Write the Docs: Invisible influence — the documentation behind UX copy – Katherine Karaus
Catherine Heath | April 28, 2021
This Write the Docs Portland 2021 talk was given by Katherine Karaus. Katherine is content strategist at Squarespace. You might never have thought about the words when using an app but you’re interacting with the work of a very savvy UX writer. UX writers design with words to make sure the overall UX just works. This talk is about the documentation that goes into making good UX copy that you might not know about.
What is a UX writer
Katherine began by talking about what a UX writer does. You might know them as content designers or content strategists, too. These are writers, designers, or strategists who create the text you see in the apps and software you use. As a UX writer, you want to influence UX designers, product managers, UX researchers, product marketing managers, marketing copywriters, or subject matter experts (legal, actual doctors, etc).
UX writing is an important part of software applications. Katherine used the example of a friend who was trying to add toppings to a taco. In the app, checklists asked him to remove the toppings and it was unclear how to add toppings to the taco. An utterly naked taco arrived at the door 45 minutes later, yet another victim of unclear UX writing.
UX writers are operating under huge constraints – they’re almost universally understaffed. Usually the best case scenario is one UX writer versus three designers. They’re often working against backlogs of work. Projects often won’t get the UX writer’s full attention, so people on your own team might not understand what you do.
According to Katherine, good documentation can help a writer out. It may be tempting to jump from fire to fire, but that doesn’t help establish your credibility as a practitioner. Edits without documentation are easy for others to ignore.
Four strategies Katherine suggested are content audits, communication hierarchies, copy docs, and the highlighter method.
Content audits are great for quantifying your work and identifying opportunities.
For example, Katherine helped with a design audit at LinkedIn looking at the emails that are sent to users. It was more about defining design principles than making a business case, but was also an opportunity to get UX writing’s voice heard. There was limited time and no room for user research. They sent the emails through a reading level measurement tool, and relied on former research to support findings. She documented terminology inconsistencies, and brand voice and tone violations.
Often, in UX discussion, there may be disagreements about how to arrange information on a screen, or there might be too much content even though it's already been edited down. Katherine suggests zooming all the way out away from specific design choices and deciding on a communication hierarchy.
As a UX writer, Katherine has noticed that you can help with design choices by getting everyone to agree. List all the things you’re trying to communicate in a particular screen. As a team, arrange them in order of importance. Be brutal – does all of this information really belong here in this specific context? Some lower down list items might not make the cut, or belong elsewhere in your design. This list is documentation you can use to back up your work later down the line.
Sometimes, you’ve really got to bring people along – especially people who don’t really get what you do. A copy doc is a testing area that you can play out iterations without worrying about the design. In this doc, you compare different versions of the same copy side-by-side. It’s great for keeping early stage projects organized, and calming worries about making the wrong decision.
Copy docs are also helpful for subject matter expert (SME) stakeholders, like legal departments. Tiny copy changes can expose your company to risk, so providing detailed documentation for review and working collaboratively with these SMEs can help produce better/more compliant copy.
Katherine suggests also using a highlighter method to work with subject matter experts. Compare the original content with the revised content using the same highlighter colors. Does the revised content carry the same meaning as the original? Does it present any additional risks? What would need to change here to get your approval? You show them how great legalese can sound when you translate it into plain language.
Katherine's talk shown some light on documentation as a decision-making/facilitation mechanism, rather than an end in itself. While this might inspire some of you to explore UX writing directly, these strategies also seem like they could be useful in other facilitative documentation contexts!
Watch the full talk here.