Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Angela Gordon transcript

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Angela Gordon transcript

Angela Gordon describes what it’s like working on a team of UX writers at Dropbox.

Patrick Stafford
July 30, 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. This episode is with Angela Gordon. Angela was a UX Writer and Manager at Dropbox, and Patrick and her chat about what it’s like working on a team of 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:

Today, we talk about UX writing at Dropbox, but not just about the type of writing they do, but how they do it. How do their teams work, how do they interact? They have a large UX writing team, so how do they get work done? If you are a UX writer at an organisation right now and you have multiple people to deal with, this is a really great interview for you because she’s going to reveal a lot about how they work, and hopefully you can take some of those learnings and take them to your own company. So, that’s coming up in a second. First, a few things I wanted to tell you about.

Firstly, as you probably already know, I’m a co-founder of the UX Writers Collective, and we offer online self-paced courses in UX writing and other forms of writing. The courses have over 200 students now, so they’re doing super, super well, but we’re also not just about selling this course, we want to provide valuable information and resources to the UX writing and content strategy community, which is why we recently conducted a salary survey. Now this salary survey asked people a few different questions, where do you live, how much do you make, what’s your job title?

We’ve published that to give UX writers and content strategists some power when they go and ask for a raise or promotion. We want to provide a little bit of a level baseline. Now, it’s not a scientific survey, but it’s something, so we’ve published this on our website and we would love for you to check it out. It’s all free, you don’t have to do anything to access it, the link is in the show notes. So please go have a read, at the very least, we think it’s some pretty interesting content.

Secondly, I’d really encourage you if you are a UX writer, to check out some resources to hone your skills. Ryan Farrell, who I interviewed a couple of episodes ago, has a daily UX writing challenge. It’s at dailyuxwriting.com, you sign up, you get 14 prompts, UX writing prompts that you use to create messages every day. Even if you’re a beginner or advanced and you’ve been in the industry for years, it’s great practise. So I would say go to dailyuxwriting.com and check that out.

I’d also encourage you to check out uxwriterjobs.com, this is the newsletter created by Gordon Macrae who is an instructional designer at General Assembly, he actually helped us create the UX Writing Fundamentals course. It’s a weekly or fortnightly newsletter that features UX writing jobs from around the world, so even if you’re not looking for a job, I would really encourage you to sign up to this newsletter because it gives you a sense of what people are looking for. So that’s uxwritingjobs.com.

And finally, the UX Writing Fundamentals course on uxwriterscollective.com has over 200 students now, it’s going off. If you’re a writer who wants to get a base in the UX Writing Fundamentals, this is the course for you, I’d really encourage you to check it out. If you’re listening to this podcast, you get 20% off using the code podcast20. Check it out at uxwriterscollective.com, there’s a link in the show notes. And with that, that’s it, I think I’m done. On to the interview with Angela of Dropbox, I hope you enjoyed it.

Patrick:

[inaudible 00:04:52] and I believe Evernote was the first… I believe it was that your first UX writing role, forgive me if I’m wrong.

Angela:

It was, although I’ve had another role before that where I was a UX designer for a year.

Patrick:

Right, okay. Okay.

Angela:

I can kind of explain the path.

Patrick:

Sure.

Angela:

It was a like a winding path, definitely not direct. As you mentioned, I was in publishing for quite a while, like for 10 years or so, editing books and acquiring books. Most of my work was focused on editorial stuff like developmental editing, so basically like helping authors develop manuscripts and come up with a structure of a book, they were psychology books that I focused on. And I really loved that work, just really diving into the content and figuring out how could I streamline it, how to shape it for a target audience, that kind of stuff. But then eventually, I sort of started wanting to do more interactive things, and I started getting into learning about interaction design and UX stuff.

So I kind of pursued that and I went back to school. That’s when I went to Stanford while I was still in the publishing world. I was still an editor, but I went to Stanford, to this programme called learning design and technology, and I took a bunch of classes at the day school and got super excited about design thinking and design process and stuff. And I really focused it on the content side of that, like how do you shape content to help people learn better. But yeah, it was intense to do that and also continue working full time. So it was a pretty hard couple of years, but it definitely like opened up this whole new world that I didn’t even know anything about. I knew nothing about design thinking or the process that people go through to create apps and websites.

And so it was kind of like this huge epiphany that there is this whole other world that was related to storytelling and increasing people’s understanding about topics and stuff, but that was different than the other route that I took that was about book publishing and telling stories in a very different way. So I was super excited about where those two worlds met, and while I was in school I transitioned to a job where I was a UX designer at a library at UC Berkeley Research Library.

And for a year or so, I pretty much did everything there in terms of design, like I created logos and I did lay out and did usability test for the website, and I wrote content for the blog. So I was kind of like a Jane of all trades there, doing content strategy stuff and design. But after a while I sort of really was hungering for a way to go deeper and to get a little bit more expertise, like specialised expertise. And someone I went to school with at Stanford was a UX writer, and he told me about the job, like I had not even heard of the discipline before because he knew that I had this writing background and design training. And it turned out it was a perfect blend of different things I was interested in, and that’s when I got the job at Evernote.

Patrick:

Yeah, do you think it’s a fad? There’s all that debate about, well you know, whether companies are spending too much money on UX writers and if it’s a bit of a little glut, and if there’s some sort of economic turmoil, would UX writers be the first to go? I don’t know if I believe that, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Angela:

I hadn’t heard about that debate very much, but I don’t think it’s a fad because I think that more and more businesses are realising that the words matter in terms of trying to distinguish yourself from competitors, especially in brand recognition and customer loyalty and stuff. I think that, at least from my albeit limited experience, it’s seen as a way to basically stand out and improve, like optimise your product in a world where there are so many other apps that are doing similar things or…

Patrick:

I think you and I are convinced, I would be interested to see with the… It comes some sort of structural difficulties in a company, whether the decision makers would be convinced, but-

Angela:

Yeah, maybe changing names. I feel like the names of jobs change over time, even if you look at the design world, like a UX designer used to be the main term like back maybe 2014 or something when I started learning about it, and now I’m at least here in the Bay area, product designers are the title that people use mainly. And I think the names change but I don’t feel like the core skill will go away, there’s also the possibility that it could be folded in to, be a part of a product designers job, or certain product designers who might specialise in writing.

Patrick:

Yeah, I think it’s going to be much more like the… You refer to developers as like front end, back end, full stack. I wonder if that sort of terminology will make its way into UX writing, because that’s sort of already happening with things like content strategists in the UX writing and how do those things relate to each other, and what skills do they share and so on. But yeah, but we could talk all day about that. One of the things that I’m interested in your background is, you’ve been at two companies that have undergone some pretty significant periods of change. Now I don’t know if this is true of Evernote, I can’t remember the timing exactly, but certainly Dropbox with the recent release and update to the product, that’s obviously required a lot of internal debate and design, and I’m sure there were all sorts of things happening behind the scenes about word choice and design choice and so on.

But Evernote also went through a pretty interesting period of change as well. Were you there when things were changing there? Because my understanding is that the product went through quite a significant deal development. What I’m interested in is how you work internally then? You mentioned you worked with the marketing writers. For a project like this that requires a massive amount of coordination, what’s the process like inside for working with the other writers and the designers, a day in the life, how does that work in your walls?

Angela:

For that project, we had a UX writing lead on that project, and she basically coordinated the content that the UX writers were writing and the marketing writers were writing, and basically brought it into one place. And she had meetings for us and we had a schedule that we all shared. So she really facilitated the communication between writers on all these different teams, and that was a really important part of that project. And I was just one of the writers in this group because I focus on writing about integrations with Dropbox, so that’s what my part, things or education around using Slack within Dropbox, like that kind of stuff.

So she really just helped us have these monthly check-ins and shared docs where we are all putting our work and setting up time for us to test our copy, that kind of stuff. And that project was a long term project, so it wasn’t really like a day to day thing, at least for me. She was much more steeped in that world as the writing lead, but for my part, my contribution, it was more not daily, it was weekly or every other week where I would check in with people. Or we would workshop different messages that we… Like among the UX writers, we would talk about what we were thinking for different surfaces or types of messages, and we those in a Paper doc, we use Paper a lot at Dropbox, and then tag the other person, another writer, and ask them what they think.

So there’s a lot of kind of like asynchronous collaboration that happens among the UX writers for a project like that, where we basically are just like weighing in on writing that the other person wrote, we have a shared workshop for that project, and we also have a style guide internally so we would always kind of like reference that. Just make sure that… One thing that I think is so easy to happen when you have a lot of writers is that the tone can change or the approach, for example like maybe one writer thinks that you should talk about the value of a feature in the heading, and another writer thinks like no, we should do something else. Like the approach to the actual content might shift depending on that writer’s sensibility. So over the past couple of years we’ve developed a style guide for UX writing that we refer back to and update as needed, so that helped a lot.

Patrick:

Yeah. I’m really interested to hear about this, because I think Dropbox is one of the companies where I think the UX writing has been made most visible through UX writers at Dropbox have written blog posts. As you mentioned, you’ve appeared on other podcasts before, and so you’re out there talking about it, and so I think people are really interested to hear what are the internal mechanisms of how your team works. And it’s really interesting to hear that there’s a good coordination between the UX writing and the marketing writing under a head, because unfortunately that’s not always the case. And there needs to be a lot of chasing and catch up to make sure that these two, the terminologies are the same and that the research is being shared.

Angela:

I think we still have those challenges though, I didn’t mean to make it sound that we have it all figured out. For that particular project, there was a central writing lead, but definitely for other projects, I definitely have experienced some of the pain points from having multiple writers with different, I don’t know, training and different priorities and stuff, all working on things. I feel like that is definitely something that happens in companies, it’s one of those perennial challenges of trying to figure out ways to coordinate together so we aren’t duplicating work and stuff.

Patrick:

It’s good to hear that you’re all human the, and that you’re not just… Yeah.

It’s the opposite challenge, right? Like I’ve spoken to a lot of people who they’re the only UX writer and they’re having to do everything, so it’s just the opposite problem. As you grow you have those extra challenges.

Angela:

When I was at Evernote, I was the only UX writer working on product at that time, so I have an experience of the opposite too, so I really appreciate that there’s all these different writers at Dropbox and that people have different strengths and training. It’s really great to not feel like you’re in it all by yourself, even though, yeah, it comes with challenges of coordination and stuff, it’s also like a very a powerful thing I think.

Patrick:

Absolutely. What are some of the ways you overcome those challenges? So are there… you mentioned you have check-ins and you use Dropbox Paper to coordinate. What are some of the techniques you use to make sure that everyone’s on the same page, and even though there’s a large team you’re coordinated and you’re checking in and you’re working as a team?

Angela:

I think that this is very much like a work in progress, and it kind of varies from team to team. One tool that we’ve started using is kind of creating one pagers that are about a specific feature. Like when we did… I used to work on Paper, and when we came out with the to-do’s feature in Paper, we created a one pager that we shared with the marketing team to let them know like, “Hey, these are the terms that we’re going to use, this is how we describe this feature, this is what we will not say about the feature. Here’s some talking points.” Some basic outlining of how we are approaching this content in product and using that as a tool for communicating with the marketing teams as a reference point. This is what we’re saying in product, also asking them to weigh in, like do you think that this works or do you think we’re missing anything?

And then they have that as a tool for them. When they are writing marketing emails or working on marketing campaigns, they can refer back to the one pager to make sure that we’re in sync, that one person isn’t calling it task in a marketing email and then in product we’re only calling it to-do’s, for instance. Things like that. I think that that’s like, I don’t know, a tangible tool that is helping, but I also think that a lot of it is about building relationships with people, and just making sure that you’re having a monthly check-in, sharing work, sharing docs with people, just talking more. Because I think that when the marketing side and product side aren’t talking, it becomes evident in products from the customer’s perspective because it’s like the UX is like really janky, and not broken, but just you can tell that things are not necessarily the same, there’s a lot of different terms and just different messages that are being highlighted.

Patrick:

I think when people join a company, particularly a company like Dropbox, which I don’t know how many employees you have, but certainly it would be thousands I imagine at this point, you assume that the sharing will just happen. You assume that someone above you or someone more senior is delivering information about the work that you’re doing to other people, and you realise as you become more senior that that’s not actually the case, and the impetus is on you to share with other people and to coordinate and make sure that information is being shared.

Angela:

Yeah, totally. Sharing is definitely work. It’s super valuable and it will eventually make your job easier in the… But definitely, I totally relate to that, feeling like, “Oh, this will just happen.” But then realising like, “Oh wait, I actually have to make this happen and sometimes it won’t work, and I just have to try again anyway.” I don’t know, I feel like it’s some of the most valuable work that I do. It’s just like trying to learn more about what other people are working on. Even people were… Someone like an engineer or our disciplines are very different and our day to day is very different, but just learning more about how they deal with like copy, like bug fixes or something, or what it takes, like what are the steps they go through. And then sharing with them why I am even suggesting changing the copy, like what is the value. Just those kinds of conversations take time, but I just think that overall it leads to a better result.

Patrick:

Absolutely. What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions are that people have about UX writing and UX writing at Dropbox?

Angela:

So at Dropbox, the UX writers are spread across all the different, we call them product areas. So we are all kind of like, we’re embedded in the different parts of the products. Like for instance I mentioned that I was working on Paper, and now I’m working on the integrations at Dropbox. So we all kind of have our own separate workflows and design partners and product partners and stuff, so some of this isn’t completely generalizable. One thing that we often face is just with teams where they haven’t had… And not all the teams that Dropbox have a UX writer. So when I’m on a team that hasn’t had a UX writer before or that’s fairly new or people who’ve not worked with writers before, they have the idea more…

They tend to have the idea that we’re more like wordsmiths or really good at grammar or spelling or something, and they don’t really, at first, understand oh this writer understands UX problems and has worked with designers, like they are basically a product designer. There’s a lot of commonalities, and they don’t really see the more strategic and design side of writing, it’s more assumed that you’re there for spelling or editing, that kind of stuff, which is part of what we do. But it can be frustrating if you have a situation where that’s what someone thinks that’s all you do, and you’re like, “Wait, I have all these other ideas and contributions to make.”

Angela:

So you can get in a situation where like, oh you have to like start making sure that you’re being invited to strategic meanings and planning, like [inaudible 00:25:20] planning and that kind of stuff, if the team has not worked with the writer before. So if it’s a team where, for instance, when I worked on Paper, we had three UX writers at that time, so people knew that… Like they had a better sense of how to include us. So that working side, like just the workflow and just how to make the most of a UX writer, that can take a little while to just communicate that, the value that we bring and how we work and stuff.

Patrick:

Yeah, I think what you’re describing is something that I’ve experienced as well, but it’s also… I’d be interested to hear if you share this frustration. I’m getting more and more frustrated by discussions in UX writing that focus way too much on granular material like spelling, discussions like, “Oh is learn more better or click here or whatever,” those types of debates. And my comeback is, if you’re spending a lot of time on those sorts of problems, you’ve already missed the mountain of work beforehand that should be telling you where to go.

If you’ve conducted research and you’ve conducted a good design work and you’ve understood the psychology view users, that should be a giant arrow pointing in the direction of the smaller changes that you should make. And I feel like when people just, as you’ve just described, when people focus on things like just spelling or just a certain wording but without the psychology of the user behind it, I don’t know, I guess I feel like you’re majorly missing the point. Which I guess feels like you’ve, yeah, you’ve had that experience internally as well sometimes.

Angela:

I feel like, personally as a writer, I tend more towards the focusing on the bigger picture side of the design or the flow, and then I get to the, I don’t know, like should this be a title case or sentence case, the more granular wordsmithing side of it. I usually kind of like do that as a second phase or third phase after I even figured out what the message is or the point of… I have like developed a real fondness for style guides in the last year or so, because I feel like we do need both sides of it, and I really love being able to go just consult a style guide and see do we like to say learn more or do we say more info or details or whatever.

I love that those decisions can be made in advance by other people or in consultation with other writers and stuff, so I kind of look at it as a I’m going to focus on the bigger, the communications side of the experience, why we’re saying this, should we be saying anything and is it the right time to say it? And then I’m going to focus more on exactly the word that we use to say XYZ, whatever.

Patrick:

Totally. I totally agree. And if you’ve got a good experimentation culture in your business, a lot of that stuff can be pushed into that testing process anyway. I’ve found a lot of the time in my work, we’ll be sitting there having a debate about something, about some sort of headline, and my response is always, “Well, why don’t we just test it?” Like they’re both good, we don’t have to make a decision now, we can let the users decide.

Angela:

Well I was on Paper growth for a couple of years and were all about experiments. We ran experiments all the time, and that was cool because I just got to try a lot of different stuff, and we also have a pretty good… And also the team that I’m on now, we do, we run experiments as well. But I think that growth teams are especially just shaped that way around the idea of experiments. But we also are really lucky that we have a great design research team. So we do experiment with prototypes or different variants and stuff of copy, but even before that we do a lot of user interviews and there’s a whole team that does research studies on different topics.

One really cool thing that I love to do as a UX writer is go to this… We call it real world Wednesday actually, where we invite users of Dropbox and Paper or to come in, and either we show them some designs that we’re working on or copy that we’re working on and get them to react to it or interact with it, or we interviewed them about their use of different apps or use of Dropbox. And that’s been really awesome to be able to do that. And it’s cool too because you get to partner with cross functional people, like I might go to real world Wednesday with a product manager and a designer, or a couple of designers, and I love those opportunities where you get to work across disciplines. I feel like that really, really informs my writing and the designs definitely.

Patrick:

It’s just continuous usability testing, right, rather than just taking it to a particular feature or a particular campaign. It’s just constant, it’s an embedded part of your work.

Angela:

Right. And it also helps with things like where you’re just trying to figure out, like you’re just trying to decide between two pretty similar words and you’re just checking for tone or what are people’s associations with a specific word. Just being able to just ask five people or something is a really great for helping you get unblocked when you just can’t decide.

Patrick:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re coming up on our time here, so I like to end the podcast with asking everyone the same question, which is, for UX writers out there, both new and experienced, what are some pieces of reading that you would recommend they check out? It could be a book, an article, doesn’t have to be reading, it could be a podcast. Yeah, is there anything that you would recommend they take a look at? And I don’t believe I prepared you for this question, so this is really on the spot. So this is your, yeah, this is an on the fly.

Angela:

So would it be pandering for me to say, “Oh, they should listen to this podcast, of course.”

Patrick:

Yeah. Well they’re already listening to it, so I don’t know if that would help very much.

Angela:

Yeah, okay. They start with this podcast. But then something that I think is really helpful is to go to meetups. If you have access to any… like the [inaudible 00:33:17] UX writing meetup is a great example and I think there’s more and more that are across the country. Like any chance that you have where you can ask other people who are in the field, what their day to day work life is like or how they got into the discipline and stuff, I think is super helpful to just have it be a real thing.

Angela:

Because I feel like you can learn a lot by reading blog posts, and there are some great ones out there and I definitely read a lot of them, but I feel like there’s a lot of value in just talking to humans who are doing this kind of work, and just hearing more about it and just having it be a little bit more of a real thing. I also think just pretty standard, like writing training or advice like that book… I think it’s called On Writing Well, I think, is one of my favourite writing books. It just gets down to the basic mechanics of just writing in plain language and clarity, and that kind of stuff is just at the heart of UX writing.

Patrick:

Meetups are highly underrated because I think it’s obviously good to gain a network and so on, but it just makes life so much easier if you have a professional network.

Angela:

Definitely, and I feel like when I first started out especially, yeah, because I’m an introvert, I was not super thrilled about like, “Oh I’m going to go network now.” Like I wasn’t exactly excited about it. But the cool thing about it is that a lot of other writers are introverts as well, so we’re not that scary to talk to or anything. These are your people, it’s fine, and even if you just talk to one person or something at a meetup, that’s a victory I think.

Patrick:

All right, well fantastic. Well we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, really appreciate it. Really appreciate all your advice, I’m sure people will get a lot out of it, and I’m sure we will have you back on in the future. So thank you very much.

Angela:

Thank you. It’s been awesome.

Patrick:

And there you go, there’s my interview with Angela of Dropbox, hope you enjoyed it. Once again, check the show notes. Subscribe to the Daily UX Writing Challenge at dailyuxwriting.com. Subscribe to uxwriterjobs.com to get UX writing job advertisements in your inbox every week or fortnight. Check out uxwriterscollective.com, get 20% off with the code podcast20. Next month, we’re going to delve into the world of streaming, entertainment, and Netflix, can’t wait to show you. Until then, take care.


Resources mentioned in the show:

On Writing Well
San Francisco UX Writers Meetup
Daily UX Writing
UX Writer Jobs
UX Writing Fundamentals at UX Writers Collective
– UX Writer Salary Survey

We hope you enjoyed this transcript!

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