A guide for aspiring user experience writers

Now you can order groceries, participate in a virtual meeting and deposit checks from your phone. What do all of them have in common? The words on the screen guide you through these tasks.

You might not even notice the words – good UX writing can be almost invisible when it performs well.

UX writing, or user experience writing, is a relatively new discipline that is growing rapidly. From young tech startups hiring their first UX writer to legacy software companies expanding their teams, there is a growing need to hire skilled writers to create content for software and applications.

A few years ago, I made the transition to a full-time UX content role. With a background in journalism, a few years as a writer for tech startups and five years running my own content strategy consulting firm, I found a happy home in the experienced team. Firefox browser user. I knew from my own experience that the path to landing a UX writing job is rarely straightforward. So last year I became a mentor for UX Coffee Hours, where I offer virtual cafes with anyone who wants to become a UX writer. The following are answers to some of the most common questions I get from mentees about break-ins in this area.

What is UX writing?

A UX writer creates the words that appear in software interfaces. The whole point of UX writing is to help people use the product in front of them, with minimal frustration. The words themselves are often referred to as microcopy because the copy is short: error messages, form fields, and navigation labels.

Anyone who works as a UX writer will tell you that the job involves a lot more than writing a short copy. You have to be strategic and tirelessly curious. UX writers own the strategy, development, and delivery of content for a complete end-to-end experience. They collaborate closely with other disciplines such as design, research, engineering and product management.

To do this job well, a UX writer must be able to:

  • Collect stakeholder requirements to understand business goals
  • Work in collaboration with user experience designers and researchers
  • Develop a technical understanding of how a product works
  • Use data and research to inform their writing (and conduct relevant research themselves)
  • Develop documentation and justification for decisions
  • Finalize the copy with localization and legal partners
  • Create and maintain content guidelines

How long has UX writing been around?

While someone has always written the words on interfaces, UX writing has become a dedicated role over the past five to seven years. As a young discipline, the job titles themselves are actively evolving. You will find articles for “UX Writer”, “Content Designer”, “Product Writer” and “UX Content Strategist”.

Because the role is relatively new, UX copywriters have different tasks depending on how their company defines their responsibilities. Some UX writers may also provide input for marketing content, internal communications, or help center content.

What’s the difference between copywriting and UX writing?

UX writing is easily confused with digital writing. While both require strong communication skills and a deep passion for the writing craft, the jobs themselves are quite different.

Writing has a sales or marketing function. The goal of a copywriter is to get people to the door. Their end game might be to get someone to download an app, create an account, or sign up for a service. A marketing copywriter can prioritize smart, impactful writing to grab someone’s attention and pique their interest.

UX writers act as guides once people start to engage with a product. This is where the “user” comes in. We start with what they are trying to do. Our role is not to convince or to sell.

UX copywriters help people use the product in the most effective way possible, while providing a cohesive voice and the right tone for the context. Marketing and user experience copywriters should work together as much as possible to align their content guidelines so that the final experience is as consistent as possible.

What skills do you need to be a UX writer?

The most effective UX writers have a unique blend of technical and non-technical skills.

Training in communication, journalism or writing can be a useful foundation, but not mandatory. You will also find many UX writers who have studied poetry, literature or drama.

Strong writing skills

You must be a word nerd at heart who has strong writing skills. While we are picky about grammar and consistency, a UX writer also knows when to bend the rules in the service of clarity.

Similar to technical writers, UX writers are well versed in translating complex concepts into plain language.

Systems thinking

UX writers need to think high-level and holistically.

Although you can write a specific error message or button label, similar types of copying are found in other areas of the software. You have to think about the connections and interdependence between all types of interface copy.

Design thinking

To guide people through an experience, you need to understand how the visuals and the copy work together.

Sometimes the best UX writing is to remove words and recommend a design change instead. Words don’t exist in a vacuum in UX writing.

Proactive problem solving

UX writers operate in ambiguous environments, often with imperfect information.

Being naturally curious and proactive helps. You should seek answers from a wide range of other functions in the organization, including technical-minded engineers, business-oriented product managers, and visual designers.

Internal communication

UX writers excel at over-communication.

Your work may not be well understood by others in your company. Knowing this, you will have to stand up for your own work and make the invisible work that you are doing as visible as possible. This includes everything from creating the documentation that helps align your team to evangelizing your work to those outside of your team.

Collaboration and relationship building

Even if you’re the only UX writer in a business, you rarely work alone.

You often partner with a UX designer to develop content and design together. Other partners in your process may include legal, localization, and customer support. You should also expect to receive feedback from stakeholders and product owners.

You will need to be comfortable accepting feedback and defending your decisions.

How Much Do UX Writers Make?

Salaries for UX writers largely depend on your level of experience, the market, and the company you work for. The salaries of new tech startups are lower than those of large established companies.

Associate level positions can start around $ 60,000 and go up to $ 150,000 for higher level positions.

UX writers working in high cost-of-living markets like San Francisco and New York may order more, as can those earning lucrative positions at tech giants like Facebook and Google.

Some companies also offer stocks or equity as part of their compensation.

How to become a UX writer?

You will need to create a portfolio to apply for UX writing jobs.

Always focus on quality over quantity – hiring managers prefer to see a few in-depth case studies rather than several surface studies.

Be sure to include before and after images of your work, as well as how you came to your final copy decisions. Hiring managers want to understand your thinking process and your reasoning. They especially want to know what data or research you’ve incorporated along the way.

This begs the question: how to create a portfolio? You can do this in different ways:

  • Partner with students enrolled in UX design bootcamps to co-create your portfolio. They will have to design sample case studies. Usually, they have to write the copy themselves. You can direct the development of the copy while they are doing the design.
  • Pay close attention to the UX writing you see every day. You can create a case study by improving something you are already using. Take screenshots of an end-to-end workflow, like verifying your account or resetting your password. At each step of the process, identify what you would write differently to improve it and why.
  • Volunteer to write the copy for a bootstrapped boot. Many new applications start with one or two developers. They are great for writing code, but not always so good for writing a UX copy. Get involved with your local tech scene to see if you can find someone who could use your help. You can then use this work in your portfolio.
  • If you are in a communications role, look for opportunities to write UX in your current job, even if they are minimal. If you raise your hand to write error messages, trust me, the engineering team will love you.

Great places to start learning about UX writing include Silicon Valley Writers Podcast; the Work in content resource section; the UX writers conference, Button; and the Content + community UX Slack.

Finally, start learning more about designing and researching the user experience. You will find countless books, blog posts, meetups, book clubs and local communities.

Developing your understanding of the discipline of user experience as a whole will make you a stronger candidate when you’re ready to apply for UX writing jobs.

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