Gerry: [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Gerry Scullion, and I’m a Human Centered Design Practitioner based in Sydney Australia. But today this podcast was recorded in Melbourne. Before we jump in however, as this podcast was recorded in the Melbourne CBD I’d like to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we meet today, and pay respect to their elders both past and present.

Earlier last year, I was speaking at UX Australia and saw a fantastic talk by our guest today, Rachael Mullins. I’ve added a link to that presentation in the show notes, so you can also enjoy it.

Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve heard whispers in the UX community of a new role emerge called a UX Writer and I was instantly drawn to it as I have identified the issues many times in my career of the solutions that a role like this can address. Rachael also published a really great article on Medium that I’ll also add to the show notes, and we caught up face to face and had a good chat about how Rachael got into the industry, what she does, the principles of good UX writing, and what tools she uses and much, much more.

I’ve babbled on too much, so let’s jump straight in. Rachael Mullins, a very warm welcome to the This is HCD podcast.

Rachael: Thanks for having me.

Gerry: I’m delighted to be here, I’m recording from Melbourne and we’re sitting face to face in the CBD. I caught up with you a little bit at UX Australia this year where you were speaking about bringing out your inner UX writer.

Rachael: Yes.

Gerry: But before we get to that Rachael, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into design.

Rachael: [00:01:37] Yeah sure. So I worked as a technical writer for nine years, and at the start of that time we were a team of writers basically documenting how to use the software at a big accounting software company. We didn’t have much interaction with the UX team or the product interface at all. But over the course of that nine years, we kind of more and more saw ourselves working directly in the interface, so coming up with the wording on the UI and it kind of made total sense to us that you would get the people who were experts in writing to write the interface.

Gerry: Yeah.

Rachael: So yeah, it was a long journey, but eventually I found myself in this position of working closely with UXers and designers to come up with the words in the interface and that’s kind of where I am today.

Gerry: [00:02:25] So how would you describe your skills as a practitioner? Where do you sit within the design process, or where do you prefer to sit in the design process?

Rachael: [00:02:33] Yeah, so I think the best place for a writer to sit is directly in the design team. So that’s working closely with the UX designer, the visual designer, the BA, to think about the content from the very beginning of the design process rather than being brought in at the end.

Gerry: Yeah.

Rachael: Yeah, that’s the utopia, and it doesn’t always happen…

Gerry: [00:02:53] I’m sure. Retrospectively looking back in those nine years when you were in that other job. How does it compare?

Rachael: [00:02:59] We were very much a siloed team of writers who at the beginning didn’t have a lot of interaction with the design team. Today, the job I’m in right now at Seamless, I’m embedded in the design team and it just makes it so much easier when you think about content from the very beginning and work closely with the others coming up with the UI.

Gerry: [00:03:22] So what would you say to organizations that are currently using technical writing and they’re saying “Ah, it’s kind of the same as UX writing”. What would you say to those organizations?

Rachael: Yeah, that’s a good question, and you also get the question of, “Isn’t UX writing just copywriting?”

Gerry: Yeah.

Rachael: [00:03:37] So you’re right that there’s a lot of overlap between all those types of writing. But I guess the key thing to think about is what the purpose is of what you’re writing. So for a copywriter, it’s often more about writing to persuade or to sell something, and with UX writing we’re more about writing to educate or to guide users through a particular experience.

Gerry: Do you think you can do both?

Rachael: Yeah, for sure. And I think technical writers, that’s a very common path into UX writing is people who begin as technical writers, because they already have that user focus and instead of documenting how to use something they’re now basically being part of the experience itself and writing the words on the interface.

Gerry: So how does technical writing and UX writing differ?

Rachael: Well, traditionally technical writing is more about how to use something and it traditionally sits outside the interface. So it might be a help centre—a how-to video or written topic. And so more and more we’re seeing that kind of merging of that instructional information and the interface itself.

Gerry: [00:04:47] Yeah. So Rachael I caught some of your talk at UX Australia this year in Sydney but maybe tell the listener what you understand UX writing to be. How would you describe it?

Rachael: [00:04:59] For me it’s all about the art of writing the words in the interface. So, the words you encounter during your experience with a product– basically the content in the customer experience. So that can include anything from the tiny bits of text in buttons or field labels to titles and links and calls to action, empty states, place holders, emails that get triggered by the product. Basically, yeah, all the words that are part of the experience.

Gerry: [00:05:30] So if you were a service designer and you’re working as part of a larger ecosystem would UX writing sit across the entire ecosystem or are you saying it just sits within the interface?

Rachael: [00:05:41] Yeah that’s a good question because it’s primarily the interface but then there are those things like emails that are outside it, that a good UX writer will be the person that connects those dots to say, “oh, we need to make sure we’ve got a consistent tone of voice and we’re using consistent wording across all those touch points. So whether that’s in the interface or email content or support writing, it’s all consistent.

Gerry: So wayfinding, you would imagine it could be part of it, but probably in your experience it tends to be baked in the digital world a little bit.

Rachael: [00:06:16] Yeah. I mean you can have UX writing in the physical world if you think of something like a lift with buttons and text to tell you what to do in an emergency.

Gerry: Okay, so it does sit outside of the digital realm.

Rachael: Yeah for sure, obviously my experience is more the digital side, but you can have words on the interface whatever the interface is.

Gerry: Yeah true. The interaction. So one of the articles that I know you’ve written and it’s had I don’t know how many thousand people on Medium applaud it, I’m definitely one of them, I think I gave you the whole 50.

Rachael: Woo!

Gerry: Yeah I know, yeah, it was a big whoop! I actually whooped when I applauded. So tell us a little bit about that article and where it came about and what drove you to write the article.

Rachael: [00:07:01] I presented a short talk at UX Australia on bringing out your inner UX writer. So primarily for people working in UX that don’t necessarily have that writing background, some tips to help them improve the words in their interfaces. So then I developed that into a Medium article, and it just outlines my principles for great UX writing.

Gerry: [00:07:28] So let’s talk about these principles because it’s definitely something I know the listeners are going to have a lot of interest in and a lot of questions probably as well.

Rachael: [00:07:37] Yeah sure, so my number one principle to keep in mind would be to make every word earn its place. So, that involves editing ruthlessly so you’re only including the words that you really really need. And often that means starting with nothing and just adding the…

Gerry: Building it from there.

Rachael: Building it from there, exactly, rather than starting with this whole heap of text and cutting it down, just start with nothing and add only what you need.

Gerry: [00:08:01] I know in my experience when I was working on a recent project I found it easier to work with a lot of text and whittle it down that way. What do you think of that approach for UX writing? Is it, once I’ve got to the point of comprehension and I’ve tested it, and then I start subtracting until I find the balance.

Rachael: [00:08:22] I think that can definitely work, but often for me what works even better is starting with nothing and then you’re just adding the elements that you need until you get to that point of comprehension. But both methods can definitely work.

Gerry: [00:08:35] You could end up having a paragraph in a button then, if you’re taking my approach I guess.

Rachael: Possibly, yes.

Gerry: All right so every word has to earn its place.

Rachael: [00:08:45] Mmm, and part of that is also making sure you use short words instead of long words where possible.

Gerry: Give us some examples there.

Rachael: So the one I used in my talk was, instead of when you’re saying sorry for something…

Gerry: Yeah which is very common, a lot of UX people have this, like do you say “Oops!”?

Rachael: Yeah, so much of what I do is writing error messages, but that’s another story. So instead of saying ‘“We apologize for the inconvenience” or something like that just say “We’re sorry”. So yeah, just take the shortest, sharpest approach to saying what you’re trying to say.

Gerry: [00:09:22] Nice, yeah, I guess you make it sound so easy. The obvious is always not obvious, initially. So what else can people consider when they’re designing…

Rachael: [00:09:31] I’d also say aim for high information density, which is a fancy way of saying, just make sure the words you’re using are actually saying something. Get rid of the fluff.

Gerry: How do you do this? Like, for you it’s probably very easy, but I know a lot of my UX friends are like, “ah, I just don’t touch the words”. What do you say to them? How do they get good at this?

Rachael: [00:09:52] That’s a bigger question. So I think you can learn a lot from talking to your users, testing your words. That’s something I would always recommend, that you test your content just as you would your design.

Gerry: [00:10:05] How do you do that? How would you recommend, if Rachael Mullins was to design the process for testing those words, what would you advise?

Rachael: [00:10:11] Well when you think about it, unless your interface has no words on it, you’re usually testing the content when you do any sort of testing, so it’s just a matter of listening to what users are telling you and if they mention something about the language that you’ve used or that they can’t understand something, it might be the wording that’s getting in the way. So it’s kind of already built into existing processes of testing design.

There are other methods of testing purely the words. So in terms of testing the level of readability of what you’re writing there are great tools out there. One of them that I use quite often is called Hemingway App, where you just dump in some text and it will tell you what reading level the text is at, with the idea being that you want as low a reading level as possible.

Gerry: How does it generate that reading level?

Rachael: Oh, magic! Yeah, there’s a magic algorithm behind it, and it will also tell you if you’re using too many passive constructions and all that geeky grammar stuff that we probably don’t want to get into right now.

Gerry: Have you used Grammarly?

Rachael: Yes, yes that’s also good.

Gerry: What are your thoughts on that?

Rachael: Yeah yeah, really good. I know a lot of people who swear by it, who won’t write an email without it, so…

Gerry: I might be one or might not be one. I’m not saying I am.

Rachael: And another tool that is a really, really simple one is Google Trends, where you just paste in two or three or four variants of a word and it will show you the use of those words over time and by region. So you can find out if a word you’re thinking of is only used in the UK or if it was popular five years ago but now no one uses it. So yeah, that’s a really cool free tool.

Gerry: That totally makes sense when you think about it, because certain words I know down in Melbourne make, because this being the hip capital of the world…

Rachael: Exactly. Is it thongs or is it flip flops?

Gerry: Yeah, or jandals if you’re in New Zealand. That’s a really good point, so I’ll drop some of those links into the show notes. So what’s the next principle that you’re working towards?

Rachael: [00:12:14] Yeah, so the next principle is make it scannable.

Gerry: [00:12:18] I like this because this is a word I use quite a lot in any of my work, to make sure it’s scannable. So what does it mean for you?

Rachael: Well we know that users read online differently to how they read in print.

Gerry: So tell the users who aren’t really sure… there’s business people listening to this as well who are like, “What do you mean? You read one way: left to right.”

Rachael: Yeah, so there’s tons of research—you can look into Nielsen Norman Group for more on it—about how users online will scan the text rather than read every word. And there’s the F-shaped reading pattern, which describes how their eyes move across or down the page.

Gerry: [00:12:55] How does that change the way people scan? How does that change the comprehension level?

Rachael: [00:13:00] Yeah. So it just means you need to make it really obvious where certain text is on the page. So make it really easy for them to be able to scan quickly and find what they need. So you might add subheadings, so they can easily just, you know, track their eye down the page until they get to the right subheading. Or you might use more bold and italic, you might use bulleted lists, you might use shorter paragraphs… there are all sorts of approaches.

Gerry: I know some visual designers who are probably like, throwing their eyes up to heaven going, “Italics! Bold!”

Rachael: Yeah, okay, maybe scratch those ones, but…

Gerry: No no absolutely, you know, you’re here to give your feedback. So once you’ve got your scannability down, what would you say the role of iconography is in supporting the scannability?

Rachael: [00:13:51] Yeah, good question. I know there’s been a number of studies about how it’s often hard to comprehend icons when they’re used alone, as compared to if they’re used in conjunction with text. So when we use icons we try to incorporate text as well so users are never just relying on the icon itself.

Gerry: [00:14:14] So let’s try and speak a little bit more about your involvement with managing the content, because I know a lot of organisations when they’re designing, they can still design in pages as opposed to designing in modules or within a design system. How do you keep control of—I don’t want to use “the vernacular” as a word, but like how do you manage that?

Rachael: [00:14:35] Yeah, we’re still figuring that out to be honest. At the moment it’s quite ad hoc, but we do…

Gerry: What do you use? What tools do you use?

Rachael: Well at the moment I try to use the same tools that the designers use as much as possible, so directly editing the wireframes. But that’s not always how it ends up being. So sometimes it’s just working directly with developers to come up with the wording for an error message, and that could take any form, It could be a HipChat conversation or an email to them or it’s on a wiki page somewhere. So, yeah, we’re still trying to find the best approach to holding all that content somewhere.

Gerry: [00:15:15] So if you had any ideas, like simple methods for people who are currently starting out in this world, what could they use? Or what’s the simplest form of management?

Rachael: [00:15:25] I think the simplest form is probably something like an Excel doc, or a Google Doc, yes, where you’ve got all the content strings in one place.

Gerry: What does that mean when you say strings?

Rachael: Yeah so that’s just another word for UX writing, chunks of UX copy. There are so many different terms that people use for it—product copy, UI strings, microcopy… it’s all kind of the same thing.

Gerry: [00:15:54] So, what would you say to organisations if they’ve tested something and say a word fails on the website. Does that mean you should never use that word again?

Rachael: [00:16:04] I mean context is king, so not necessarily, but A/B testing is a great way to figure out if the word you’re using is right. But yeah, if you’re consistently finding that users don’t understand a word I’d suggest it’s probably time to throw it out.

Gerry: Sunset it. Put it to bed, give it a good tuck-in.

Rachael: Yeah. Another test that has been really eye-opening for me is to get somebody I work with who’s not a native English speaker to review the UI text, because so often what they comprehend is different to what a native English speaker will comprehend. So it’s a really quick way of figuring out if you’re using vernacular that the rest of the world isn’t going to understand.

Gerry: [00:16:47] Yeah absolutely. Just touching on that and building on it a bit more, what role would you say UX writing plays with accessibility within the interface or within the system?

Rachael: [00:16:59] I think it goes back to the principles of plain language, so making sure that what you’re writing is accessible to all users whether their native language is English or not. It’s making sure you’ve got alt text embedded…

Gerry: [00:17:18] Is that something UX writing will actually go and QA and check to make sure that the accessibility is there?

Rachael: [00:17:25] That could come from anyone—our developers are very accessibility-focused, our QAs also, so it’s kind of a team effort in terms of accessibility.

Gerry: [00:17:34] It kind of goes back to that four-legged chair, except you’re introducing the development stream. I guess they would add their extra knowledge to that stream. So one of the other points I remember hearing you speak about was “give it the time it deserves”. What did you mean by that?

Rachael: [00:17:51] That means considering content early rather than leaving it to the last minute. It also means using real content in prototypes.

Gerry: Yeah, which is controversial for some.

Rachael: It’s controversial for some, definitely, but it means you’re thinking about the actual content that goes in the interface as soon as possible because that’s going to influence the design.

Gerry: So that the content stream really working in parallel with any iterations so it’s much earlier in the process. And I know a lot of teams may struggle with that because they may see it as slowing down the process.

Rachael: [00:18:24] Yep, but I think I often find that it speeds things up in the long-term because you’re not getting to the end of the process and then realising, “oh, that word doesn’t fit in that button” or something like that.

Gerry: [00:18:38] Yeah true, that’s a really good point yeah.

Rachael: It’s also about allowing enough time to revise, because you don’t often come up with the best version of the wording at the very beginning. So it’s just having the time in your process to iterate and iterate, just like you would the design. And it’s also about testing the content.

Gerry: [00:18:59] Yeah. So giving the UX writing more time, but it also gives you more time to collaborate as well.

Rachael: [00:19:04] Exactly, yeah. Some of the worst content outcomes I’ve experienced is when the writer is brought in at the very end and asked, “Oh can you just add some words to the design?” and it’s just, yeah, it’s always a nightmare.

Gerry: [00:19:18] So what do you say to people who—I know there’s people listening—and they kinda say, oh, the marketing team write our content, and they’re writing the emails, and then there’s product managers writing some of the content and it’s kind of hodgepodge. What would you say to them as selling UX writing?

Rachael: [00:19:37] Well firstly I’d suggest that it’s a good idea to have one person owning all of those client touchpoints in terms of the content, because then you’re going to improve your consistency, you’re going to be able to introduce your company’s tone of voice across all of them, and you just going to get a better outcome when you’ve got someone who knows where all that content is and can make sure that you’re giving the same message across all of them. And I’d also say that when you’ve got all those different people like marketing doing your UX writing, you just have to be careful that you know what your goal is with what you’re writing, and that you’ve got the best person for the job. So marketers often come from the position of writing to persuade and with UX writing you can have some of that, but often it’s more about writing to guide a user through an experience or educate them.

Gerry: [00:20:35] Yeah. Have you any experience working with marketing departments?

Rachael: Yep.

Gerry: Are you able to talk about it a little bit more?

Rachael: We’ll just leave that there. [Laughter] It can be tricky.

Gerry: Yeah, it can be tricky?

Rachael: Yeah.

Gerry: Any advice on navigating around that trickiness? I know there’s people out there that would love to get a UX writing person in, but they’re like, “oh, it’s just another UXer, we’ve already got one UXer”. What advice would you give them to be able to go to their board or go to their boss and say, “Oh man UX writing. It sounds like a really cool discipline.” Is there any advice you can give them?

Rachael: [00:21:08] Yeah, I would suggest that the easiest way to do that—to get that buy in—is to show the impact. So if during user testing someone mentions that the wording or the content is really confusing them, then tell everybody about it and do A/B testing to prove that one version of the wording results in a higher uptake than the other, and that kind of helps you to prove the value of having someone focus on the writing.

Gerry: [00:21:34] Yeah, okay, that’s good feedback. So just moving on to one of the other points you made was, “be human”.

Rachael: [00:21:41] Yes.

Gerry: Can you be not human?

Rachael: I’ve definitely experienced really robotic digital experiences, haven’t you?

Gerry: Yeah absolutely, it’s non-human-centred design, it’s robot-centered design. So what do you mean by “be human”?

Rachael: [00:21:56] I mean use plain language and speak like your users do… don’t have errors that say “exception error 10357”, because that’s just painful for everyone.

Gerry: [00:22:09] So what do you say to organisations then that they’re kind of like “oh well we’re a bank, if we sound too much like we’re ‘street’ we’re gunna sound like we’re not taking it serious”.

Rachael: [00:22:18] Yeah well obviously context is important and your company branding is important, but I would argue that you can always write in plain language regardless of what your brand is.

Gerry: [00:22:31] So some of the terminology I know from looking at Grammarly and some of the other tools that you suggested before we were speaking today, like active and passive voice. So maybe just give us some examples of what that is and when you should use them.

Rachael: [00:22:46] Yeah, I’ll try to make this quick, because I know it’s really painful for a lot of people to talk about grammar. So using active voice over passive voice is making it clear who the actor is. So an example of the passive would be: “The problem is being investigated”, which tells you what’s happening but it doesn’t tell you who’s investigating it. And so if you flip that into the active it’s: “We’re investigating the problem”. So it’s making it clear who the actor is and whether it’s you as a company or whether it’s the user.

Gerry: [00:23:18] Okay, so it’s better to use active, as opposed to passive?

Rachael: [00:23:22] Yeah. I mean passive does have its use sometimes but in general active is better. So to sum up the “be human” guideline, it’s just about considering the user’s emotional state and their context which we should always be doing as designers and UX people, and it’s also about showing your personality.

Gerry: Your brand personality.

Rachael: Exactly, yeah. So no matter…

Gerry: [00:23:42] Not the designer’s personality, otherwise we’d get some schizophrenic interfaces.

Rachael: So no matter who you work for and what your company does, you’ve always got a personality and it’s okay to show it.

Gerry: [00:23:56] So, what would you say to organisations that are currently writing content and they would say, “well we don’t have a need for UX writing. It’s just another UX title.” What would you say to them, like to get on board?

Rachael: [00:24:11] Well, I mean firstly the title doesn’t have to be UX writer. There are people doing this work who are called product content strategists, who are called technical writers, who are called copywriters… so don’t get too hung up on the name. But also I would say that it’s really important to give just as much consideration to what the product says as to how it looks and how it works. So if you think of those three…

Gerry: What it says, what was the first one? What it says…

Rachael: What it says, which is your content design, how it looks, your visual design, and how it works. So yeah, content is just as necessary for a really great product experience. And when you think about what’s coming in the future in terms of conversational interfaces and chatbots, well that entire interface is content. So it’s only going to get more important in the future.

Gerry: [00:25:05] Yeah. Apart from yourself, who would you recommend people read to learn more about writing and UX writing?

Rachael: [00:25:16] Yeah, so, number one would be John Saito who’s a UX writer from Dropbox. He is doing amazing stuff and writing about it on Medium.

Gerry: Okay, John Saito, I’ll put that link in the show notes.

Rachael: There’s a Slack group called ‘Content and UX’ which is a great source of everything that comes at the intersection of content and UX.

Gerry: Nice. I mean can anyone join that?

Rachael: Yes. Yes.

Gerry: It’s not just in Australia.

Rachael: No, no, it’s global. There’s a really great book that was written by one of the MailChimp writers called ‘Nicely Said: Writing for the web with style and purpose’. So that’s a really good starting point if you just want to learn more.

Gerry: [00:26:03] Yeah, I’ve got one there that I’ve read recently and it was from Abby Covert, ‘How to Make Sense of Any Mess’.

Rachael: [00:26:11] Yeah, that was a great one, which goes more into the information architecture space. But it’s still really really interesting and an easy read.

Gerry: [00:26:21] A really easy read. She did a really great job. She’s on Abby The IA, I think it’s Abby_the_IA. Again I’ll drop a link in the show notes for that book as well.

Rachael: [00:26:33] And one more, there’s also a Facebook group called ‘Microcopy and UX writing’.

Gerry: Ooh, that one sounds really interesting.

Rachael: Yeah, if you don’t wanna go outside of Facebook for all your UX writing needs.

Gerry: [00:26:47] So you can definitely stay within the Facebook realm and get lots of information. So which companies do you think are doing it well?

Rachael: [00:26:54] I think Slack is a great example of a company who understands the value of a great content experience. And you think about the people who use Slack, they usually love it, and I think a big part of that is the fact that their tone of voice is funny and it’s informative and they just tick all the boxes. Another one would be MailChimp.

Gerry: [00:27:20] Mailchimp, they always seem to be the one that comes back around. So we’re coming towards the end of this episode, Rachael, and thanks for spending the time with me on a Monday evening after work in Melbourne, but I’m going to ask you the three questions from hell, which we ask everyone who’s on the podcast. And the first question is: what is the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?

Rachael: I don’t know if it counts as a professional skill, but for me it’s embracing imperfection.

Gerry: Wow, I think that’s definitely a professional skill as well. So, how are you going to get better at that? It’s easy to say these things.

Rachael: [00:28:00] Exactly, yeah. I’m taking baby steps towards it. Part of that is—in a UX writing realm—is to remember that what you start with doesn’t necessarily have to be what you end up with. So get something out there, test it with users, see how it goes, and then if it’s not great then you can improve it. Yeah.

Gerry: [00:28:22] Alright, so second question Rachael. What is the one thing in the industry that you wish you’d be able to banish.

Rachael: Lorem ipsum?

Gerry: Lorem ipsum. What’s wrong with lorem ipsum?

Rachael: [00:28:30] Look it’s served us well, but I think we’ve reached the point where it’s getting in the way of designing experiences that really put their content front and centre.

Gerry: [00:28:42] Okay, I can totally understand after speaking to you today and I don’t think I’ll ever type it into my browser again!

Gerry: So the final question is: what is the message that you give to emerging HCD talent? So people trying to break into the industry. It could be people interested in writing or people who are interested in UX design or service design or business design.

Rachael: [00:29:08] So I’d say that it’s really good to remember that when users interact with a product or a service they’re usually not there for the design itself but they’re there for the message, or the content. So make sure you craft your content as carefully as you craft your design.

Gerry: Okay, said like a true UX writer. Rachael, thank you so much for your time, it’s been absolutely brilliant meeting you and chatting with you tonight.

Rachael: Thank you for having me.

Read Rachael’s ‘Bring out your UX Writer’ article on Medium.

Posted by Gerry

Founder and Host of This is HCD