Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Annie Adams transcript

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Annie Adams transcript

Annie Adams shares her experience on working as a UX writer in the fashion industry.

Patrick Stafford
July 2, 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.

Annie Adams shares her experience on working as a UX writer in the fashion industry.

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.

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Patrick:

Today I’m speaking with Annie Adams. Now, this is an interesting discussion. Firstly, I should let you know that this is one of the first discussions I had for the podcast. I’ve published out of order a little, so the sound quality may not be as good as you’ve become used to in the past couple of episodes. Now, at the time I spoke to Annie, she was working in the fashion industry. She has since moved on. But, this conversation is still relevant I think because we discuss a lot about, not only what does UX Writing mean in this environment and her work history. But also, what does it mean to work in UX in that specific industry and what challenges does that have? We often talk about UX writing in the context of an app or a particular technology service.

It’s good to talk about UX writing in an industry that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of love. It’s easy to talk about Pinterest and Apple and Spotify and so on. But, it’s different when it’s a completely new industry. So I was grateful to have the chance to talk about that and Annie has some great things to say. Just one more final thing before we get to the conversation. I have had overwhelming feedback in praise of the podcast, which has been great and certainly humbling.

I’ve also had some friendly pushback about the name Writers of Silicon Valley. And the criticism is that, well we shouldn’t be focusing so much on Silicon Valley because there’s a whole range of UX writers in all sorts of industries and all sorts of locations around the world. Now, you’d think I would have named the podcast something else, given that I actually don’t live in Silicon Valley, I live in Australia.

I’m personally well aware that there are plenty of UX writers elsewhere. I guess the reason I came up with the name was, I was envisioning the podcast last year and trying to get things sorted out for it. And sort of stumbled on this name and thought it sounded good and then honestly, never came back to it, after I had started organising interviews and so on. That is my bad, I don’t want the name to be an exclusionary thing.

I think in the conversations I’ve had so far, it’s become pretty clear. There are plenty of UX writers outside of Silicon Valley. Yeah, and it’s completely understandable that if you look at the name of the podcast, you might think, oh, well is this podcast really for me? Myself included, it was an interesting decision to name the podcast that way. I just want to acknowledge that. I’m not going to change the name of the podcast at least anytime soon, perhaps sometime in the future. I am just going to stick with it for now.

I hope to counteract that, by interviewing UX writers who live outside of the Bay Area and also around the world. I’m looking to speak to international guests as well. If you live outside the United States, Australia or even in London, which is a big UX writing community, I want to speak to you. Please reach out. Just wanted to give a bit of an update there. Hopefully that hasn’t affected anyone’s listening experience so far. Look, that’s enough of me today. Excited to introduce this conversation with Annie Adams talking about UX writing in the fashion industry and much, much more. Hope you enjoy it.

Patrick:

Interesting. How do you even start getting to want to study something like that? Where does that come from? Because I’m sure you don’t stop college and think, man, I can’t wait to start studying the effects of nuclear weapons. Where does that come from?

Annie Adams:

Came from high school, but I decided I wanted to start studying the effects of nuclear weapons. I took a [inaudible 00:05:46] history class my junior here and gained a mentor. One of my friend’s fathers was a former CIA agent, your actual spy that you think of. I was the director of intelligence for one of the national laboratories back in my native Albuquerque at the time. And really got me into the idea that I could have a career studying nuclear weapons. It actually was something that I picked up in college and then I always thought I was destined for graduate school and for a history degree in this.

Patrick:

It’s just strange to me, because you don’t really meet many UX writers or people in design who actually have studied a PhD. And if they have, then it’s usually something related to the field. But, this is such a strange left turn that I just needed to bring it up. But so, while you were doing the PhD, you started thinking, okay, well how can I start getting involved with technology? What was it about UX writing specifically that came out of that? Why did you start thinking about that rather than another aspect of design?

Annie Adams:

Part of it is that I’ve been a writer for as long as I’ve wanted to study nuclear weapons. Words have always been my forte, rather than maybe the more technical side of things. I don’t know that I could be a developer or a coder. Well, I like the whole [inaudible 00:07:11] idea that UX writing is really code for humans. Then you can kind of shift [inaudible 00:07:17] a little bit and think of that that way.

Patrick:

Where did you go first after the PhD, what was the next step after that?

Annie Adams:

The next step after that was starting to freelance a little bit. And I ended up doing a couple of writing projects that I found through a personal website that I set up. I started an LLC and started this, UX writing, tech, copywriting business. I was finding contracts through where else, Upwork.

Patrick:

Upwork. Yeah. Interesting. And how did you find that? I’ve had a personal experience through these types of websites. Upwork and I’ve forgotten the names now of a couple of others, but, similar ones. How did you find that?

Annie Adams:

I put UX writer in my profile for Upwork. And a group from UK actually saw that and said, Oh, we’re looking for someone who can do UX and copywriting to go over this app for us [inaudible 00:08:17] on. They found me. I’ve done some searches of Upwork to see if there are other UX writers out there as of a few months ago, there weren’t really.

But, it’s also perhaps not the place I would recommend for UX writers really trying to get into the field. I think there are probably more productive ways that you can do things. Even just doing spec work or finding your favourite app and tried to rewrite it to be a better experience from a copy perspective.

Patrick:

Yeah. The pay is so low, that often it’s not even necessarily worth doing the work because you’re not working for necessarily brands that are going to look good on your portfolio.

Annie Adams:

It’s pretty much like that. And I think that is probably one of the biggest challenges facing us as UX writers and anyone whose job is to produce the words that go along with a product or an idea or whatever. This idea that we all take English in high school and so anyone can write. And this idea, 1000 words really are worth $10. That’s just so far from the truth when it comes to how much effort and research and thought and collaboration we really put into making sure the words on a screen are exactly right. There’s a reason that sales copywriters are paid so much, and I think that fortunately, some parts of the business world are starting to realise that this more transactional functional copy, is just as important as the sales copy. You can make something look great, but you’ve also got to help the user buy it.

Patrick:

Yeah, exactly. And that goes into this whole discussion of what is the worth of UX and how can you quantify that in terms of what’s the ROI. There’s actually been some interesting discussions on the incident lately about how can you quantify ROI for UX, which I’ll put it in the show notes, but it’s an interesting discussion.

You got your first couple of jobs through Upwork and through this freelance business. And what was that like? I imagined that you had played around with doing UX writing before, you weren’t going into this blind, but what was it like actually dealing with clients on that level?

Annie Adams:

It was very educational. I had some experiences that were better than others. Definitely. I think anyone who starts freelancing or even continues freelancing will have the same experience. But I learned a lot. I really learned what it’s like to work with a super collaborative group that has plenty of resources, especially research available.

A group that really knows their users and is determined to help their users accomplish their goals, whatever those may be. Versus working with a group that maybe hears that UX writing is a thing and they would like to hire one of these UX writers to help with their app or their project. But, not really understanding what it is a writer does, and I’ve had a couple of experiences like that. Freelance and contract where, I’m not sure they knew what they were getting into when they brought me on.

Patrick:

Yeah, the expectations aren’t set. They don’t know what they’re looking for, which means that when you inevitably… Well, first of all, you get a project that doesn’t have guidelines on it or it has flimsy guidelines. And then when you provide something, they’ll say, this wasn’t what we were expecting. And then you have to say, well, this is what you asked me. I’m sure you’ve that where they just don’t know what they were looking for.

Annie Adams:

Right. That’s, I think, one of the most important things to do. Now that I know this as a UX writer, one of the most important [inaudible 00:12:05] is make sure that you have talked to the designer, the project manager, the developer, whoever it is that you’re working with. And ask them questions until you’re convinced they know what they’re talking about. And then you can start talking about what they want.

Patrick:

You’ve got a few jobs, you’re doing well. And what’s the next step from there?

Annie Adams:

Well, right now, I’m a contractor working for a UX group within the fashion industry, which has been really exciting and wonderful and I love it. I know everyone [inaudible 00:12:39] tech company these days, but there is a difference between working for a tech company that builds tech and a tech company that has its main business in commercial fashion and retail.

Patrick:

And this is actually why I wanted to speak to you, because if you go on LinkedIn and you search for UX writer, most of the same companies tend to pop up. Google, Apple, Spotify, LinkedIn, Patreon, all the Silicon Valley companies. But there are very few outside of the tech industry that are hiring UX writers. And I found yourself and I was like, well that’s really interesting, because that’s a fashion company.

What are they doing with UX writing? And well, obviously, fashion companies will be handling UX writing through the agencies that create their websites, or so on. You’re working directly for the company. How did you come to this role and what about it sparks your interest?

Annie Adams:

I think one of the most interesting things about working at this particular company is that they don’t have an agency doing their UX. They have a very strong and growing in-house programme. And I would recommend for anyone who wants to work in UX, but maybe not in the tech sector, to consider looking at other industries to see what’s going on. Because, this is an excellent programme.

I think the things that really attracted me to this position when I first heard about it from one of the agencies I work with, was just this idea of writing UX for a crowd that is trying to buy shirts or pants or skirts or clothes for their kids, swimwear. Anything like that, I think, has this fascinating dimension to it. You have to worry not just about, well how do they log in? How do they create an account, but also how do they check out? What are those emails that they receive after they’ve placed an order, look like? How do you describe size and fit and help them understand what products will best suit them?

Patrick:

Talk to me about the way you sit in the team. Do you guys work in an agile way? Are you working with designers to create sketches and so on at the start? Are you coming in at the end of the process? What’s the process of working with your team?

Annie Adams:

All over the place. It depends on how long a project has been going, on whether it’s new, on what the goals for the project are. My personal favourite is of course to be there from the very start. I think that the content is just as important as how it looks. And being able to be part of those initial ideation phases of, okay, well what are we trying to accomplish? What puzzles do we have here? And then helping to really design the words to match that task and that user need, is so much more productive in the long run.

Patrick:

Were you interested in fashion before you started at this industry? It’s interesting because I speak to people who are UX writers at different companies and they had no interest before they go and start working at a different company. And then, they get obsessed with it. Did you have an interest in fashion or was this just a, this was a job that came along and it seemed interesting.

Annie Adams:

I’ve always had an interest in fashion. I occasionally sew my own clothes and I definitely follow women’s wear daily on Instagram, and keep up with what’s going on in Vogue. I have had this interest in fashion. But, it really didn’t dawn on me that this could be a really awesome type of UX writing to do until I was in the lobby for my interview. I had interviewed at another company that morning, a very different job. It was for just a copywriting position for this super technical product. And they were all really nice, but I was having doubts and I walked into the lobby of this company.

I said, oh my goodness, this is like The Devil Wears Prada, except with no Miranda Priestly character. There [inaudible 00:16:46] pushed around with clothes and everyone was just immaculately dressed. Very airy and optimistic and aspirational, and I just loved the feeling that that was the kind of sense I want to capture in my words and convey to the people who wear our clothes.

Patrick:

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced coming into this role that you haven’t had at other businesses? Obviously every industry has their own challenges. They have their own user groups, their own audiences that they need to cater for. What’s some of the challenges in this industry that you’ve found that you haven’t in others?

Annie Adams:

I hate to say it, but just the array of users that I write for here, is older than I think most people would experience. I’m writing not just the customer facing copy, but also copy that our associates will read when they’re checking a customer out or doing inventory. You have that split between what’s going on in the stores and what’s going on online. And then you have lots of different brands, all of which have their own inflexions and their own ideas about how they’d like to convey their product.

And while the UX copy needs to be a little bit more neutral than that, a little more in the background, we still like it to be inflected in just the right ways. It’s really about managing all of these different pieces, all of these audiences and then the customers themselves. If they shop at brand A versus brand B [inaudible 00:18:17] the company I work for, they might have very different backgrounds and life experiences. You have to capture all of that when you’re writing.

Patrick:

Yeah. And I guess because you’ve got these multiple brands as well, there are all sorts of these interesting touch points and different rules and so on. Was there a tone of voice guideline when you got there? Or was that something that you’ve had to develop over time? You may have said this, but you were the first UX writer there, or were you joining a number of people who had filled that role before?

Annie Adams:

I’m the second UX writer and I’m very lucky. My predecessor did a great job putting together a style guide, establishing the first draught or first round of voice and tone. I’m definitely updating things a little bit, adding some qualities, updating our usage and style rules. Just the sort of things that I think a UX writer would do when they join, if they have that option. It’s always a process of iterating and refining and seeing what’s been done and what can be built on.

Patrick:

Interesting. What are the things you’ve tried? One of the things I like doing in experimenting and doing UX writing, is to find things that don’t work. And this is one of the benefits you have of working in-house, is that you can experiment more and you can mess around more and you have the time and the freedom to find out, okay let’s do some stuff that doesn’t work so we can find out what does, particularly in things like AB testing. Have you had the opportunity to mess around and try some experiments and to find out what hasn’t worked and actually break some stuff. Because, I actually think that’s one of the most fun parts of the job.

Annie Adams:

Yeah. I think one of the really exciting areas of growth for UX writing for the next little bit here, hopefully for a long time I hope [inaudible 00:20:13] going anywhere, is going to be testing and learning how we can experiment and break things in order to do better the next time around. AB testing is maybe the most obvious way to do that. Testing one version of copy versus another.

One thing that I have found to be important is, don’t rely on the design to convey the meaning too much when you’re testing copy. I like to test just copy, put it in a doc, put it in the right order. You can do a little bit of typographic treatment to make sure that headlines look like headlines and buttons look like buttons. But, barring the kind of visual experience that UI will give you, how does someone understand the copy on a page?

I think this is a way to really get them focus on the words. Just as when you’re testing a design, maybe you don’t want to draw as much attention to the words. I’m never advocating for using Lorem ipsum, but maybe when you are testing a design, you make the words sort of a medium grey so they don’t stand out quite as much.

But, I think there’s a lot of room when testing to end up with confounding variables and having a user complaint about the copy when it’s actually a design issue or a design issue, when it’s really the copy. And I think that experimenting with ways to separate those out is really key.

Patrick:

Yeah. And have you found that to be successful? Just using the copy alone by itself?

Annie Adams:

Yeah, I think you do get maybe a different quality of feedback, when they’re not as caught up on, well, why is this over here rather than over here or, well, I’m not sure what this particular icon is doing. I don’t understand what’s happening here.

If you’re just testing to see can they fill out this form using these labels. If you’re testing the labels, you don’t necessarily need to have lots of [inaudible 00:22:08], or even for placement-only boxes on a page. It’s really more clear to the user to just see this is the flow of the form. Does this information make sense to understand why we’re asking for this information?

Patrick:

In terms of the day to day work, when you’re working with your team, I don’t know how the work is assigned within there. Let’s say you get a brief from one part of the department or maybe it’s something that you lead. What’s the process you’ll go about to finding a solution?

Annie Adams:

I like to ask myself lots of questions first, to make sure that I really understand what’s being asked for. There’s maybe nothing worse as a writer than putting a lot of work into something, presenting it to the stakeholder who asked you for it and having them say, well this isn’t really what we’re looking for and then be right that that’s not what they were looking for. I think really trying to understand what they want, by asking followup questions, by looking through wire frames or prototypes or any kind of visual, is really important.

And even though we’re dealing in words as writers, having that visual is key to writing successful copy. I think that as a UX writer you should definitely learn the basics of sketch, so you can go in and you can move things around as needed and understand how the words you’re suggesting will fit into a design. Or, if you need to be recommending that they change the design a little bit because these words really are important.

Anyway, my steps are really, make sure I understand what the person is asking for. Think through what the user needs. How do they understand the task they’re trying to complete? How did they get to the screen? What are they trying to do on the screen? Where might they get caught up? What happens after they get through the screen? That kind of thing.

One thing I should mention too is, really trying to understand what their emotional state will be. Are they frustrated because they’re encountering an error message? Are they upset because they’re going through maybe an app that helps them manage depression or anxiety? Maybe they’re already feeling on edge about things or they’re nervous, maybe they’re really happy. Maybe you’re sending a confirmation that their order has shipped and so you really need to understand what state they’re in and if it’s negative, try to bring them out of it.

That means being reassuring, being really bubbly, whatever they need. Or, if they’re happy, positive already, what can you do to keep them there? And once you have answers to all of those questions, it’s time to get into writing. I’m a big fan of using copy decks and copy tables, every project I do, no matter who it’s for or which company it’s for, anything, I always start with a document that has the project title, version number, the date it was last updated. Any relevant information, links to screenshots or prototypes and then a nice copy table arranged with string type, recommendation and rationale.

Patrick:

Yeah, great. And that’s good. That’s good documentation for the next UX writer who comes along as well. It’s always good to have that in place.

Annie Adams:

It is. It’s a good documentation. It makes for much simpler version control. And there’s this nice benefit for me of using the table where when you have every single string separated into a little box, it really makes you think about how you can make it more economical, more concise, more clear. Because, you’re not doing everything at once all the time. You do have that moment to just focus on a sentence or on a button.

Patrick:

Excellent. That’s good. This is good tips for people who are new to the industry as well and they’re thinking, oh, I don’t really know how to go about all this. This is really good, fundamental stuff. I just want to ask you quickly about, you’re relatively new to the, not the concept of UX writing, but you’ve been doing this for a couple of years, right? Is that, is that fair to say?

Annie Adams:

I would say I’ve been a writer for six or seven years. I’ve been a UX writer for really, not even an entire year yet.

Patrick:

Yeah. Cool. No, this is good. No, this is good. And this is one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you, because this is a growing market. There are more jobs opening for UX writers and as someone who’s new to this type of position, I’m really interested to hear your perspective on when you’re going out there and looking for jobs and looking for gigs. What are the types of things that you’re seeing businesses are looking for? Because I’m sure you’ve looked at more than a few job ads for these types of positions. What’s stood out to you so far about the types of things that businesses are looking for in their UX writers?

Annie Adams:

There are things that I’m seeing businesses looking for and there are also a couple of things that I personally think businesses should be looking for. This is just based on my read of UX writers and I’ve talked to lots of UX writers. I think I’m really building an understanding of what our world is like. Anyway, things I see businesses looking for are often some kind of background in either English or HCI, Human Computer Interaction, wildly disparate fields. [inaudible 00:27:32] areas surprises me a little bit.

I think the idea with that is, businesses are looking for people who are experts in words and language, as well as having an understanding of what it means to interact with a computer. And I think a great book for anyone who maybe is more on the English side of that or in my case, the history side of that, but who would like to understand the computer more is, The Man Who Lied to His Computer.

Patrick:

Okay. What is it? What’s it about?

Annie Adams:

It is a study. It’s by a Stanford researcher. I cannot remember his name right now. I’m so sorry. But he really explores this idea that users engage more with computers or technology with an interface when it seems more human to them. It is this idea that you don’t want it to sound like a robot. That’s one thing the English, HCI combination. I’ve seen a lot of postings that are looking for people that have some copywriting experience. That’s an interesting one to me because UX writing and copywriting in my head are so different.

Patrick:

Well that’s an interesting question. Let’s define them. What is UX writing to you and what’s copywriting to you? Because I think there’s not really a definitive explanation for those two terms. I think it’s a little bit subjective at the minute. How do you separate those two in your mind?

Annie Adams:

Here’s what I tell copywriters who ask me what a UX writer does. I tell them that I do the functional and transactional words that are on a website. I write copy, but I am not trying to sell a product. I’m helping a user buy a product. If you’re a sales or marketing copywriter, you are trying to really generate the customer’s desire to own or participate.

As a UX writer, it’s always fun when you get to write a headline that’s a little more, I guess, has a little bit more personality or that flashiness that traditional sales copy has. But it seems to work. This idea that on the one side you’re trying to convince someone to buy something and on the other side you are helping them go through that transactional process.

Patrick:

We talked about what businesses are looking for in terms of UX writers. What about the UX industry specifically? I see it getting bigger right now and obviously there’s meetups in San Francisco that are happening. And I don’t know how many people show up to those, because I don’t live there, but there’s hundreds of people signed up to those. There’s Slack channels with thousands of people. There are more companies in Europe and specifically in Australia looking for UX writers.

And I think Australia is the really interesting one, not just because I live here, but because we tend to lag behind the States when it comes to things like technology and agile development and so on. We’re probably maybe four or five years behind. And I’m just seeing now ads for UX writers come up.

Patrick:

This is obviously growing and it’s becoming, it’s becoming a bigger thing. What do you see happening in the next few years in this industry? Maybe you’re not game enough to make a prediction, but I’m just interested in your thoughts about what do you think we’re going to start to see happening with not just UX writers, but businesses looking for UX writers? Is anything going to change or is there just going to be more people looking for this sort of role?

Annie Adams:

No, I hope that there are some changes. I think that one thing that would really benefit the final products that users are experiencing and therefore the businesses that produce them, and the people who would like to be UX writers, is the UX writer position hopefully will become even more of a design position. Really respected as [inaudible 00:00:31:14], has this very intentional structured approach to why things are going where they are and why they are saying the things they do. I think there is also a lot of room for improving and really just almost inventing our research methods, as UX writers.

I said earlier, I mentioned a couple of things that I think people should be looking for when they’re searching for a writer. And I think having the ability to learn how to conduct research or even the ability to conduct research, already, are really important for interviewing users, for asking good questions, for making sure that you are really understanding of product and the goals. And then rationalising why it needs to be a certain way, because just like designers, writers are not making things up.

Annie Adams:

We’re doing things in a certain way for reasons and I think that having a stronger connection between why you’ve done something and why it should be done that way is going to be important. I also think one of the things that I can see happening for UX writing, is that as we get more and more UX writers, I’m hoping UX writers will really stick together.

And so maybe instead of being part of design teams specifically, maybe UX writers will be more horizontal in an organisation. And we’ll be able to focus on certain products at certain times, but also we’ll really collaborate together to keep things on brand, to keep the language consistent and to make sure that the copy goals are being met.

Patrick:

Yeah, that’s cool. Like a governance layer across the entire company.

Annie Adams:

Yeah,

Patrick:

No worries. Well look, I think this is a really good place to end it, Annie. Thank you so much for coming on the pod and having a chat. I think this has been a really great discussion, especially for people who are looking to actually get into the industry. I have just one more question that I’m going to leave people with, and this is something that that I’m going to ask every person. Is there something you’ve read recently, could be a book, it could be something online, about UX writing that you think people should go and read? I know you recommended a book earlier, so this uses your second chance to see if there’s anything that people should go and have a read.

Annie Adams:

Rather than recommending a book or an article, I’m going to recommend that people read poetry. Poetry is the best thing that a UX writer can read because it requires packing so much, feeling so much emotion, so much action into these tiny strings of words.

Patrick:

That’s great. Do you have a favourite poet?

Annie Adams:

Oh my goodness, I don’t. I love the classics. I love Walt Whitman. I loved reading epic poems, so reading the Odyssey.

Patrick:

Beowulf and that sort of thing.

Annie Adams:

Beowulf, that sort of thing is great. I love haikus, traditional Japanese poetry. I just think though, any poems you can read and try writing poems too. It’s a different sort of short writing.

Patrick:

That’s awesome. That’s great advice. That’s excellent advice. I really like that. Great. If you want to be a UX writer go write some poetry. No worries. Well, Annie, thank you so much again and thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

Annie Adams:

Thank you, Patrick.

Patrick:

There you go, there’s my conversation with Annie Adams. If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or anywhere else, really. Tell your friends, tell your neighbours, tell me, feel free to contact me at patrick@staffordcontent.com. Give me feedback about the podcast, positive or negative, I’m happy to hear from you. That’s all for this time. See you again in a few weeks. Cheers.

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