Meet the grumpy old UX writer

Who am I and how did I get here?

The label I most often apply to the sort of work I do is “UX writing.” Others doing this work also say that’s what they do, except for those who prefer “UX content design.” I prefer the former: principally, I write. What I write is text that guides people through steps that they need (or much less often, wish) to complete in order to get something done.

That’s kinda that.

But I don’t feel like a designer…

Sure, we’re all designers. That’s part of human nature. A designer is, at the risk of simplifying in a way that will land me in political trouble, a person who solves problems. If that’s all it is, and it probably isn’t, then we’re all designers. But I write UX copy, so I have to keep things simple.

I’ve been doing this work for about 12 years. Back when I first switched from “traditional copywriting” to doing this work, in 2010, there was no name for it. I googled a lot, so I know. There was nothing.

I didn’t even know what to google. I typed my job title, “Senior UI Copy Designer”, into the magic google box. A swirl of UX gobbledygook came back, but no relatable matches. When I searched for exact matches, nothing came back. It wasn’t even a googlewhack.

I tried many variations thereof, none of which I can remember. But oh, how I searched. I came to the conclusion that I was alone in the universe. As a formerly lonely, chubby, nerdy, pre-internet Midwestern kid, this kicked off all sorts of abandonment feelings. But I was an adult, so those feelings soon abated and were replaced with “unicorn shivers.” I wasn’t isolated or lonely: I was unique, special! About damned time, too.

The big kids catch up

Flash forward to 2017, and the aforementioned search engine company coined the term “UX Writer.” Suddenly, people doing work similar to mine were everywhere, and poachers knocked with increasing frequency, aforementioned etc included.

Now, 5 or so years later, we’re not just “UX writers” anymore. Apparently, we design content, too. But as I said, I don’t do that. I write lots of copy that guides people through often tedious but requisite tasks without hating life too much. I am convinced that this is 98% of the work and the value it offers.

Here come da grump

Oh, sure, I’ve seen lots of attempts to entertain and “delight”. Maybe it’s just me, being old (57) and grumpy (life just does that to some of us), but the vast majority of these attempts seem fruitless, self-congratulatory, ridiculous. For some reason, everybody — from banks to bowling alleys — wants to sound like innocent smoothies. Or overnight to have a brand as strong as Apple has taken decades to develop. They wet themselves over MailChimp’s tone of voice. They want to include emojis. Exclamation marks run rampant in attempts to make the mundane seem exhilarating: it isn’t and never will be (see example below). So I don’t do it, and I encourage you not to do it, either.

There are even people who find Slack charming. I am not one of them.

Forget about trying to delight

Unless you’re building a game, people come to your digital product or service to get something done. Much, much more often than not, this something is mundane: ordering a replacement debit card; buying a shirt; filing an income tax return; saving a document in the cloud; driving from A to B; changing a password.

Which brings me to twitter circa 2009. Now, I don’t get twitter, and I never will. I “tweeted” exactly 3 times before getting the feeling that this was futile in the bigger picture. So I left my account sit for years before finally deleting it, sometime around 2012, I think. Not important: what is important is this success notification:

Calm down already, OK?
You’d think I’d been accepted to MIT on a full academic scholarship…

Ignoring the bigger crime here, which is trying to get too many things done with one banner, look at those exclamation marks! I asked myself long ago while grabbing this screen as I ask now: what next? My toaster telling me “Yowza wowza! Your bread has been browned!”? It will go straight into the waste electronic recycling if it even tries it.

I’m not entirely sure why people write like this. Part of me still wants to blame my fellow Americans and our cultural tendency to force bubbliness into every crack of commercial existence. I still think this is one of the reasons why I’m more comfortable in Europe, where I’ve lived for 22 years and counting.

But that explanation is, like most of its type, too simple. I also have to include the basic human need to serve others, which is as noble as it is essential. Still, this perpetual sunniness gets a lot of things wrong. Mostly, this just isn’t the time to be standing-ovation congratulatory. Just confirm that everything is OK, and that I managed to change my password. Then let me get back to tweeting or whatever.

(Also, deal with the “2 applications” problem separately. Sure, changing passwords is a security matter, and users should probably check out what’s going on in those 2 places. But this banner isn’t the place, and password change confirmation isn’t the time.)

Wrap it up

Anyway, what am I doing here? Well, I’ve got lots of experience in this world of work. I’m asked all the time to share whatever wisdom I’ve distilled as a result of my experience, professional and otherwise. I still can’t believe people want to know, but I’ve decided to try it and see what happens.

As a former friend more or less said, roughly 35 years ago, I’ll try not to be so grumpy next time.

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The grumpy old UX writer

The grumpy old UX writer

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Welcome. I’m an older guy working in tech, so please forgive my grumpiness 😒 I’ve worked as a UX writer for 12 years and will likely be doing it when I retire.