hard-stop for people who were over a certain age.  That didn’t seem like something that would – even from a business perspective, it’s not going to be good for the product that we were trying to build.  It ended up that I would just get involved in conversations that got deeper and deeper into where this came from, is it a policy?  What group sets the policy?  Can I meet with them about it and talk with them about it?  It started a lot of conversations.  It was really hard to unpack.  

Ultimately, that product was discontinued before we actually got that piece in place.  I think the conversation was still valuable for our whole team to have and to go through that process of looking and pulling at this thread.  When you’re in a big enterprise company like that, it can feel like a problem like that is just too hard to solve and impossible to get through.  You can just keep asking questions and you can just keep pulling at that thread.  Even if you aren’t ultimately successful, the people you’re working with to try and raise this issue and try to solve it, they’re all benefitting from being able to pursue doing the right thing in this scenario.  

Andy P: It’s amazing though, isn’t it?  That such a small thing, that requests comes through, we need an error message for that, actually then you pull on it and it unravels into such a complex bundle of policies and procedures and probably software things, as well, in there.  I’m wondering, I didn’t know if it was a two-digit thing, or whether you could only go up to 99, or whether it was to do with the policy or something else.  

Andy W: It’s like the Y2K bug.  

Andy P: Exactly, yes.  It’s fascinating.  It also struck me that that kind of work, error messages, labels are often band aids on top of some other problem.  It’s a bit like, I often say when I’m doing contextual research, have a look for where people have put up, particularly government offices and stuff like that, have put up hand-made signs saying, on a door, saying, “This is not a door.” Or, “Don’t use this button, go to that button over there.” All of that kind of stuff because it’s trying to fix something that isn’t actually working.  It’s the people on the ground who get asked a thousand times a day.  A lot of those things, any sort of stickers and things always seem to be a fix after the fact or that we didn’t think that through and now we’re going to have to put a sticker on this to tell people that this hot tap is hot.  

Andy W: Did you see that thing that Jonathan Coleman posted recently on his social media?  The head of content design at Intercom, it was a credit card reader that said, just like in so many stickers, it just said, “Press yes to continue.  Press yes to continue.  Press yes to continue.” People still asked, “How do I continue?” Yes, maybe we don’t need more signs telling people to press yes to continue, maybe we need to reframe that question in the first place.  

Andy P: I have a photo and now I don’t know where it’s from, actually, I’ll have to do a reverse search, but I used to use it in talks quite a lot.  It’s a ticket machine in a carpark, a multi-storey carpark.  It’s just covered in stickers and it says, “Do this first, press the grey button first.” There are two of them on the screen.  There are more and more stickers over it.  Clearly, whoever works there has just got so frustrated, but they’ve made it worse every time.  It’s a very good example of how words then when it says in this case, “Press the grey box on the screen first”, but there are two grey boxes on the green, the lack of clarity about that.  In fact, you talk about this quite a lot in terms of don’t use the locations of things, instead, use the chronology of things and to structure language quite differently.  

Andy W: Yes, that was a big part of our chapter about inclusivity and accessibility.  I think that’s a good tip for writing for accessibility because when a screen reader is walking a blind person or somebody that just needs to use the screen reader through the interface, like press the blue button on the left isn’t going to be useful at all to them, but if you frame it as a continuum, like in a chronology, like, next, choose go.  Like, next do this.  Previously, then, finally, do this, makes a lot more sense.  I think that’s a really simple trick that a lot of people who aren’t thinking about that overlook, for sure.  

Andy P: It reminds me of that classic assignment you sometimes get set in school, which is imagine aliens have come down to earth and you have to tell them how to use a phone booth or something like that.  It’s a very good way of then checking your assumptions.  I want to move onto voice and tone because you make the distinction between the two.  Actually, earlier on, you talk about irresponsible writing and being careful of weaponizing words, too.  You talk about this idea of confirm-shaming.  Can you tell us what confirm-shaming is?  I think it’s a good example of tone of voice, too, or tone and voice.  

Michael: So, confirm-shaming, I think this originated as far as I can tell with a Tumblr blog,, which just collects examples of blatantly manipulative, mostly they’re people to sign up for newsletters, so they’re little models that come up, you can enter your email address, or you can say something akin to, “No, I hate myself and I don’t want to have an interest.”

Andy P: “I want to be miserable on Monday morning”, was that it?  

Michael: “No, I do not want to save 20 percent.  Yes.  I hate money.” You put words in people’s mouths for them and do that hoping that it will result in more email addresses in your database.  I didn’t even know.  I’ve been involved in a team that was trying to work on increasing their numbers.  I don’t think they got to that point, where they’re trying those types of messages, but I’d be surprised if these things are even really effective in terms of getting the results people want from them.  Regardless of that, they’re just not ethical, it’s a terrible way to treat people as a business.  That’s a really clear way where your business, even if you’re doing really great things and selling cool products, immediately just becomes less credible, as soon as someone seems that.  

Andy P: It’s funny, if you made those things a real-life thing and someone came up to you and you’re walking through a station and someone said, “Would you like a sample of our product?  Or do you want to be a dick?” You would never do that, would you?

Michael: I would like to be a dick, please.  

Andy P: But somehow in the digital world, that seems to be okay.  

Andy W: I think people see it as often that gets written in the silo, as just a little growth hack or a trick.  They’re not thinking about how it represents that larger voice that a brand or a product might have.  It’s definitely probably they’re not trying to be that manipulative in the rest of the voice, but it’s such an early top-of-funnel good example of how you can just break people’s understanding and opinion of you quickly.  

Andy P: Yes, it’s just an immediate turn-off, isn’t it?  What’s the difference between tone and voice?  

Andy W: I can take this one.  I am me; I am Andy.  I always have the same personality.  I try to come at everything I do with the same set of values and the same set of interests coming from a personal level, that’s my voice, that’s me.  The way that I talk to my sisters or the way that I talk to my college roommate or the way that I talk to Michael when we’re book planning and the way that I’m talking here on this podcast, these are all shifts in tone, just to try to accomplish different goals.  I’m trying to just explain what I wrote in my book in this podcast.  

Therefore, I’m going to be a little bit more educational, I’m going to try to slow down and frame some things before we get into it.  That’s specifically just to make sure to give the right context and to get people interested in the book.  I think that software or digital experiences can do the same thing.  You have your core values; you have your voice that you need to accomplish.  Sometimes that can be the same thing as your brand voice, sometimes that can be very different.  

Andy P: Like, Slack when you talked about it at the beginning.  

Andy W: For sure, Slack’s in-product voice and brand voice are very similar.  

Andy P: Can you give an example of when there’s a slight difference between that?  

Andy W: Honestly, I’ll just go ahead and pick on my own company that I feel comfortable picking on, which is Adobe.  Often times, our brand voice is trying very much to be at the interaction of technology and creativity, right.  We want to talk to artists and designers and creative people, but we also want to make sure that they know we have a very deep scientific, engineering approach to enabling them to be creative.  That’s great.  We really want to be captivating and interesting and passionate and really speak to their creativity.  But that’s not super useful in the product.  They just want to get in there and actually use it, draw something on the canvas or figure out how to edit a video clip, or make something very simple.  We really want to focus on clarity or being very straightforward and sometimes brevity, too.  We have a different set of principles we need to carry through in the product.  I don’t think it’s necessarily always the case, sometimes when you have a very product forward company, your brand voice and your product voice can be the same.  Sometimes you have different goals inside the product and then also, like, for your brand.  

Andy P: In an Adobe product, you might have something very inspiring or in the branding or sometimes even in the splash screens and stuff.  You’re not going to go up to file, new…

Andy W: “Start creating now”, or whatever.

Andy P: A new kick-ass – yes, exactly.  

Michael: That idea of separating voice and tone, it’s something that I think the first example I really saw widespread was Mail Chimp from back in the day, they made their voice and tone guidelines public.  Sadly, I don’t think it’s live anymore, you could maybe check it through the Way Back Machine, but it was and they put their principles out there and showed how tone should and can change in different situations.  That was a big moment for a lot of people working in tech to realise how central a language is to the experiences we’re working on every day.  One of the people who work at Mail Chimp at the time, Keith Keeferly also co-wrote a book called: Nicely Said, where they get into voice and tone, as well.  That could be another create resource.  

Andy P: One of the really nice examples, I heard of this from R.  Einz, which his A1, the Austrian telecom company and there was a project there called the wording project or something.  In German, you get a very formal version of German.  There’s even this thing called [inaudible 00:29:50], which is like bureaucracy speak.  It’s very formal and it’s very roundabout in the way it uses an awful lot of passive tense and stuff.  Also, you have the formal see and the informal do, so you do to your friends, but you see some people who are more senior or who you don’t know.  

One of the things that came out of a lot of the feedback is, a lot of their marketing materials, the stuff on bus shelters and posters and all in this youthful language and in general, just young people use the informal with each other, even with people they don’t know.  It was all around that.  It was all young and trendy.  Then when the customers got emails or tech support things, or even in the instructions of how to setup their router or something, it was all of this really formal language.  They said, “You’re speaking to me like I’m a teenager in your advertising, but then after that you speak to me like my grandmother.” There’s just this shift in tone that happens.  It destroys the credibility on both sides, because obviously you can choose if you’re a bank, you’ll choose usually to be very formal and because we’re serious and there’s no risk and all of that stuff and trustworthy.  There’s another brand that chooses to maintain that useful thing.  

They did a sweep through and they just went through everything, they went through the instructions, like I said, to how to setup your router, they went through contracts, they went through all of the terms and conditions, but they also went through all of the template letters and stuff that the customer service people were sending out.  They made a choice also to respond not only to the customers on their own channel, which is a number one thing, but to respond in the style of that customer.  So, if someone wrote to them very formally, they would write back very formally, in one case, someone wrote them a poem and they wrote back in poem.  Just to stay on that same wavelength.  I thought it was a really nice example of how a company can actually create much more…

Andy W: I will only be writing to customer service using Limericks now, for sure.  To see what happens.  

Andy P: In code, yes.  

Andy W: I think that’s fantastic.  I think we talked a little bit about voice, and I think tone is the tool that gives us the ability to either react or be proactive in context.  Like you have your brand voice or your product voice, and then you can really use tone to be very supportive and empathetic in a support situation perhaps.  Like, is content team customer service, or somebody’s credit card got declined or whatever.  Then you could also within that same set of voice guidelines use tone to be very motivational and proactive when somebody’s trying to get through an onboarding experience, or probably most of the time, you just want to be very neutral and stay out of the way, recede into the background and just give the tools they need to do what they need to do.  I think that’s where tone comes in, is that contextual flexibility.  

Andy P: I can imagine getting that setup is a set of choices, right, and you talk about this not that.  Defining not just what you are, but also what you’re not limits your palate in a very useful way because the problem you have is obviously write anything you like, but having those kind of guard rails is really important and it’s also quite freeing in the end.  I really like that idea of I can’t remember which example you use, when you talk about, maybe it was Mail Chimp as well, but we’re this but we’re not that.  

Andy W: Yes.  Interestingly, Mail Chimp kind of got away from that, but I think it’s still very useful when people are starting to think about this.  This book came out of a series of workshops that we developed and give at Con Fab and a few other conferences.  When people get into groups and are given a fictional or sometimes real-life company to develop a product voice for, we give this to them.  Sometimes people will start putting together this but not that and they’ll use opposites, right.  Like, I want to be educational but not vague.  I’m saying, well, that’s really like not quite how we want to use it.  You want to use the not that as an upper limit or an extreme, you want to be educational but not pedantic, for example, and then provide some examples of each of those to really show there’s an extreme or an under limit to how you want to come across.  That just really gets you talking about it, it gets a group of people together in a room and thinking about how this could be misused or how you could take this to an extreme.  That’s that exercise there, what that’s good for.  

Andy P: I think that’s incredibly useful.  I think one of the ones from Mail Chimp was: Fun but not childish.  It really helps you understand what you mean by this, not that, because fun can easily become childish.  I think the upper or lower limits of things are very easy to be very aspirational sometimes, I think, and say, “We’re going to be this and we’re going to be inspiring and we’re going to be engaging and use all of these kinds of things, but it’s also very easy to drift into something else if you don’t have that other limit set and say, “We’re going to be this, but we’re not going to be that.” I think it’s incredibly useful.  There are probably loads more than we can talk about, but we are coming up to time.  I have a last question that I probably should have asked first, which is was, I mentioned at the beginning and I’ll ask you this question, is this a content design book, what gap where you feeling that you wanted to fill with this book and what do you hope most of all that people will take away from it?  

Michael: Well, I’m hoping that for people who do the work of writing on different product teams and the people who write words for different experiences, that those people will feel empowered to have conversations that they’ve never had before and to start feeling like they have a place to actually shape the experience in a meaningful way.  To us, we were trying not to say with the book: Here’s how to do this, but more: Here’s how to think about this.  Here’s how to have a conversation about it and here’s how to be intentional about it.  

Rather than having all of the answers, what I hope people come away with is new ways of thinking about the problems they wrestle with every day, so that the next time that they get a spreadsheet filled with different scenarios, they’re not just having to write it and feel like maybe those solutions are not what they would hope for them to be.  I would hope that people that do that writing can start to do work that they feel really proud of and start to feel that they have a hand in shaping the experiences that they’re part of creating.  

Andy W: From the other end of that, I’d like to think that we’re going to get some writers.  People from magazines or from newspapers and really want to figure out how to get into UX, we can inspire them that, hey, you can do design work too, even if you’re a writer, you can apply this design methodology to the thing you’re already really good at, which is words and communication and really finding a valuable career out of that.  

Andy P: The very final question is, Power of Ten is named after the Eames film: Powers of Ten, where they zoom out to the universe and back into the subatomic level in powers of ten.  With it is this idea of design operating at different levels and you’ve talked about it quite a lot, a piece of text that might exclude one percent of Facebook users is actually 20 million people.  My question is, what small thing that you think is maybe overlooked or should be designed or should be redesigned or is designed well particularly that has an outsized effect on the macro picture?  

Andy W: I think that we talked about confirm-shaming and buttons.  I think that even the non-confirm-shaming buttons can be drastically simplified just to get people to understand the action they’re taking.  I have a personal crusade against the call-to-action got it.  Google does this a lot, somebody just wants to have an okay button or just to dismiss or acknowledge, and it says: Got it.  I’ve actually been in user research tests where people who especially if they’re coming to English from other languages just read that as a dismissive rather than an acknowledgment and it actually will often bear the opposite meaning of what I think that people set out to do.  Just really drastically simplifying your CTA buttons I think will make a huge difference.  

Andy P: Michael?  

Michael: Yes, for me, I am going to pick the notification.  Whether it’s on your phone as a push notification or as a text message or on your watch or on your computer or in your email, we are inundated with notifications and they are a huge part of what people are asked to write for these products every day.  I just think that we can see that concept of the Power of Ten in an individual’s life, where people are just inundated with these things.  My life has improved drastically since I started denying every app I install notification permissions on my phone.  They have to have a really good reason to allow them because it was just being abused so much by the people who make these apps.  

I think the only people who can do something about it are the people who are working on it.  I think it just starts to really inundate people.  It gets people looking at their phone, even when they don’t mean to be, or don’t want to be.  You talked in a recent episode with Teresa Neil about how engagement has become synonymous with addiction.  I think that’s so true.  I think words really play a major role in that.  I hope that we can solve this problem not by writing notifications differently, but by being more thoughtful and intentional about when we use them.  

Andy P: Actually, one part of writing is knowing when to be silent.  

Andy W: Totally.  

Michael: Exactly.  

Andy P: Well, what a fantastic place to end.  Michael, Andy, where can we find you online?  

Michael: You can find my website:  I’m starting to write there more as we get the book out into the world.  Just telling some stories from the people who were in the book and just writing about the work in general.  You can find me on Twitter @mjmetts.  Instagram @mjmetts.  

Andy P: Double T?

Michael: Yes, exactly, double T.  LinkedIn, as well.  

Andy P: Brilliant.  Andy?  

Andy W: My website, I think you’ll appreciate this, Andy, my website is:  I sat on that domain name when the wtf domains rolled around.  Or you can find me on Twitter where I’m most active as @awelfle.  I am on LinkedIn, as well.  I’m happy to talk to you there, but I’m not super active there.  

Andy P: Okay, great.  I’ll put all of the links in the show notes.  I’ll put a link to your book and your websites, as well.  Michael, Andy, thanks very much for being my guests on Power of Ten.  

Andy W: It’s been a pleasure.  

Michael: Thanks for having us.  

Andy P: You can find the transcript of Power of Ten on:, where you’ll also find the other podcasts on the network.  My name is Andy Polaine, you’ll find me online as @apolaine on Twitter and most other places and also,  Thanks for listening and see you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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