It’s a delight when software, websites or apps make it simple to get something done. That easy feeling is often thanks in part to user experience (UX) writers, who write language to help people successfully use digital products.
High-tech UX teams need talented writers to collaborate with researchers and designers, according to Torrey Podmajersky, a staff UX writer for Google, where she creates the tools for support experiences. She got her start as a UX writer for Microsoft’s Xbox, and went on to literally write the book on how to succeed in UX writing — Strategic Writing for UX was published in 2019.
She’s also an instructor for Foundations of UX Writing
, a course by UW Professional & Continuing Education that will debut in January 2022. Here, Podmajersky talks about becoming a UX writer; what it’s like to work in this creative, collaborative field; and why UX writing matters, even in space travel.
User experience is one of the fastest-growing fields in high tech. What’s the specific role of a UX writer?
User experience teams translate business and customer goals into sets of steps that move people forward. UX writers focus on content — human-centered copy that guides users in the right voice and tone.
We use words in a structured, strategic way to have a conversation with the user. It is about saying, “What is the thing you’re here to do? How can I help you get there?”
UX writers distill what information is important to users and present that information when it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s microcopy — those small words or phrases on buttons or titles — or just extremely consistent information, so people feel like they already know what to do next.
How do UX writers work with user research and design?
UX writers get involved with user research at the very beginning. We pay attention to who the users are going to be, and what they already understand. We need to hear the words people are already using about the concepts involved, and the words that we have to avoid.
A lot of my interaction design partners will start by designing buttons and screen layouts and pen-and-pencil wireframes. UX writers might also start their design process with wireframes, or literal chat bubbles, and then write out, “Here’s the conversation I would expect to have. Now, here’s how we would translate that to a design.”
When UX writing is great, it’s clear and simple. If people are saying it’s intuitive, the content is speaking to their hindbrain — they never feel like they’re reading. This is where it really helps to deeply pay attention to user research, who the users are going to be, and what they already understand.
There’s been an uptick in hiring UX writers and content designers over the last couple of years in the Seattle area. Why are these jobs so plentiful right now?
UX writing is taking a similar arc to research and interaction design, in terms of being included in the software development life cycle. There are companies that have hired UX writers for years, like Microsoft and Nordstrom. But there’s also Facebook, Google and Amazon. UX writing has been improving as a career path as we grow as a discipline.
You’ve taken a few twists in your own career path to your current role at Google. How did you get into UX writing, and what keeps you motivated?
I have known UX writers who come from journalism, design and technical writing. I moved from teaching high school into this high-tech user experience world. In my first shipping cycle for Xbox, I wrote words that over 30 million people used on the first day to clear up account issues and play their games. Playing games is essential for human health and happiness — we all have to play.
My why for the work I do is to be getting closer and closer to the basic needs people have. How do I use the things I’m working on to make the most of their precious time on the planet? Right now, working in Google Support, that’s billions of people. If I can make it a little bit faster or easier to get to the support you need, that’s a huge privilege.
You cover some tools, frameworks and processes in your book, Strategic Writing for UX. What additional insights will students gain in the Foundations of UX Writing course?
They’ll bring UX writing to life off the page and engage with problems. It has been hard for people to get into interaction design. The discipline grew out of graphic design and visual design, so people who didn’t have a strong sense of color or layout have felt underwater. Teaching UX writing as a separate set of skills should open up UX careers for more people, and make people already working in UX even better at what they do.
What can we expect for the future of UX writing?
Humans are weird and inventive, and the problems people are trying to solve with technology seem to be never-ending. Interstellar travel and exploration will require clear, easy-to-understand experiences and language to get there. The sky is not the limit.