UX Book Club Recap: Writing is Designing, in Conversation with the Authors

The Firefox UX book club comes together a few times a year to discuss books related to the user experience practice. We recently welcomed authors Michael Metts and Andy Welfle to discuss their book Writing is Designing: Words and the User Experience (Rosenfeld Media, Jan. 2020).

Photo of Writing is Designing with notebook, coffee cup, and computer mouse on a table.

To make the most of our time, we collected questions from the group beforehand, organized them into themes, and asked people to upvote the ones they were most interested in.

An overview of Writing is Designing

“In many product teams, the words are an afterthought, and come after the “design,” or the visual and experiential system. It shouldn’t be like that: the writer should be creating words as the rest of the experience is developed. They should be iterative, validated with research, and highly collaborative. Writing is part of the design process, and writers are designers.” — Writing is Designing

Andy and Michael kicked things off with a brief overview of Writing is Designing. They highlighted how writing is about fitting words together and design is about solving problems. Writing as design brings the two together. These activities — writing and designing — need to be done together to create a cohesive user experience.

They reiterated that effective product content must be:

  • Usable: It makes it easier to do something. Writing should be clear, simple, and easy.
  • Useful: It supports user goals. Writers need to understand a product’s purpose and their audience’s needs to create useful experiences.
  • Responsible: What we write can be misused by people or even algorithms. We must take care in the language we use.

We then moved onto Q&A which covered these themes and ideas.

On writing a book that’s not just for UX writers

“Even if you only do this type of writing occasionally, you’ll learn from this book. If you’re a designer, product manager, developer, or anyone else who writes for your users, you’ll benefit from it. This book will also help people who manage or collaborate with writers, since you’ll get to see what goes into this type of writing, and how it fits into the product design and development process.” — Writing is Designing

You don’t have to be a UX writer or content strategy to benefit from Writing Is Designing. The book includes guidance for anyone involved in creating content for a user experience, including designers, researchers, engineers, and product managers. Writing is just as much of a design tool as Sketch or Figma—it’s just that the material is words not pixels.

When language perpetuates racism

“The more you learn and the more you are able to engage in discussions about racial justice, the more you are able to see how it impacts everything we do. Not questioning systems can lead to perpetuating injustice. It starts with our workplaces. People are having important conversations and questioning things that already should have been questioned.” — Michael Metts

Given the global focus on racial justice issues, it wasn’t surprising that we spent a good part of our time discussing how the conversation intersects with our day-to-day work.

Andy talked about the effort at Adobe, where he is the UX Content Strategy Manager, to expose racist terminology in its products, such as ‘master-slave’ and ‘whitelist-blacklist’ pairings. It’s not just about finding a neutral replacement term that appears to users in the interface, but rethinking how we’ve defined these terms and underlying structures entirely in our code.

Moving beyond anti-racist language

“We need to focus on who we are doing this for. We worry what we look like and that we’re doing the right thing. And that’s not the priority. The goal is to dismantle harmful systems. It’s important for white people to get away from your own feelings of wanting to look good. And focus on who you are doing it for and making it a better world for those people.” — Michael Metts

Beyond the language that appears in our products, Michael encouraged the group to educate themselves, follow Black writers and designers, and be open and willing to change. Any effective UX practitioner needs to approach their work with a sense of humility and openness to being wrong.

Supporting racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement must also include raising long-needed conversations in the workplace, asking tough questions, and sitting with discomfort. Michael recommended reading How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Re-examining and revisiting norms in design systems

“In design systems, those who document and write are the ones who are codifying information for long term. It’s how terms like whitelist and blacklist, and master/slave keep showing up, decade after decade, in our stuff. We have a responsibility not to be complicit in codifying and continuing racist systems.” — Andy Welfle

Part of our jobs as UX practitioners is to codify and frame decisions. Design systems, for example, document content standards and design patterns. Andy reminded us that our own biases and assumptions can be built-in to these systems. Not questioning the systems we build and contribute to can perpetuate injustice.

It’s important to keep revisiting our own systems and asking questions about them. Why did we frame it this way? Could we frame it in another way?

Driving towards clarity early on in the design process

“It’s hard to write about something without understanding it. While you need clarity if you want to do your job well, your team and your users will benefit from it, too.” — Writing is Designing

Helping teams align and get clear on goals and user problems is a big part of a product writer’s job. While writers are often the ones to ask these clarifying questions, every member of the design team can and should participate in this clarification work—it’s the deep strategy work we must do before we can write and visualize the surface manifestation in products.

Before you open your favorite design tool (be it Sketch, Figma, or Adobe XD) Andy and Michael recommend writers and visual designers start with the simplest tool of all: a text editor. There you can do the foundational design work of figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish.

The longevity of good content

A book club member asked, “How long does good content last?” Andy’s response: “As long as it needs to.”

Software work is never ‘done.’ Products and the technology that supports them continue to evolve. With that in mind, there are key touch points to revisit copy. For example, when a piece of desktop software becomes available on a different platform like tablet or mobile, it’s a good time to revisit your context (and entire experience, in fact) to see if it still works.

Final thoughts—an ‘everything first’ approach

In the grand scheme of tech things, UX writing is still a relatively new discipline. Books like Writing for Designing are helping to define and shape the practice.

When asked (at another meet-up, not our own) if he’s advocating for a ‘content-first approach,’ Michael’s response was that we need an ‘everything first approach’ — meaning, all parties involved in the design and development of a product should come to the planning table together, early on in the process. By making the case for writing as a strategic design practice, this book helps solidify a spot at that table for UX writers.

Prior texts read by Mozilla’s UX book club

This post was originally published on Medium.