UX writing to build bridges [hands-on #1]
Speaking for both business and user through copy is tricky, but achievable. Here's what I've learned so far.
Hi dear reader. Thanks for tagging along on my journey; I hope you’re enjoying the ride.
Today’s post is the first in the
hands-on series, a series where I share insights on actual projects I worked on. Think of it as a portfolio of work. As with other posts, I share these insights to learn, unlearn, and relearn, so I welcome your thoughts and suggestions. Thank you.
Okay, on to today’s post.
Who stands in the gap?
When it comes to aligning both business and user goals, few job roles do it better than a UX writer. A business is set up for a purpose, and a product or service user has a goal. But more often than not, business and user goals are often at odds.
It is necessary friction by design and an opportunity to bring both parties’ demands to the table and negotiate a truce — one that is good for the bottom line and customer satisfaction. This situation demands top-notch understanding and the ability to connect the dots. This is where the UX writer comes in.
Inferring from Torrey’s words, a UX writer is at a vantage position, able to see from the perspective of both business and user. Such an advantage makes standing in the gap powerful. The UX writer’s job involves understanding business and user goals through the lens of the why what, and how.
No doubt, other job roles work together to make this happen. But without an iota of pride, I’ve found myself advocating for both parties more than my other team members do.
I start earlier than other team members, researching about business and users before the first pixel is ever pushed, and continue well into the end of the project lifecycle. It’s my job, and I will gladly stand in the gap at every opportunity.
A hands-on experience
In August 2021, the department of Economics, University of Ibadan (UI) contracted OE Studio to rebuild the department’s website. The department is the foremost economics department in Nigeria and a trailblazer in research across Africa and beyond.
To continue its enduring tradition and align with the current realities of the digital age, the department’s leadership decided to reposition its online presence for excellence and leadership, a place where scholars come to learn, just as it began physically, more than 60 years ago.
I work on the project as a UX writer with other team members, including designers, developers, and social media strategists. I also double as the UX researcher.
We started enthusiastically, sketching out the website’s information architecture (IA) on FigJam. I collected my thoughts and research (including screenshots) in Word and wrote the copy directly in Figma. Later, I discovered Frontitude and Ditto but didn’t use them on the project.
The project is still ongoing, but you can find the live website here.
Learn on the job
Some things you are prepared for, others you are not, but it’s possible to learn on the job. Up until now, I mostly wrote copy, not carried out research. But I found a UX researcher’s job role is pretty intuitive, researching broadly about the business and its target audience and narrowing it down to the nitty-gritty of data to make sense of nonsense.
I researched local and international institutions and read blogs and articles. I observed color palette, typeface, layout, whether images or illustrations are more prominent, and of course, writing style. I also leveraged existing UX research—the internet is such a massive pool of data!
After making sense of the data, I explained my findings to the lead designer (who also doubles as the creative lead), who was keen to have my input. His energy and drive were what I needed. I noticed that he was adept at filling my thoughts for me, strengthening the bond. Ultimately, I found UX research and writing complementary, not substitute roles.
An uncommon advantage
While on the job, I was also a graduate student in the department and was working on my thesis at the time. Opportunity! I started my program in 2019, so I had two good years to learn about the department’s culture (even before I knew I would work on the project). And I sure did.
As I noted earlier, the department of Economics is the premier economics department in Nigeria. As such, it’s a thing of pride. Having birthed prominent economists who, in turn, became founding staffs of economics in newly established institutions, there was a need to bring that legacy to the department’s online presence.
Or how about the culture of the department? It’s a rigorous learning environment through first-hand experience. Virtually all lecturers are products of the department, some from undergraduates, so they embody how things should be done, a physical manifestation of an unwritten culture.
Making sense of such a culture while still making it appeal to prospective students is tricky; after all, nothing good comes easy. Lecturers often speak in words and action that students need to be ‘forged in the academic furnace’ to meet the growing demands for outstanding economists who can steer the country's economic ship in the right direction.
So, in the
Explore our programmes section, I captured the benefit of the rigor prospective students are likely to encounter appealingly.
Such an advantage as mine is rare, but since I had the privilege, I made the most of it. Or did I?
Finding the department’s voice
What voice should be given to the department’s culture in a convincing and welcoming way? Based on my internal knowledge and research, the department wants others to know about its pride, authority, and prestige. I came up with a list of adjectives that highlights these qualities.
But rather than dump these adjectives into the copies, I followed the mantra:
show by telling. This is one beautiful way synergy in a multidisciplinary team comes to the fore. Using images from the department to highlight its pride and prestige, the place of authority comes naturally. All I had to do was sprinkle a few adjectives here and there.
Actions (the images in this case) spoke louder than words. And that’s fine because the ultimate goal is to meet business and user goals.
Use feedback to fine-tune the output
We had regular feedback sessions with the department. Our lead designer had regular sessions with the head of the department to give progress reports. Once the work had accumulated, it was necessary to have a more extensive feedback session with the department.
I remember jotting down comments during the review, but I was keen on the lecturers’ reaction to the web copies — I was more concerned with it. But unfortunately, the copy sat in the background until one of the lecturers noticed that I wrote
Economics Department in the logo. It wasn’t bad, but from the feedback, using the
Department of Economics was in keeping with the department's pride.
Edward Hall's model of low-context and high-context cultures was at play here. As one who grew up in the Yoruba high-context culture, the way something is said means more than what is said. So, when you say
Department of Economics, there is an emphasis on economics, compared to
Economics Department which comes off short. I also learned that it was more official.
Collaboration is indispensable
Take it from me, I’ve worked solo, and I know what it means to be lost for ideas. But there is something about working in a team. Several times on this project, I lost steam, direction, or both, but the team members helped get me back on track. More importantly, UX ideas also come from your team members.
In one instance, we identified that researchers from other institutions are also part of the target audience, but how should their interests be represented? The lead designer came up with the idea that we create a unique login for them. Once we had ironed out the logic and engineering, he went ahead to put the copy. I only had to check to ensure the usage aligned with what already existed.
The team spirit certainly rubbed off on me, and I couldn’t be more grateful I had such a fantastic set of people to work with.
Learn while you do
It’s misleading to think one can have all the knowledge needed to start a UX writing project. Prerequisite knowledge is necessary, but the knowledge that goes far comes from learning on the job because they’re acquired by experience.
Leverage existing research
One of the most important things I learned on this project was how to infer from existing works. It’s a lifesaver, especially when one is just starting out and need to work lean and fast.
Master collaborative work
It’s crucial to avoid drags when working in a team. I certainly didn’t want the delay to come from my end, but sometimes I struggled to keep up. In some sections, the UI designer used fabricated copy in place of what I had in mind since I didn’t come up with the copy within the timeline. And once the developer had pushed the live update, it became difficult to have the new copy updated on the website. I know this would be done inevitably, but it’s a signal to me. To keep up with other team members can require working ahead, often alone. That way, if there are any changes, it becomes easier to effect.
Backup your work online
This is painful for me. When I started on this project, I didn’t imagine I was going to write about it. I used Microsoft Word offline and never once uploaded it to my Google Drive. And my deeds came back to haunt me, my hard disk crashed, and I lost valuable research. Luckily, my picture in this post was automatically backed up on my Google Photos since I took it on my phone. So, yeah, that pacified me. Now virtually all tools I use are online; Google Docs, Figma/FigJam, Whimsical, Notion, and Slack.
The project is still ongoing, and I hope to share more in due course. It’s certainly been a great learning experience.
I started this blog to collect anecdotes of my UX journey experience so I can know where I was, I am, and hope to be. In my next post, I’ll share how I started on this journey, but before then, I’d be glad to know your thoughts about today’s post. Do you have a similar experience, or what would you have done better if you found yourself in my shoes? Help me learn from you.