Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Andy Welfle and Michael J Metts transcript

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Andy Welfle and Michael J Metts transcript

In this podcast, Patrick chat with Andy and Michael about their new book “Writing is Designing.”

Patrick Stafford
August 27, 2020


Writers of Silicon Valley is a UX writing podcast featuring interviews with content strategists and UX writers from around the world.

The UX Writers Collective is proud to host transcripts for every episode.

Andy Welfle and Michael J Metts have written, “Writing is Designing” and it advances the conversation as it approaches writing as a design tool, and builds on the great work that has already been published by other UX writers.

To listen to this episode, find Writers of Silicon Valley wherever you listen to podcasts:

This episode was originally hosted at Writers of Silicon Valley.

Are you interested in becoming a UX writer? Check out our online, self-paced range of courses

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Patrick:

There’ve been a few books about UX writing published so far, and all of them are really good. But I think this new book by Andy Welfle and Michael J Metts might be the best. They’ve written Writing is Designing. It’s just been published, and today I’m talking to the two of them about the book, why they decided to write it, and some of the key lessons that you can take from it. I think this is a key moment for the industry. We’re starting to see publications and discussions and blog posts that already assume we’re part of the design team and so the conversation is moving on. And I think this book is a really great example of how that’s happening. So, I think today’s episode is really educational. I think you’re going to get a lot from it. Before we get to that, a couple of things.

The first is, have you ever wanted to go to a conference that’s designed specifically for UX writers and content designers? The UX Writers Collective and the San Francisco UX Writers Meet Up are hosting the UX Writing and Content Design Summit. It’s happening in August. It’s one day only. It’s happening in San Francisco. And the website is up now. It’s uxwcdsummit.com. I’ve put the link in the show notes so you can just click through. If you’re a UX writer or a content designer, you need to attend this event. We have speakers lined up from Netflix, Adobe. Andy from today’s podcast is going to be speaking. We have speakers from Google, Ryan Ferrall, who’s been on the podcast before. He created the Daily UX Writing Challenge. He’s going to be at the conference.

This is a can’t miss event. I really encourage you to go to the website, check it out, sign up to the mailing list so you get notified when tickets are on sale. Seriously, this thing is going to be huge. Special thanks to our sponsors, Uber, Zendesk, Pinterest with more to come. So seriously, if you’re interested, this event is going to be huge. Check it out. Second announcement. Actually, I don’t think there are any more announcements. I think that’s it. So checkout uxwcdsummit.com. And with that, here’s my interview with Andy and Michael. Hope you enjoy it.

Yeah, absolutely. And I guess then my first question was going to be, you say in the book that you had the idea to start writing this after you went to Confab I think four or five years ago maybe. And you started realising that there wasn’t really a lot, there for UX writers at the time. Obviously, that’s changed because there’s a lot more activity now. But, you came up with this idea to start doing the workshop and now turning it into a book. So I’d love to backtrack, and start talking about number one, how did you come up with the idea for the workshop together, and how did that eventually lead to creating and selling this book?

Michael:

Well, it just started with a friendship, I think, between Andy and myself, because we kept showing up at the same conferences and talking about the same things. And we realised that there were things in common about our journey of writing specifically for products. We were both working in the context of software companies. So Andy, I believe at that time, you were transitioning to Facebook. I was a software company called [Wolfram 00:03:59]. The types of work we were doing was really different we noticed from a lot of the content material that was out there.

And so, we wanted to put together something that would help people in our situation because we felt like we kept meeting people in the industry who were writing for products, and had all kinds of unique constraints that went into that work. And so I think that’s where it was born. And we talked a lot about… Our first iterations of it were really more about voice and tone, and how to make those real for your team. But it grew into everything that goes into writing for a product. And there’s just so much there to unpack and so many unique aspects of it. And I think where we got to with the book is viewing the act of writing for our product as a design role, and really making sure that you live into that role and embrace that identity as someone who does that type of writing.

Andy:

So I first met Michael at Midwest UX back in 2014, and I was working as a content strategist at a 6 person agency in Indiana. And he and our friend Scott [Kuby 00:00:05:12], from Writing for Designers fame, they were co-presenting a workshop about visual communication for content strategy. And it was really great, and I was attending it and I was in such a weird, interesting place in that I was just about to go off and interview at Facebook. So I wanted to talk to them a little bit about working at a big software company. So we had a nice little chat after that. So after that I followed, Scott and Michael on social media, and I just followed their careers and probably, wow, six months later is when I met both of you, which was really exciting.

Patrick:

You know, the philosophy of your book is really right there in the name. And I know personally in my experience when I’ve been interviewing writers for perhaps a job, or even just speaking to copywriters who want to get into UX, they very much tend to think of themselves as writers first. They’re a copywriter or they’re a journalist. Really your book is challenging them to think in the opposite way.

Andy:

Yeah, I can take that one. This book is a little bit focused on two different audiences. We want to find the people who come from a strong writing foundation who want to try to get into this work, and show them that you can apply these strong writing and language skills to design, and you can take your ability to wordsmith and to research your audience, and turn that into design work by testing and iteration and collaboration and a nonlinear writing experience.

But then also on the front, the other hand, there’s a lot of design teams out there where there might be a PM or a designer or somebody who’s the de facto words person. And this kind of gives them the foundations they need to approach the design process, which they’re pretty familiar with but for words as well.

So, I know that on my team, we have many designers who just get it. They’re good writers as well as designers, and they just need a methodology or some rhetoric to understand how to approach writing in this way. And really all this is just to serve the end goal of getting words into interface design earlier, because so many times a company will just slap some words into the blanks toward the end, and that does not make for a good positive user experience.

Patrick:

Why is it, do you think that there’s a challenge there? Why is it so hard for writers to think of themselves as designers and not just as a writer?

Michael:

Well, part of it’s internal, part of it’s external. So you may think as a writer… When you think of design, you may think of it as visual treatment because a lot of the design people interact with is graphic design, and they think it has to do with colours and layout and typography. And of course all those things are valid. They’re important. But really, the way that someone who works on software should think about design is designing how the thing works, and making decisions about how it works. And when you get to that, that is really a collaboration across many different disciplines. Whether you’re dealing primarily in the visual, whether you’re actually writing the code, or whether you’re helping to prioritise features.

All those people are playing a hand in designing this product that people are going to interact with. So, I think part of it is like an internal shift to realise that that is your job too. That’s something you should be actively involved in. And I remember when someone first told that to me, and I was putting myself in the writing box, my world was turned upside down. My mind was blown and I became more successful really quickly because I began to learn design techniques and apply them, in my day job.

So I think like there’s that internal perspective, but I think also like there’s a sense in which people their environment does it to them. Companies haven’t really figured out how important language is in a digital experience. So as Andy said, they may just think that you are there to put things in boxes at the end of a workflow, once a lot of the big decisions have been made already. So sometimes companies are doing this to the people that work for them as well. So I think it’s both sides. People need to change their own mindset, but then also change the culture of the company that they’re working in.

Andy:

And we just have decades and decades of programming from agencies to do it like this. Creative agencies or advertising agencies have so often like led in art direction and then later filled in the space with words, in the space where words should go. So I wouldn’t say that’s a great way to do it for static advertising, let alone for something as nonlinear and interactive as software and digital design can be. So I think we just have a lot of deprogramming to do in order to get to a point where the writing is… I feel ridiculous quoting my own book title, but like…

Patrick:

No, I think you’re entitled to do that. That’s fine.

Michael:

Sorry Patrick, I just want to say one more thing. I think sometimes people, it’s got to a point where writers can start to apologise for themselves. There’s an example we gave in the book where it’s a true story from work. I won’t reveal the person’s name, but this person was the only person with writer in their title, and they’re part of a design exercise where everyone’s sketching solutions. And this person is the only person in the room who apologised before presenting their sketch.

Their sketch was just as good as everyone else’s. Their ideas are just as valid, but they felt for whatever reason, because they were in the writer role that they weren’t able to partake in that exercise. So they apologise before they presented it. So I think that’s just a really key change that writers should feel like they can make. And they should feel like they have that place at the table and they should be part of those discussions.

Patrick:

I apologise before showing my sketches, but that’s usually because my drawing is so bad. Not because my ideas are bad, although sometimes they are. It is interesting that and in my own experience I’ve seen this, as a writer we start the conversation by saying like, “Oh, I’m not sure if this is my area to speak about,” or, “I’m sorry if I’ve got this wrong.” Or, so on and so on. And bums me out a little, because we’re just as much of the team as everyone else. And certainly teams I’ve been a part of have thought of writers as much of the team as anyone else.

So we’re really only doing ourselves a disservice by playing ourselves down, and telling ourselves that we’re not part of the team. Whereas everyone else seems to think we are, in my experience, although there are plenty of teams where writers are… You’ve seen, I think someone on a previous episode described it as you’re the copy kid. So you come in and you tighten up the grammar and whatever, and that’s fine. So, [inaudible 00:12:30] by changing the culture.

Andy:

Can you work some of your wordsmithing magic? That’s another good one.

Michael:

Yeah, wordsmith in a bit.

Andy:

Yeah.

Patrick:

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Andy:

I was going to say, you can just respond to me like, “Well I can work my wordsmith magic, if you can make that button a little bit bigger.”

Patrick:

Yeah. Exactly, right? But there are plenty of conversations I’ve had where people have said like, “Oh, we’d love you to do an audit on this copy.” And I do the audit, and the audit is essentially… Well your copy itself might be fine, but you should really, your content design needs to break this five step process into two. That sort of thing.

And so if they engage early, then they can do that. I want to talk about the research for this book for just a minute, because obviously by virtue of you two working in this industry, you’re doing research all the time. As you just mentioned, you’ve got your own anecdotes, you’ve got your own projects that you’ve worked on. But obviously when you’re writing a book it has to cater to a larger audience. I’d love to hear more about the research process for this. Were you going out and talking to people? Were you doing interviews? What sort of material were you looking at? How wide did you go in order to start writing this book?

Michael:

Well, when we first started talking about the book, Andy and I really wanted to make sure that it reflected a lot of different voices in the industry, because we are just two people as you said. And we do have different experience, but there are so many others with a lot to offer in the industry that we wanted to highlight that, and really call it out, and have our readers benefit from it.

So we did a lot of practical research of existing work out there. People have written about this, things like that. But we also did a lot of interviews with people practising in the industry, and that was really neat. That was a cool part of the book to see come together. Because, in many of the chapters, some chapters have multiple interviews with people, but it’s incorporated into what we’re writing about, which is what we tried to do. We tried to see what people had to say about the different topics we addressed. We have two people talking about how they made error messages and error states more humane, for example. We have a couple of people talking about how they’ve had success working with their teams. And that has just been a really neat aspect of the book. And just honestly, a pleasure to hear their stories and to be able to convey that to our readers.

Patrick:

What surprised you during that process? Because I’m sure there would have been stories or anecdotes, or other pieces of information that came at you, and you thought, “Oh, we didn’t really think about that.” Or, “That’s something that we have to talk about.” Is there anything that really challenged you in the writing of this book?

Andy:

I can give an example of something in the research that challenged some of my assumptions. I really wanted when it came to the book title, lead with something about designing. So, really bring it forth that you are designers of words. And Michael really uncovered that in some of the interviews that he did that as I think you alluded to, new people to the industry really don’t think of themselves as designers first. Which surprised me I think, just because I’ve always wanted to be like that I guess. And that’s the moment for which talking about this role really clicks for me.

So, some of the potential reader interviews that Michael did, really uncovered that when we’re trying to find the reader and hook them, we should lead with the writing rather than the designing. So that’s where some of the framing of the book and then also the book title came from, was just within those interviews for sure.

Patrick:

One of the things I was going to mention about your book was, one of the things I really like about it is that you do the theory in there and that’s great. And then in each chapter you give really practical tips for how you go about doing things. You’re saying, “This is how you can get involved. You can observe or run the sessions, you can actually take note of the language, you can identify gaps.” So you’re giving people actual things that they can do. And I think that’s one of the problems with some of the writing online about getting involved in design, is it involves too much of the theory. But writers, they go, “Well how can I actually get involved?” And as you said, “Help change the culture.”

Michael:

Yeah. And I hope readers don’t take that too seriously. And what I mean is, those should just be starting points. Our goal really is to help people approach the work more effectively, and think about it on their own. So each chapter has a section that’s called finding what’s right for you. And what we’re trying to drive home there is that your organisation is unique, your team is unique, your own skills are unique. So it’s not as if you can read a book like this, and suddenly have the answers. And our intention is not even to provide them. It’s just to give you some ways to talk about the work more effectively, to think about the work more effectively, and just build a new toolkit around it.

Patrick:

Yeah. I think one of the things that I really liked about is that, I think as we come to the end of the decade, not to get too existential about it, but we’ve seen the tech industry in this decade go from holding this promise of a better world, to letting a lot of people down. And I think that’s being reflected in a lot of design conversations as well, especially when it comes to language.

Patrick:

And I’m specifically thinking about people talked a lot in the 2010s about making experiences delightful for users. That’s the go to word. They should be delightful. They should be excited by using your technology. And there’s a lot of pushback happening now against that. And I read a little bit of that in your book. Not explicitly, but just in terms of things in the alternative voice section, for instance. You talk about there are products that say things like, “Great job!” Or, “You did a good job!” Or something like that. With exclamation points and so on.

And your point is, that’s fine, but that’s not necessarily appropriate all the time. You really need to think more explicitly about the individual circumstances that you’re in. And, I just think that, and the example I mentioned before, is what leads me to think of this book as the start of the next step and talking about UX writing. We’re not just about making people feel good, we’re making things easier. And that often means that it’s less “delightful”, and just more useful.

Michael:

Yeah. And honestly, I hope people talk about UX writing a little less, and talk more about the problems that we’re trying to solve. Because, you can’t make a business policy that’s harmful to other people better, by writing shorter, more clear sentences describing it. So, that’s the thing that I really want people to walk away with, is that we’re all in this together. Regardless of what your title is, regardless of what your role on the team is, the products we build have a really visceral, real effect on the people who use them every day. And we have a big responsibility. And it’s not just about sentence structure, and making sure things are clear. It’s about making sure that we can live with the decisions we’re making.

Patrick:

I think so too. One of the things I really liked in your book is that you talk about the ways you should be critiquing each other’s work. And I really like the fact that you’ve brought up that critique should happen really early enough, that it doesn’t feel disruptive. And so you’re bringing things that are super, super early, and at NYOB that’s one of the things we really encouraged as well. It’s like if you’re in the middle of something just bring to critique. No one cares that you’re in the middle of something. Everyone accepts that at some point, things are going to be just really dirty and messy.

And in fact, it’s much easier to get critique at that point, because it’s going to bruise your ego less, and it’s going to avoid more problems later on. And I really like the other point you make, which is about asking what sort of feedback are you looking for? And in our critique sessions here, one of the things we do is we say, “Okay, are you showcasing this as in just showing what’s happened?”, and so you’re not really looking for critique. Are you asking for direction? What are you asking for us to break your sketch or your design? What’s happening at that point?

Andy:

So I think what’s important in our critiques is allowing the person receiving the critique to scope the level of feedback they’re looking for. So, if they want general thoughts and opinions, “Hey, let me know what you think about this message, and this framing of it. I’ll just take any kind of feedback you have.” That’s one thing. But sometimes people, maybe they haven’t really gotten a chance to dig into the message itself yet, and they’re just focused on the structure of it. Or maybe they’re just focused on the word choice and they want to try to arrive at that. Just allowing them to decide the kind of feedback they’re looking for. And then also the moderator holding the feet to the fire for everybody else to stick to that.

Michael:

Yeah, I’ve had really good success including all kinds of folks in my critiques at work, and that would extend to designers, product managers, developers, anyone on the team. And part of the reason that has been such a good exercise, is it helps people see the constraints more clearly, and helps them understand why we’re making certain decisions.

So there was an example recently where we had a chat bot that we were working on a closing for. And someone suggested, “Well, why don’t we just say at this point, ‘Have a great day.’ to the people as we’re signing off just to make it more friendly.” And on the surface, that seems like a really great idea because it’s for customer service, and we want to make sure it’s friendly. But, that person may have just been in a car accident, or may have had their house burn down, or maybe had their house broken into, and that may be why they’re chatting that day.

And so, it could be really bad. And so, to be able to have those conversations with the team really, really helps, and helps them see the constraints that you’re under as a writer, and all the things you’re thinking about and puts them in the user’s shoes.

Patrick:

To end off, I just wanted to ask you both, if there’s one thing that you think users can take away from your book, what would you really like to emphasise?

Andy:

That’s a really good question. I’m really excited about some people perhaps using our book to make a case to hire more writers on their design team. I would love to give the rhetoric to design managers and people who see and get that they need a better writing practise, earlier in their team. And I really hope that we can help them do it. So, that’s one big takeaway that I would love people to get from it.

Michael:

From my side, I think if our book could help people tackle bigger, gnarly issues that they’ve never tackled before, or have had trouble working on in the past, that would be really great. I think we’ve tried to give people the tools and techniques that would help them do that, and so I think it’d be amazing to hear stories of folks who’ve read this and then felt empowered to approach problems differently.

Patrick:

That’s awesome. That’s great. Well look, thanks guys. I think this has been a great conversation. I really love the book, and I encourage anyone who’s in design, whether you’re a writer or otherwise, to pick it up because I think it’s one of those books that you can just have and use just as a day to day resource. So Andy and Michael, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. And I’d love to touch base in a year or so after the book’s been out, and then would love to hear more about the impact it’s had on the industry, and see what you’ve learned then.

Andy:

Can I make a quick plug for something for the book real quick?

Patrick:

Absolutely. Go ahead.

Andy:

So, of course the title of this podcast is Writers of Silicon Valley. And if you are actually in the San Francisco Bay area, in Silicon Valley, sometime in January we’re still kind of nailing down a date, Michael and I are going to have a lunch party here at Adobe. So Michael’s going to come out here and we’ll have books to sign, and maybe do a little presentation or something from the book. So, go check out writingisdesigning.com for that date when we have it up, or follow either of us on on Twitter and we can make sure that you get to it.

Patrick:

Awesome. I’ll put both of your Twitter bios in the show notes as well, so people will be able to follow you and find out. So yeah, if you’re in San Francisco, the Bay area, head to that party. If you’re not there, maybe fly there for the party.

Andy:

Fly from Melbourne, it’d be great and cheap.

Patrick:

Oh man, I wish. That’d be awesome.

Andy:

So cheap.

Patrick:

Sometimes. Not all the time, sometimes. Anyway guys, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Good luck with the book. It’s great. And yeah, we’ll catch up again soon enough.

Michael:

Thanks for having us.

Andy:

Yeah, my pleasure.

Patrick:

That’s the interview. Thanks for checking out the podcast, please visit uxwcdsummit.com. And if you like what you see, sign up for notifications, and the requests for speakers is open now. So if you have a good idea, we want to hear from you. Until next time, see you later.


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