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Gerry [00:00:05] Hello, 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. Before we jump in, however, as this podcast was recorded in Sydney C.B.D. I’d like to acknowledge the Boonwarung 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 this 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 instantly was drawn to it as I have identified the issues many times in my career of the solutions that a role like this can address. She also published a really great article on Medium that I’ll also add to the show notes. We caught up online to record this episode, and had a good chat about how Rachael got into the industry, what she does, the principles of good UX writing, what tools she uses and much much more.

I’ve babbled on too much, so let’s jump in…

Rachael: Thanks for having me.

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

Rachael: Yes.

Gerry: Before we get to that Rachel 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. Yeah. So yeah it was it was a long journey but eventually, I found myself in this position of working closely with you UX designers to come up with the words and 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 so where you prefer to set and the design process?

Rachael: [00:02:33] So I think the best place for a writer to sit is directly in the design team so that’s working closely with the next design the visual designer.

[00:02:42] The way to think about the content from the very beginning of the design process rather than being brought in at the end. Yeah yeah, that’s the utopia and it doesn’t always happen I’m sure.

Gerry: [00:02:53] Retrospectively looking back in those nine years or a year and that’s their 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 OpenCities and I am 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 being asked kind of the same as writing or would you say yeah that’s a good question and you also get the question of isn’t your UX writing just copyrighting.

Rachael: [00:03:37] Yeah. 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 you writing more about writing to educate or to guide users through a particular experience.

Gerry: Do you think you can do both?

Rachael: I think copy you and I think technical writer that is a very common path into you writing is people who are beginners 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. So how does technical writing and writing differ. While traditionally technical writing is more about how to use something and it traditionally sits outside the interface. So it might be a help centre how to video or written topic. Yeah. 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 Rachel I caught some of your talk at UX Australia this year in Sydney put maybe to the despair of what you want to say and you writing to be. How would you describe this.

Rachael: [00:04:59] For me it’s all about the art of writing the words the interface so the words you encounter during your experience with the 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 within or part of a larger ecosystem would you UX writing span 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 primarily the interface but then there are those things like e-mails that are outside it that good UX writer will be the person that connect 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.

[00:05:59] So whether that’s in the interface or email content or support writing it’s all consistent to wayfinding you could imagine it could be part of it probably in your experience.

[00:06:12] It tends to be big in the digital world a lot of us.

Rachael: [00:06:16] Yeah I mean you can have you 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 say sit outside of the digital realm for sure.

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

Gerry: [00:06:40] So one of the articles that I know you’ve written and it’s hard I don’t know how many thousand people on medium applaud it. I’m definitely one of them I think the whole 50. Yeah I know yeah I was a big woo hoo! 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 it.

Rachael: [00:07:01] The article I presented a short talk at UX Australia on bringing out your inner UX writer. So primarily for people working in X that don’t necessarily have that writing background. Some tips to help them improve the words in their interfaces. So then I develop that into a medium article. Yeah.

Rachael: [00:07:23] 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 a lot of questions probably as well.

Rachael: [00:07:37] Yes. 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 building from 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 you? Writing until you get to the point of comprehension and then test – then subtract until you 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. Yeah until you get to that point of comprehension. Both methods can definitely work.

Gerry: [00:08:35] You could end up having a paragraph in a button then yeah even if you’re taking away. All right so every word has to earn its place.

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

Gerry: Give us some examples.

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

Rachael: [00:08:59] Yeah which is a very common practice. So much of what I do is writing error messages but that’s another story. Yeah.

[00:09:09] So instead of saying ‘We apologize for the inconvenience’ or something like that just to say ‘we’re sorry’. So yeah just take the shortest sharpest approach to seeing what you’re trying to say.

Gerry: [00:09:22] Yeah I guess you make it sound so easy. The obvious is or is not initially. So what else can people consider when they’re there at all.

Rachael: [00:09:31] They say aim for high information density. You know this sounds very very 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 for you, but I know a lot of my design friends that 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 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 in that you test your content just as you would your design.

Gerry: [00:10:05] How do you do that. How would you recommend to design the process as well.

Rachael: [00:10:11] What would 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 that the idea being that you want as low a reading level as possible.
Gerry: How does a it work out the reading level?

Rachael: Magic! Some magic magic algorithm behind it and it will also tell you if you’re using too many passive constructions and all your grammar stuff that we probably want to get into you right now. You use gradually. Yes yes yes that’s also good. What are your thoughts on that. Yeah yeah really good. Yeah I know a lot of people who swear by it you won’t write an e-mail without it I might be one or might not. I’m not saying I am. And another tool that is a really really simple one is Google Trends. Okay. Yeah.

[00:11:33] Where you just paste in two or three or four variants of a word and I’ll 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.

[00:11:53] So yeah that’s a really cool free tool that totally makes sense when you think that US has certain words I know Dana Melber and make this as being the hip capital of the world. Exactly like thongs or is it flipflops.

Gerry: Yeah or jandles if you’re in New Zealand. I’ll drop some of those links into the show notes. Yeah. So what’s the next principle that you’re working towards.

Rachael: [00:12:14] So the next principle is make it scannable.

Gerry: [00:12:18] So I like this because yes this is or that I’m really I use quite a lot in my work.

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

Gerry: So the users who are traditional business people listen to this as well got a lot to me you know.

Rachael: You read one way left right. Yeah. So there’s tons of research.

[00:12:39] You can look into Nielsen Norman Group for more on it about how users online will scan the text rather than read every word. Right. And there’s the sheep 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.

[00:13:38] 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 use alone mass 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 and pages as opposed to designing and modules are within a design system. How do you keep control of it? How do you manage that process?

Rachael: [00:14:35] Yeah we’re still figuring that out to be honest. Yeah at the moment it’s quite ad hoc but we do. What do you use what tools do you use at the moment. I try to use the same tools that the designers use as much as possible so directly editing the wire frames but that’s not always how it ends up being. So sometimes it’s working directly with developers to come up with the wording for an error message yeah and that could take any form it could be a hip chat conversation or an email to them or yeah or it’s on a wiki page somewhere. Yeah so yeah we’re still trying to find the best approach to holding all that content. So

Gerry: [00:15:15] What would the simplest form of management be?

Rachael: [00:15:25] I think the simplest form is probably something like an excel doc. Yeah well Google Docs Google Docs. We use Microsoft where you’ve got all the content strings in one place and does mean when you say string. Yes it’s just another word for you x writing chunks of you x copy. There are so many different terms used for a text product copy strings micro copy 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 never use that word again.

Rachael: [00:16:04] I mean context is king so not necessarily but like a b testing is a great way to figure out if the word you’re using is right. But yeah if you are consistently finding that users don’t understand the word I’d suggest it’s probably time to throw it out soon so that you know what it’s about. Give it a good talk and add one another test that has been really eye opening for me is to get somebody I work with who is not a native English speaker to review the text because so often what they comprehend is different to what a native English speaker will comprehend. Yeah 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 and I’ve just touched on that and building on it a bit more. What role would you say UX Writings role is with accessibility within the interface 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. That’s making sure you’ve got all text embedded embedded. Is

[00:17:18] that something you raising will actually go in and check to make sure that the accessibility is there.

[00:17:25] That could come from anyone developers have very accessibility focused also. So it’s kind of a team effort in terms of accessibility.

Gerry: [00:17:34] They are going to go back to us four legged chair concept you’re introducing the development stream. Yeah they went out there they’re extra knowledge. So one of the other points I remember hearing you speak about was give it the time it deserves. Yeah what do 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 yeah. Which is controversial. It is controversial for some definitely but it means you’re thinking about the actual content that goes in the interface as soon as possible.

[00:18:09] Because that’s going to influence the design so that the content stream really working in parallel with any iterations it’s much earlier in the process and I know a lot of other teams may struggle with that because they may see it as being slowing down the process.

[00:18:24] Yeah 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 realizing oh that word doesn’t fit in that button and something like that yeah true.

Gerry: [00:18:38] That’s a really good point yeah.

Rachael: It’s also about allowing enough time to revise because you’re that well 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 just get it. Yeah exactly. Just like you at the design point. Yeah. It’s also about testing the content.

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

Rachael: [00:19:04] Exactly yeah yeah. Some of the worst content outcomes I’ve 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 just yeah it’s always a nightmare.

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

Rachael: [00:19:37] Well firstly I’d suggest that it’s a good idea to have one person owning all of those client touch points in terms of the content and 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 yeah and I’d also say that when you’ve got all these different people like marketing doing your acts writing you just have to be careful that you know what your goal is with what you’re writing. You know you’ve got the best person for the job so yeah marketers often come from the position of writing to persuade and on with you x writing you you can have some of that but often it’s more about writing to guy to use through an experience or educate them.

Gerry: [00:20:35] Yeah. Have you any experience at work or marketing departments?

Rachael: You have to talk a little bit we’ll just leave that there laughter. It can be tricky yeah it can be tricky Yeah.

Gerry: Any advice and navigating around the trickiness? I know there’s people out there that they would love to get to you UX writing first and then and with that I got to know the facts are we’ve already got when you hear. 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.

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 years of 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 high 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, another one of the points you made in your talke was ‘be human.’

Rachael: [00:21:41] Yes.

Gerry: Can you be not human?

Rachael: I’ve definitely experienced really robotic digital experiences. Mean you can see non-human design yeah. Robots are designed exactly. So what do you mean by human.

Rachael: [00:21:56] I mean you use plain language and speak like a uses do don’t have errors that say exception error are 1 2 3 5 7. That’s just painful for everyone.

Gerry: [00:22:09] So what do you say to organizations that they’re kind of like oh well we’re a bank. If we sound too much ‘street’ we’re going to sound like we’re not taken seriously.

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 grammar and some of the other tools that you suggested before we were speaking today. 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. 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 Michael. The problem is being investigated which tells you what is happening but it doesn’t tell you who is 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 or 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] I mean passive does have its use sometimes even though you it in general active it’s better. Okay. Yeah yeah. So to sum up the be human guideline it’s just about considering the user’s emotional state and their context which we should all always be doing as designers and UX people and also about showing your personality and personality exactly.

Gerry: [00:23:42] So not the designer’s personality, otherwise we’d get some schizophrenic interfaces. So no matter who you work for and what your company does you’ve always got a personality and it is 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 any (indecipherable)

Rachael: [00:24:11] Well I mean firstly it the title doesn’t have to be you ex 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 what it is what it is and what it is what it says which is your content design and how it looks designed and how it works. Absolutely. 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 chat bots or that entire interface is content. So it’s only going to get more importance in the future.

Gerry: [00:25:05] Yeah apart from yourself who would you recommend people read and learn more about writing in your writing.

[00:25:16] Yes. So no one would be John Sayto who’s a writer from Dropbox. He is doing amazing stuff and writing about it on medium. Okay. I put that link in the show notes. There’s a Slack group called ‘content and UX’ is a great source of everything that comes at the intersection of content and UX.

Gerry: Nice. Yeah. I mean can anyone join us.

Rachael: Yes. Yeah. Yes okay. It’s not just Australia. No, no it’s global. Yeah. 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. I’ve got a really good starting point. If you just want to learn more.

Gerry: [00:26:03] Yeah I’ve got one there are that I have 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. Yeah. Which goes more into the information architecture space. Yes but it’s still really really interesting and easy read a really easy read.

Gerry: [00:26:21] She did a really great job.

Rachael: [00:26:33] There’s also a Facebook group called micro copy and UX writing.

Gerry: [00:26:47] Yeah. If you stay within the Facebook realm we 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.

Rachael: [00:27:03] Yeah 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 may just tick all the boxes. Yeah another one would be would be MailChimp MailChimp.

Gerry: [00:27:20] Yeah they always seem to be the one that comes back around. Yeah. So we’re coming towards the end of this episode Rachel and thanks for spending the time with me on a Monday evening after work in Melbourne but I’m got to ask you the three questions. We ask everyone who is on the podcast. The first question is what does 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 embracing but I think that’s a definite skill a professional skill as well. Yeah.

Gerry: 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 he says. But 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 to see how it goes and then if it’s not great then you can improve it. Yeah yeah.

Gerry: [00:28:22] All right second question Rachel. What is the one thing in the industry that you wish you’d be able to banish.

Rachael: Lorem Ipsum trumps some.

Rachael: [00:28:30] Yes yes I remember some look it served us well. I think we’ve reached the point where it’s getting in the way of designing experiences that really put their content front and center.

[00:28:42] Okay I can totally understand after speaking to you today 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 H.C.D talent?

Rachael: [00:28:59] Yeah so we are trying to break into the industry it could be people who are interested in writing we people are interested in new design or service design business and so I’d say that it’s really good to remember that when users interact with a product or service they’re usually not there for the design itself but they’re there for the message or the content.

Rachael: [00:29:21] So make sure you craft your content as carefully as you craft your design okay.

Gerry Rachel thank you so much for your time.

Rachael: You. Thank you for having me.

Read Rachels ‘Bring out your UX Writer’ article on Medium

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Posted by Gerry

Founder and Host of This is HCD