The past, present and future of UX writing and content design - an interview with Kristina Halvorson.

In this wide-ranging interview, Kristina Halvorson covers the origins of product content design, its current challenges, the most important skills content designers and UX writers need to bring to the table and what they can do to broaden their impact.

You can join Kristina and an amazing group of speakers at Button, the premier product content design conference, from October 21-23, 2020.

Kristina Halvorson is the CEO and founder of Brain Traffic, the coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, the founder of Confab Events, and the host of The Content Strategy Podcast.

Jasper Platz is the CEO and cofounder of Strings, the product content management and collaboration tool.

Jasper: Let's start with the emergence of the term “UX writing” and discipline. Software has been around for 30+ years. What do you think are the roots of UX writing? How did it emerge as a discipline?

Kristina: I have so much to say about this!

If you go back, and you examine Jesse James Garrett's Elements of User Experience diagram—he published it I think in 2000—that was the thing that defined user experience. Every website designer, builder, coder, everybody had this printed out and taped to their cubicle. It was the first time somebody had actually codified this discipline of user experience to say: online is different.

If you look at that graphic, what you will recognize is that it’s built around the concept of software design. So one side of the graphic is design, the other side is technical or functional. What’s important to note is this: content is treated as a feature, like “go to content with requirements.” And that is where the big challenge with content was born. UX designers were like, okay great, let me make the list of content that I need, and let me arrange that in the sitemap, and then we'll call the writer. And this treating content like a feature radically backfired because content, obviously, is like a living, breathing thing. It requires strategic consideration way before you get handed the Excel spreadsheet with all of the requirements.

So, widespread work to solve this challenge kind of cracked open in like 2009. And it was all these people that have been yelling about content strategy, but we didn't really have social media until then, and so suddenly, we found each other's blogs, we found each other on LinkedIn, on Twitter. And together we made the case over and over that  content is not a feature. Content cannot happen after everything is designed. Content is what fuels the user experience. And you've got to start with it early.

This was a huge breakthrough. So then content strategy as a function kind of went on the rise.

2009 was also important because that’s when Facebook hired their first content strategist—and that team was able to create significant change in the culture there. The ethos of Facebook was “Move fast and break things”. And the content strategists created posters that said “Slow down and fix your shit”. Because what they would break over and over was the content and the words. They also went on a massive internal campaign and created a thing called “Friends of Content Strategy”, and there were t-shirts and stuffed animals and posters.

So it was really the early 2010s—at Facebook, and at Shopify, and I want to say at Airbnb—this discipline of “product content strategy” became articulated. People who cared about content, who knew how to write, who understood how words were needed to operate and function within the product user experience … those people as content strategists were being brought to the table with design.

Now, over the last several years, we’ve seen an explosion of specializations in the broader field of content strategy. We have website content strategists, we have content strategists who are really digging in and specializing in content management systems, and preparing content for that— content engineering.

Now we finally come around to UX writing! When we tackle content at the product design level, specifically, there really are three levels of content activities that are happening:

1. Product content strategy is like the choreographer or the or the gatekeeper that oversees the function in the world of content, not only across product teams, but also making sure that voice, tone, messaging, the actual asset of the content as a product is in harmony with what's happening over marketing, what's happening over in support, what's happening with technical content management, etc.

2. Content design is the set of activities that’s very closely partnered with product strategy and design, thinking through requirements and features with a variety of stakeholders and users.

3. UX writing as a function is the actual “pen to paper.” Where we are actually choosing the words. And this happens on the ground with active design, typically in sprints.

So what's important to know, in my opinion, is that content strategy, content design, and UX writing are sets of activities and areas of accountability. They are not necessarily job titles that should be treated as precious, immoveable monikers. And so at any given time, someone who is doing content design can also be doing UX writing, and can also be practicing content strategy.

Here is where I land. Do I think that UX writing is an important, discrete set of activities and area of accountability? Yes. Do I think that UX writing should be sitting on its own as a field of practice, apart from content design or content strategy? I do not.

This was the best definition of these functions I’ve heard. I wish I heard it when I first got exposed to all this.

Sarah Richards has been bugging me to write all this down, and I just never have. And I should probably sit down and write it down and then put it on the blog.

Content strategy is such a broad topic. So how do you then see UX writing, product content design and content strategy fit together?

UX writing should not exist without a larger content strategy framework. If you are going to practice UX writing within an organization, that should not be happening without that larger content strategy framework. A voice and tone guide is not a content strategy. A content system that sits within a design system, that's not necessarily a content strategy. A content strategy links together all those different parts of the design “machine” and in fact wider organizational functions.

The good news is that there are a bunch of people with the job title “content designer” who are practicing in terms of thinking about working with users and top tasks, and considering voice and tone, and considering messaging, and considering mental models, and working with different stakeholder needs, and trying to link them to business objectives and goals, and so on. And those people are also often doing UX writing.

The problem comes when you put a UX writer at the table without access to all this other research and wider organizational purview, and their primary job is to make the words. And that is where a lot of the training and the writing that I'm seeing is focused on: “Let's talk about effective calls to actions on buttons. Let's talk about how to keep things consistent across the product journey. Let's look at these 15 error messages that are so clever.” When that is happening just at the voice and tone level, or UX 101 copywriting (basically) … that’s no good.  People are taking these courses and they're being hired as UX writers, which is great. But I want to see those people have a clear career path beyond UX writing, and I fear that oftentimes there is none.

That said: dedicating resources to UX writing in the first place is a big step forward for a lot of these organizations. So is it a positive evolution? Yes. Is this suggesting that putting the UX writer on the team is going to fix everything? No. That’s a band-aid on a much larger problem within organizations.

I wonder how much has to do with organizational structuring and that things like content marketing are in a different silo than product design. And there is no connective tissue between those.

It's really interesting that you say that, because it's exactly the phrase that I use: content strategy is the connective fibers throughout an organization. I talk about that all the time how the number one job of a content strategist is asking smart questions and connecting the dots.

Let's switch gears a little bit. Confab is almost 10 years old now. Why did you decide to create Button now and split it out into a separate conference for product content?

When we started Confab in 2011 the idea was content strategists, and editors, and writers, and all these different information architects that were focusing on content, hadn’t found each other yet. And we all needed to get together to talk about our work, to expand our world views, to level up the discipline to where I think it sits today! Confab is the big house of content.

Over the last couple of years, we have really seen these specializations deepening within that “big house”of content, and one of those is product design. The conversations are happening, of course: there's this giant community Content + UX community ( There is this amazing library of knowledge built up through Shopify. There are UX writing groups popping up all over the world. We wanted to give folks a place where they can actually gather in person from people beyond their own geographic area to level up their own careers and the discipline as a whole. And that’s why we made Button.

Let’s talk a little bit about the current state of product content design. What are the main challenges the profession is facing?

I think that it's the same challenge that UX content professionals have faced from the beginning, which is that people think it's just the words. And if we can't afford a writer, somebody else like the designer will do the words or will roll in the stakeholder to do the words. Or the words are just a feature. It's the same thing that I was talking about going way back 20 years. So we just need to plug that activity in at the right time.

And so the danger is getting very, very siloed. In that work being very marginalized, or minimized in terms of its value. And what sucks is that I see us slipping backwards. What UX writing is saying is: this is an evolving field, we're really making strides and getting a seat at the table. And I'm just thinking: you're getting a seat at the table over here but the window is closing for you to be able to participate in these larger, more strategic conversations, because you're getting pigeon-holed as the writer at the table. And that's where content design is a function that really bridges that gap.

I'd much rather have UX writers be called content designers. Much rather. But then again, I have so many mixed feelings about this idea that writing is designing and writing should be considered design. Well then how come design isn't considered writing? Like why do we have to be the designer?

Working on having writing be an activity that gains more respect and exposure within an organization like design does, is great. However, writing is never going to be valued as greatly as design within an organization simply because everybody can write and not everybody can design. And that's why a lot of people push for writers to call themselves designers, even though that may not be articulated that way. Their perception is that design is more highly valued than writing is correct. So yes, it's important for us to continue to level up the idea of UX writing, but it's never going to get the same level of compensation or respect as a content designer or a content strategist.

You wonder if it's also because everyone thinks they can write, because you don't need specialized tools for it. Anybody can just start typing, but it's harder to learn how to use design tools.

Yes, everybody with Microsoft Word is a writer.

Is there anything you feel the content design profession can do better to advocate for itself or be better at raising its profile within an organization?

What I always tell people is, the way to get better and the way to get more attention is to do two things.

One, build relationships with people outside of your own bubble and listen to them, listen to what's going on with them. Listen to what their pain points are, listen to what their ideas are, reflect those things back to them and now you've got an ally. That's the first thing.

The second thing is to share your wins. That is the idea of a share-out across an organization. Ask to be put on the stage at the town hall. Invite people to a brown bag. Ask for 15 minutes of leadership’s time to show them: this thing was broken and we brought our expertise to bear, now look at the results. Sharing that stuff out is so critically important to raise your profile. You've got to either show people here's how I'm going to ease your pain or make you look like a rock star.

Mike Stumpo at Uber introduced me to this concept of a T-shaped designer. I thought it was convincing that we’re all designers. We all create the interface, think about strategy, understand the user and so on. And content designers are just much better in this one deep aspect of design than the other folks. What I liked about it is it creates a lot of equality on a design team. And then other stakeholders like product managers, engineers and so on just don't know the difference and maybe that's fine. And in mature design organizations there are robust design systems, so you can just plug and play the different elements. What are your thoughts on that?

Yes I agree. Within a mature organization, there is more flexibility, there are systems in place, and you can bring that expertise to bear. So I agree.

Let's talk a bit about naming. When I first heard about UX writing, content strategy, and content design I thought it was quite confusing. Doesn't matter what we call it?

Well, the first thing I'll say is that you're never going to get alignment, because every organization is at a different place from a maturity standpoint, in terms of how they view content as an asset and as a role and as an activity. So I think it doesn't matter what we call it.

But yes, words do matter. I think that it's very important to find alignment within an organization about what you're going to call things and why. So for example, Shopify just changed the name of their content strategy team to content design. The content designers are sitting at the table doing design with designers.

I think it’s interesting to look at the parallels to product design since that's a pretty new term as well. Before you had UX and visual design and then product design came about and it has more of a strategy aspect to it. So I'm wondering if there are learnings from that naming transformation?

You say they have a better understanding of strategy. How do you define strategy? [I didn’t have a good definition of strategy ready to go so I happily yielded the answer to Kristina.]

Strategy is analysis, diagnosis, and a treatment plan. And then there is implementation. Here is the landscape that we are working within, here is the pain point, here is the opportunity, and then here's the way forward. And I agree with you, I think that product design teams are far more involved now with the actual analysis piece, with the research, discovery, and testing versus being handed down a list: here's the product that you're building, here are the requirements, here's what it needs to do, here's what it needs to serve, etc. They're more involved with that analysis part.

That's why I find it an interesting parallel: before there might have been visual designers who were handed a wireframe and were told to make it look pretty. So it’s similar to what UX writers are facing now?

For sure. But again, that's why I think having a job as a UX writer can be dangerous. Maybe you have the writing piece: you've got a job as the writer on the team. If I were a UX writer on a team, I would be fighting for the title of content designer, for sure. Because that would put me further up the path.

When I was a website copywriter, which is how I started out, I got into this function of content strategy because I got sick of being handed wireframes where the minute I wrote any copy, the wireframe would break. Or I got sick of being handed a list of requirements and wondered: who do I talk to, who owns this, where is the source material? I see on the sitemap that you've got stacked pages here. What are those pages? You’ve got to call me during research, you’ve got to call me when there's usability testing happening, because I have questions about the content that need to be asked early. Because if you wait and ask them the 11th hour everything's gonna fall apart, which is what happens.

I'd love to get your thoughts on the skills and competency of content designers and UX writers. What makes a great content designer and what kind of backgrounds have you seen be most valuable?

I think the most important skill is being able to ask smart questions. Who is it for? What's their mindset? What could go wrong? Who's going to have to weigh in on this? What do they care about? What might we need to navigate if a person comes into review and has negative feedback that we've already talked through?

These folks are coming to the table and know how to write in plain English. They know to never say “click here.” They have a portfolio that talks about great error messages. That's all fine and good. But you've got to be able to continually analyze the situation, ask the right questions. And then also be flexible and open to iterative copywriting. What we see in advertising, for example, is you had the sort of caricature of the copywriter who would come in and go: here's my idea, take it or leave it. Don't mess with my art. You can’t be precious about it and you have to be able to turn on a dime. So I think that's important, too. But then the third piece is to be able to fight for your words. When I say fight for it, I don't mean put your foot down. I mean self advocacy is such a huge thing in UX writing: “we’ve got to stand up for ourselves, blah, blah, blah.” But you have to be ready to explain it, give examples and back it up with data or anecdotal evidence and be able to speak up about it.

How important is it for content designers to also have a much broader understanding of the entire product development ecosystem: product, business strategy, user research, engineering etc and understand how all those other pieces fit together?

Especially if you want to grow in an organization, it's really important that you understand where your role and activities fit in the grand scheme of things. Because you should be able to sit down with an engineer and ask informed questions. You should be able to sit down with marketing and ask informed questions. I think that anybody who thinks, okay now I’m a writer, I'm gonna sit at the table, I'm gonna work in my bubble, that's where you're gonna stay.

I'd love to look a little bit into the future and speculate. Where do you think the profession is heading in the next five years?

I think that UX writing as a function and as a job, we're gonna continue to see growth. I think that product teams are going to continue to recognize the value of having a writer at the table. That’s something that product companies in particular are going to be investing in.

However, I don't see UX writing evolving much beyond where it is right now as a practice. Where I see opportunities for evolution are content design and product content strategy. That's where I see opportunities for evolving the role, shifting the role, getting your hands into different parts of the organization or different parts of the product design ecosystem.

And I wish I could say that I thought we are going to see additional growth for product content strategy. I don't think we will because I don't think that many organizations are mature enough to have that as a function. But maybe in 10 years?

Thank you so much for your time. Good luck with all the final preparations for Button!

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