Writing is designing: Content designers on how to drive user experience with every word

We talked to four seasoned content pros to distill how best to integrate content design into a product development cycle, how to measure the effectiveness of UX content and what being a non-native speaker in the content industry actually means.

readymag blog_Content designers on how to drive user experience with every word

Responses by:

Rachel McConnell (she/her), Flo's Design Director, responsible for product design, conversational design, UX content and research; a seasoned leader with over two decades experience in communications, strategy, and UX design.

Torrey Podmajersky (she/her) creates UX and content strategy at Google to create great experiences for people around the world. Her best-selling book Strategic Writing for UX (O’Reilly) is available in English, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese.

Ben Martin (he/him), Director of UX Design at Mailchimp, responsible for UX Design Systems; veteran design leader with 15+ years across product, content, and marketing design.

Laura Costantino (they/them), a senior content designer and strategist at Google. For the past ten years, they have worked at the intersection of content, marketing, and UX for some of the world's largest tech companies, including Yahoo, Amazon, Meta, and now Google.

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Torrey Podmajersky, Rachel McConnell, Laura Costantino, Ben Martin
Content is effectively designing with words. If you removed any visual elements from a design, you’d be left with content that still serves the purpose of the complete design. Gov.uk moved towards a very stripped back approach across their site which put content at the centre of the user experience and removed any unnecessary visual elements. I’m not saying every brand should do this, because brands have personalities that need to run through their product experiences. But the point stands that what we’re really doing when we design, is connecting information and interactions together, which all depend on content and copy.—Rachel McConnell

What are the most common biases toward the content design profession?

Ben: There’s still a misguided perception that content design equals to UX writing. UX writing is part of what content designers do, but it’s a late stage design activity that is informed by a ton of research, strategy, and direction that has come before. In my 15+ years of working in some form of design, content designers are often left unrecognized for all the work that they do to help guide and inform what to write, or what to call something.

Similarly, there’s still a misunderstanding that copywriting and UX writing are the same thing, and you still see companies, that have no content design function, have their marketing copywriters play a dual role. Can copywriters be UX writers? Absolutely! But writing to convince and writing to guide/direct require different skill sets and experience to do well.

Rachel: The biggest bias is that content design is “just the words.” Often, content designers are brought in too late to a project to add content or copy to a design. When in fact the most successful designs are created when a content designer and product designer co-create. At Flo, we’ve run sessions to help educate teams on how content designers work, and how best to include them in the design process.

Our words aren’t there to be read, savored, and appreciated, but to help get users to the thing they want.–Torrey Podmajersky

When is it time to hire a content designer?

Rachel: As soon as a product team is created a content designer should be onboard. The mistake start-ups often make is they don’t define voice and tone, or how their brand will speak and write, and anything created lacks consistency and cohesion. Over time, more and more content debt is created, and as soon as a content designer joins they work purely on new features and don’t get the time to go back through the product to optimize the content. This is a fundamental error as the quality of content across your product may seem like a tiny detail, but it actually affects credibility and erodes trust with users.

Torrey: Content designers should definitely step in where all design and engineering starts. If it turns out that they have been brought in later, I’d advise them to prioritize working to understand rather than grasping at all the possible strings to write. Identify the goals of the users as well as the goals of the organization making the experience, learn the business constraints and then decide what to put first.

Laura: If your team doesn’t have a dedicated content expert, the product team has a responsibility to think about content as an essential part of the product, not an afterthought. Make the message part of your product strategy.

How can one effectively pair content and design?

Rachel: The ideal ratio is 1 product designer to 1 content designer. Content designers that work across multiple teams can’t do deep design work—they will be continually context switching and the quality of content will suffer. To get them working together, they ideally should start a project together, so they have the same background and context. They should have shared OKRs, so they are equally responsible for the successful outcomes. At Flo our product teams share the product OKRs, and content designers and product designers are equally able to initiate ideation sessions or run team workshops. They also work in design tools such as Miro and Figma together.

Ben: The Mailchimp content design org is about 25 people, with a mix of ICs and managers who report up to a Director of Content Design, Lauren Englisbe. We try to work with a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio between product and content design. Foundational resources like the Mailchimp style guide and writers guides are the tools which that org leans on to ensure consistency across the board, but it also provides services like office hours to help other teams with their content design.

What is content-first design and when is it necessary?

Torrey: It’s much the same as conversational design, a method of designing experience that begins before wireframing or sketching. We start with goals, i.e. identify where a user is coming from and what outcome they want, then draft the conversation in the middle and switch to wireframing from there. This approach helps to create a human-recognizable experience, the one we have when being in conversion with someone.

At Readymag we approach the user interface as a communication process and a sum of possible experiences, not of visual elements. The way you accomplish tasks with a product — what you do and how it responds—that’s the interface. So there is not only a message, but also a sender and a recipient which communicate. That’s the baseline idea of the guiding principles behind the Readymag user interface.–Stas Aki, Readymag product designer

Rachel: This is how Jef Raskin designed the Apple II interface back in the 1970s. He started with the conversation he wanted the user and the interface to have. This informed his design. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten to do this, and often jump right into sketching or high fidelity designs. Some of our teams at Flo have started with this conversational design approach, then used this conversation to inform their wireframes, and the results are much more natural and user goal focused.

This is how Jef Raskin designed the Apple II interface back in the 1970s. He started with the conversation he wanted the user and the interface to have. This informed his design.–Rachel McConnell

How would you advise measuring UX content effectiveness if there aren’t any resources to conduct user research or A/B testing?

Ben: UX content is not something that is explicitly measured as a standalone component of the experience, but we do measure broader customer satisfaction metrics like wayfinding, ease of use, and content effectiveness. Since UX content is something that contributes to these areas, it’s a useful temperature check of how we’re doing.

We at Mailchimp do often test UX content, especially things like nomenclature and naming, so that we can ship the content with a good degree of confidence that it’s what the user needs.

Rachel: If there is no ability to test content, then really looking at business metrics is the only way to determine success. What you measure will be determined by what you’re trying to impact. Let’s say you want to improve conversion, you may look at click through rates or page dwell time. Something like page dwell time can tell you a lot about a page. If you want someone to read product information, a higher dwell time might be good, but if it’s a payment page for example, a high dwell time might indicate that users are confused, or unsure about committing to purchase. There are so many metrics that can indicate issues with content—exit rates for example, or clicks on help links.

It’s good for content designers (and product designers) to carry out some heuristic analysis of journeys and hypothesize where content might be causing an issue. This can then be validated by looking into the metrics if you don’t have access to testing.

What you measure will be determined by what you’re trying to impact.–Rachel McConnell

Is being a non-native content designer an advantage or a disadvantage?

Laura: I lived in the US for almost 20 years and I speak, write, and read English way more than my so-called “native” language, which is Italian. I started my career in the US and I consider my native professional language to be English. I have an issue with the word “native”. What do we really mean by it? And why do we think that it’s important where someone was born? I prefer using terms such as bilingual or multilingual as native sounds intrinsically discriminatory.

According to an analysis of 2018 Census Bureau data, 21.9 percent of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home, that’s 67.3 million of people, a number equal to the entire population of France. People who speak multiple languages or have a multicultural background may be more inclined to empathize with people whose first language is not English. Also, a word of advice for people who write in their second language, “You’re not a copyeditor. Find people who can double check that what you’re writing sounds clear and conversational, when appropriate. No need to second-guess yourself, the best UX writing is collaborative in the first place.”

People who speak multiple languages or have a multicultural background may be more inclined to empathize with people whose first language is not English.–Laura Costantino

Ben: Broadly speaking, I think if someone has a good working grasp and understanding of the language they are tasked with writing UX copy in, they can be a content designer in that language. In fact, I would even go further than that and say that non-native speakers have more lived experience that deepens their empathy around the need for simple, directional language, which is an important part of what we do.

If you were to pick just one content design principle, what would it be?

Rachel: It sounds obvious, but just be human. When you write as if you speak, it sounds natural, and you don’t use long, complex words. There’s a natural tendency for people writing for web journeys to use formal versions of words—such as ‘purchase’ and ‘select’—which are more complex for users to read and understand. Using simpler words like ‘buy’ and ‘choose’ would be much easier for users. So opt for the simplest version of a word, and keep sentences short.

Laura: I’d say to help people achieve their goals by creating experiences that are easy to use. We can achieve that by creating and organizing information–not just copy–that’s accurate and easy to understand and use.

Torrey: One of the main aspects that makes UX writing good is clarity. Just be clear.

Ben: Content exists to serve the user, not the product or service. Really this is the north star for effective content design, and other more tactical principles (be clear, use data to make decisions, design with accessibility in mind, practice brevity etc) exist in service to it.

Content exists to serve the user, not the product or service.–Ben Martin