Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Jessica Ouyang and Jolena Ma transcript

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Jessica Ouyang and Jolena Ma transcript

In this episode, Patrick speaks with Jessica and Jolena about their product Ditto, what it means for UX writers and content strategists, how they developed the product, what it’s like going through the Y Combinator process, and where they want to take it.

Patrick Stafford
October 8, 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.

In this episode, Patrick speaks with Jessica and Jolena about their product Ditto, what it means for UX writers and content strategists, how they developed the product, what it’s like going through the Y Combinator process, and where they want to take it.

If you’ve been on the search for a way to manage your copy within a full system, this interview is for you.

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

———————————————-

Patrick:

Welcome to Writers of Silicon Valley, the podcast where I interview the best UX writers and content strategists from around the world.

I have been aware of you both for a while now, and one of the things that really struck me when looking at your initial offering was my interpretation of it was, “Oh, great, someone’s built this plugin. They’ve obviously built it as a tool. This is great, super useful,” but then recently, I’ve just looked at your website and your branding. You’ve introduced a pricing strategy, and so it really struck me that like, “Oh wow, this isn’t just a plugin that someone gave to the community to be helpful. This is an actual product, and it’s being marketed as a product.”

I’m wondering if you thought of it initially is just something that you could just give to the community for free, and it would be a help, and then later on, you transitioned into that product-based strategy, or did you, from the beginning, see this as an opportunity that you thought, “No, this is a real product that we can create and sell and market and treat as a real product?”

Jessica:

I think it’s really interesting just to think back to where we were even just a year ago, because the product writing and copy in context of product, and design was something that really interested us from our own experiences, whether working as designers or PMs. About a year ago, we actually were starting off just by doing a tonne of user research. We did put up a landing page, which might have been what you saw back then, but we were just really interested in getting feedback from design leaders and people in the UX writing space.

I feel like back then, we were just seeing whether or not there was enough room for us to grow as a product in this space. We got such strong interests just from putting up a landing page, just diving into some of these collaboration pain points that writers currently have that we decided to go all in and really build it out as a product. I think something else that we think a lot about is just the fact that writers have no tooling, even though it’s such an important part of that product development process.

I do think in the beginning, we were just curious whether or not there was enough space, but we do think that there’s quite a large room for us to grow as a product, not only in integrating with design, but there’s just a lot of other extensions like, internationalisation and all those other things in terms of writing.

Patrick:

That’s awesome. Correct me if I’m wrong, but both of you come from more of a product management background rather than a UX writing or a content strategy background, is that right?

Jolena:

Yes. We both studied product design back in college, but then definitely, our experiences range across a lot of disciplines. We both worked as software engineers at some tech companies, but we also did product management, and then we also did design. I think that’s also a really important part of where we came from. When we’re building Ditto, we just saw how important copy was in every single role that we had on these product teams. We just saw how important copy was from every angle, and then also how each of these different verticals were tackling copy in their own way.

As PMs, we wrote copy and JIRA tickets, but as designers, we wrote them in mockups. We just saw that there was definitely a space for a copy tool that united all those to exist.

Patrick:

That’s really what I wanted to touch on, because you come from this product management background, I’m interested to know when that moment was. Maybe as you say, it’s a gradual thing where you start thinking, “Okay, I’ve got all this copy to deal with in this product, but it’s all in different places. Each team is dealing with their own thing.” I feel like that’s something that a lot of writers and sometimes designers really notice.

Often, the PM doesn’t really notice that sort of problem, either because they’re leaving it up to the designers and the copywriters to deal with it, or perhaps maybe less often, they just don’t care. It’s interesting to me that you both noticed that issue. Can you point back to a situation where you thought, “Okay, this is a real problem, and we need to fix it?”

Jessica:

One moment that really came through was probably a moment when I was a designer, so not in a PM role. I was just on boarded onto a team, and I had to immediately design this financing flow. It was at a startup that sold cars called Shift. It was just crazy to me that I was entirely new to the team, but I had to write the copy for how your social security number was being handled, the security practises, how to finance your car.

It was just so immediately evident that the text was really carrying the weight of the entire design and of the business as a whole, but it was just fascinating to me that I as a designer that was so new on the team had to just go through and write it ad hoc.

Jolena:

I think I definitely had a similar experience where I had just been on boarded as a PM at a company, and we were revamping the entire onboarding flow. At that time, we only had two designers and then three PMs, and there are no writers at all. I don’t think even the product team thought a lot to what you’re saying about writing or the words. Just as I was building out this onboarding flow, and trying to work with the designers and the engineers as well, I was trying to write copying the design, but also in JIRA tickets to directly talk to developers.

It just felt like the text was so important in this onboarding flow, the very first thing users were going to see, but there just wasn’t a place for me to put all that information, and think about it and collaborate on it.

Patrick:

Let’s backtrack a little bit. How did you actually get to meet and get to know each other?

Jolena:

We were actually roommates in college. We met freshman year at Stanford. We lived down the hall from each other, and we lived together every single year after that and every summer in between. It was a lot of fun for us just because we like to just talk about everything that we’re experiencing. We’re best friends, and so this is something that we just both felt really passionately about, but we have a tonne of fun working just as friends as well.

Patrick:

That’s cool, although I have to say I’m thinking about creating a product with my best friend, and I don’t know if I would want to do it. I think it’s a testament to you both as people that you’re able to do it without driving each other crazy.

Jolena:

Maze, which is an additional layer of fun.

Patrick:

That’s true. That’s definitely true. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, this is a problem. We’re going to solve it.” It’s another thing to say, “We should start a business out of this.” At what point did you start realising, “Okay, we can create something, but not only can we do that, we can sell this, and there are more companies that are having this problem?” The reason I asked this question is because I think it’s true that when people start making software for you or for your industry, it’s a pretty interesting stamp of… Maybe not stamp of approval, but it’s interesting recognition that this is a discipline that needs to be taken seriously.

At what point did you start realising that there was a market for this beyond just the internal processes of your own companies?

Jessica:

That’s a really great question, but also definitely something that we’re betting on ourselves. It’s definitely an early spot in the field, but this is something that we personally feel really strongly about, so it’s really interesting to see it as it grows, and just taking a stance that we think that kind of copy is going to grow into becoming a really large role on product teams and having that perspective. But I think it was really interesting for us as we were doing the user research, and just not even having an actual product.

We got to speak to some really amazing writers like John Saito, and Sophie Tahran, who I know you’ve had on the podcast previously, but also heads of designs at places, just as we’re just curious about the space and how people were tackling it. We were really stunned by just the outpouring of interest in someone building something that spans all these different verticals, and allows them to work on copy better. Even though we didn’t have a product, people were signing up from all these different companies just reaching out to us pretty consistently, just asking for more information or just wanting to find out about whether or not it could be built.

The from that, we thought it was a really interesting spot to be in, and so we decided to go through YC this past winter.

Jolena:

We were talking a lot about it. Like Jessica said, we put up that landing page, and we just got a lot of really exciting interest from really large companies that we were surprised about, and we decided to just go all in and apply for YCombinator. We really weren’t expecting to get in. Then once we did, we started that winter batch in January, and just went full in. We went in pre-product, so we hadn’t built anything yet. Then during that time, we synthesised all that user research that we’ve done, all the product design that we’ve done, and encoded it up and got it out there, and just got some really great feedback.

Patrick:

It’s not surprising to me that you’ve received so much feedback about why a product like this is needed. I mean, the people who I’ve had on the podcast, even after the episode has stopped recording, sometimes they’ll ask, “Hey, we’re looking for a system that we can use to manage our copy from beginning to end. Do you know of anything?” For so long. I’ve said, “You know what, no, there’s really nothing like that.”

The fact that you went through YC with a product like this is really a testament to the demand that’s out there. What did you learn during that YC process, not only about the product that you’re building, but just about the product development process in general?

Jessica:

I think we learned a ton, especially given that we were PMs and designers before, I think, it really put to the test our own software development skills. Just because it is in certain senses, identifying that need is almost just the very first step like finding the right solution, and a really good solution takes a tonne of work, which we’ve discovered. It doesn’t come all at once just definitely in stages and constantly getting feedback and interest from people that really thoughtfully tell us how they think the tool could improve.

Jessica:

Just because it is such a new space, it is tough to just take a stab at it and have the perfect solution. I think it’s definitely built on the input from a tonne of different people, which has been super helpful for us as we decide new features and understand the direction we want to go in.

Jolena:

I definitely think in addition to really prioritising customer feedback, we both come from product design backgrounds. That’s something we’ve always really strongly believed in. The other thing for us, I think, during YC was just trying to reconcile our big long-term goals and visions of being this end-to-end platform that integrates everywhere with understanding what features to prioritise and what to build next. We started off thinking or trying to just think through which integration we’d build first, because we’re always thinking.

We integrate with lots of design tools. We integrate with development, but just even choosing that first integration with Figma was a big discussion for us, and so just understanding how to prioritise each next step and each milestones that it can ladder all the way up to that huge vision we have was definitely a learning process and definitely something we’re still working on now. You should see our spring plans. They’re very long.

Patrick:

They might scare me, so I think I won’t take a look at that. What sort of things were you hearing during that research process? I mean, you mentioned some pretty interesting names there. What were they saying to you?

Jessica:

I think it was really interesting to see the existing processes that people are using to grapple with copy just because it’s such a unique problem and existing in mockups, but in development, but in drafting. I feel like we got a really good sense of how teams were currently tackling it. We’ve heard definitely the copy doc structure as well as a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of Google Docs, so just getting a really good sense of how people were currently tackling the problem, but also just really thinking through what this might be better as as something that could integrate directly into things.

Jolena:

I definitely think that we heard from a lot of teams that they wanted writing and copy to be integrated earlier into the process. But just because they didn’t really have the tooling, and they didn’t have the right people to focus on it, it ended up often just being filled in at the end, something that was written ad hoc. They just really didn’t have a single source of truth for all the copy for a project.

We heard that from small teams and really large teams.

Patrick:

What was the most surprising thing you heard? Was there anything really shocking that surprised you, or was it all pretty much along that same level? It’s just like, “Yeah, we got this problem, and we don’t know how to solve it.”

Jessica:

I think something that really interests us in this specific problem of like creating tooling for copy is just how varied of a user group it lends to just because like teams, both small and large, they have to ultimately write copy, but the roles and responsibilities are really different. When you think of a team where people are wearing lots of different hats, the copy gets passed back and forth by different rules compared to some of the larger companies that we work with, where you have very specialised roles, where people, for example, UX writers really get to focus on the copy and develop a really robust content system.

I think it’s really interesting for us as we really think that copy is such a collaborative process, just given that there are so many stakeholders, whether it’s legal or marketing, or design or product, and just being able to build something that really fits into the workflows of all these different types of people to write copy is something that’s been a learning process for sure.

Patrick:

What is the long-term vision? You’ve mentioned end-to-end platform, but in, say, 10 years or even 15 years, I don’t know if you’ve thought that far ahead, what do you want Ditto to be? What does it represent to the design community in your eyes?

Jessica:

Something we think a lot about is that text might almost be its own vertical in terms of the product stack. Even though it technically exists in mockups or in development in the actual product itself, just an understanding of the text from beginning to end is almost its own thing as we see UX writers creating tech systems and content systems around it. Something that really resonated with a lot of people is just comparing to a company like Adobe, which has built its entire suite of tools around visual design.

But we think that there’s just as much space for text and the words that go into products, so just thinking a lot about being that text layer from end to end and everything that entails. Whether it is more intelligent writing or internationalisation or anything like that, we think there’s a lot of extensions for text and for teams to work on it.

Patrick:

That’s an intriguing long-term vision. One of the reasons why I’m excited about it is I hear from a lot of UX writers and content strategists who feel that the PMs and their teams just don’t… They don’t get what they do. They don’t understand what they do, and they’re excluded from the development and design process, and they feel very lonely. I’m sure there will be a lot of people listening to this thinking, “Finally, there are people at the PM level and at the design level, who not only understand what it is that I do, but feel that it’s so important that they’re actually making the software tool to handle it.”

I think what you’re talking about here is just yet another sign of validation of copy within the design process. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who still think that UX writing and content strategy is maybe it’s part of the design process, but it’s not really the core of the process. Do you see that shift changing, that situation changing? If so, what do you think is changing it, and what are the challenges in the way of that cultural shift?

Jessica:

I think it’s really interesting, because we see a lot of what’s happening paralleling maybe design five or 10 years ago. Of course, there is a lot of scepticism, especially around maybe teams that are really business oriented. It’s easy to think that something like writing the way people thought of design might be more extraneous to the process, but I think that you definitely see teams turning around on that.

You see teams at really large companies commit time and energy into finding UX writers, which is probably clear from their own products just the enormous ROI from optimising your texts. I think that this is a trend that we’ll continue to see over the next few years.

Patrick:

It’s interesting that… Well, it’s encouraging rather that you have been through this process, and you’ve been through that YCombinator process, and you’ve come at the other side, and you still think that, “Yes, there’s a viable market for this.” Have you received any funding so far, or are you just bootstrapping it on your own?

Jolena:

At the end of YC, we did raise the seed round. I think that was a really interesting experience for us as well, because it was shocking to us how many times we’d get on a call with an investor, and we’d be expecting to just pitch hard like, “Oh, writing is important,” but how many of them actually already recognise that from their own experiences, either it’s like X operator, just helping other smaller companies? Understanding that copy was important, understanding that there was no tool for that.

Patrick:

That’s really interesting, because I think there’s this perception among UX writers that it’s a little bit of emo teenager syndrome like, “No one understands me.” That’s really encouraging to hear that there are design leaders out there who recognise the problem, and that asking for a solution.

Jessica:

Definitely, I think definitely was a hit or miss, but I think this is changing and definitely trending in the direction of more people really finally getting the value of words.

Patrick:

What’s challenging you right now in building this product? What hurdles are you having to face?

Jolena:

I think similar to what we were facing while we’re in YC, I think it’s just maybe generally all the time while you’re building a startup is just understanding which features to prioritise. I think, we know at our core, the insight is that copy exists at the very beginning of the process. It’s touched by designers and writers, and exists at the end. It’s touched by developers. In the middle, it’s touched by marketing, legal and customer success. I think it’s just understanding how to prioritise building features that range across this very diverse group of roles as well as very different workflows.

Jolena:

We’ve talked to probably over 200 teams at this point, and everyone just has a slightly different workflow for managing their copy. I think we’re really just trying to understand the best way to build a tool that’ll satisfy all these different workflows.

Patrick:

It must be both frustrating. Well, I suppose it’s validating in the sense that you’re hearing from people, “Yes, this is a problem,” but at the end of the day, you can’t create a product that has 200 different variations. You’re going to have to come up with, for lack of a better term, a catch-all solution. But also, I’m interested to hear you talk a little bit about what you see as the gaps in the industry. I know that… Let me rephrase that. I’d love to hear you talk about what UX writers could be doing better.

Patrick:

I know that there are all sorts of problems with getting people to recognise that, “Yes, copy matters. Text matters, and so on,” but sometimes, I feel that writers and content strategists can get in their own way. I’m interested to hear from your perspective, perspectives, rather, as people who have worked in both design and in this product management role, what do you think UX writers and content strategists should be doing to improve their standing and improve the perception of what they do?

Jessica:

That’s a really great question. We talk to so many writers on a daily basis. It’s really a hard task just being able to evangelise the field of UX writing while doing the job itself, but I think one thing that comes up is just thinking about writing in a really product sense. A lot of times on product teams, everyone is very aligned towards a goal. I feel like it is a burden of a writer to really focus what they’re writing towards a specific product goal, and just making that clear towards designers and PMs and engineers that this is moving the product forward, rather than something that might be left out.

Jessica:

It’s a really tough battle to have with teams that haven’t seen that ROI come through from their own experiences, so it’s definitely on teams to give writers the space to be able to prove that.

Jolena:

I think something we’ve seen that’s worked really successfully for a team at Microsoft that’s led by Kylie Hansen, she’s been an incredible supporter and advocate of Ditto for a long time. She’s been such a huge advocate of using metrics to just show and prove how important copy is. I think that’s worked really well for her team, and it’s something that could work well for other writers, if they’re able to get their hands on data or do more AB testing, or just really have concrete evidence to show PMs or whoever is in this decision making role that copy really has a tangible impact on the user experience.

Jolena:

We all know it does, but just really being able to prove it to everyone in a business sense is just so valuable.

Patrick:

One thing I’m a big advocate for is for writers to become embedded and become best friends with the UX researcher in their teams, because if they can just make sure that even if it’s not necessarily specific overall finding, but if they have examples and research that they can point back to, the argument they’re making for a piece of copy then becomes, well, a matter of interpretation of the data, not lack of data itself. That’s my own personal mission. I’ve been meaning to get Kylie on the podcast, so that’s a great reminder. Thank you for that.

I think you have a unique position, because you’ve spoken to so many different teams. You just mentioned over 200 teams at this point. Even on this podcast, I’ve only had 13 or 14 people on. We speak on Twitter and sometimes in their groups and so on, but it’s not like actually sitting down with teams and hearing from them, “What are their most common challenges? What are they trying to get through?” I’m wondering, I already asked you before what did you learn during that research process.:

You’ve mentioned that everyone has a slightly different way of doing things, but is there anything that you really take away from those 200 interviews as, I don’t know, just something top of mind that’s changed the way you think about UX writing, or is there something that you heard that maybe you think just comes up in your day to day work that you keep coming back to? I’m sure that if you did that much research, there’s surely something in there that you look back to and think, “Okay, that’s really the core of what we’re trying to get to.”

Jessica:

I think one thing that comes to mind is thinking about text as a system. This is something that we’ve heard a lot from teams that have really focused on their text for some time, and just gaining that understanding that text is a part of the user experience from the moment a user signs on to a product all the way into every single touch point they have, and just really thinking about consistency. One large product push we made a few weeks ago was being able to build a component library within our own tool, and just being able to have that kind of consistency across all of your mockups in terms of error messages, taglines, headlines that you might use in different places.

And I thought that was really interesting, just because a lot of designers talk about design systems. Developers have all sorts of components and tools for how they think of and how they build the actual product itself, but just as we hear from more and more teams, try to get a really good overhead view of their copy, I think is definitely, in terms of building a content system, is where a lot of things are headed.

Patrick:

No, I’ve heard that same feedback as well that we’re moving beyond… So much of the talking content strategy and UX writing has been around all style guides, style guides and style guides. I think the conversation is evolving now to beyond style guide to how can you include content design as part of your existing design system? That certainly gels with what I’ve been hearing as well. What can people expect over the next 12 months from today? What do you have on the roadmap?

Patrick:

You don’t necessarily need to reveal everything of your scary sprint plans, but what can people expect to see?

Jolena:

We have a lot of exciting things. I think, a big push and something we’ve heard a lot of excitement from teams around is building out an integration that helps with that writer or designers to developer handoff. We’ll be pushing out integration soon and potentially an API that allows developers to directly integrate that code. If you’re a writer, for example, you don’t have to bother an engineer to change a comma or something in the code. Engineers don’t have to copy and paste or directly type in text anymore.

They can just pull that in automatically. A few other, we definitely are trying to optimise and make that copy management and copy collaboration process a lot better. I think around that, we have a lot of communication features coming out, that all these different roles that are touching copy, like we mentioned, design, engineers, legal, can all communicate better and go through that review and approval copy process a lot more easily.

Jessica:

The last piece of this is being more tool agnostic. We really made an opinionated decision in the beginning to integrate with Figma due to the great feedback from a couple of people like James Buckhouse. But ultimately, we do plan on being tool agnostic. We’ve gotten a ton of people that ping us for an XD integration for Adobe XD as well as for sketch. We do want to make Ditto accessible for teams, regardless of the design tooling that they’re using.

Patrick:

One thing I ask everyone to end the podcast on is what’s something that you’ve been reading lately that you think could help the audience? Most people recommend something UX writing or content strategy related, but I’m wondering if there’s anything that you’ve read recently, much in the same vein of what I asked you earlier about what can UX writers learn from PMs to really enhance their profession? Is there anything that you’ve been reading lately that you would recommend people read that doesn’t necessarily speak to content strategy or UX writing specifically, but just something that could help their careers or help that process?

Jessica:

Right now, we’re starting up a blog for Ditto just as we think through some of the decisions that we’re making, some of, of course, just being at a really unique and interesting perspective, and just being able to talk to so many different teams. Also, in creating these blog posts, we’ve read just so many other posts from other people in the design community and how they think about text. A couple that may have already probably been passed around and already been seen by your audience, who I’m sure is more knowledgeable in UX writing and design than we are, but it’s really interesting to see the writing of a couple of people mentioned on like John Maeda’s 2017 Design and Tech Report, some other people.

Jessica:

I think we read a great article from Ryan Cordell on communication theory and microcopy as well as… Of course, John Saito’s posts are really great.

Patrick:

Is there anything apart from the product that you’d like to plug or point people to?

Jessica:

Oh my gosh, thanks so much for having us on. We were super excited to just talk to you about Ditto. We’re always super excited to show people Ditto and just get their thoughts. I think maybe one thing might just be our Twitter account. We usually post product updates and anything else related to it there. It’s at dittowords.

Jolena:

I think also, just all the people who have helped us along the way, like we said, we spoken to a lot of teams, but I think in the beginning when we were first starting out, and we knew nothing about this world of UX writing or content, a lot of people like John Saito, Sophie Tahran, Kylie Hansen, they’re just really great with getting us up to speed and filling us in on how we should be thinking about building out a tool, so they always have great content on their Twitter’s as well. Definitely check that out that.

Patrick:

Awesome. That’s great. Thank you both so much for coming on. I think there are a lot of people who are listening who are going to be very excited about this, and can’t wait to see where you go. Also, it’s a validation of the work they’re doing. Thank you both so much, and excited to see what you do in the year ahead.

Jolena:

Thank you so much as well.

Jessica:

Thank you.

Patrick:

That’s the interview for this month. Thanks, everyone, for tuning in. Again, if you’re interested in writing for the UX Writers Collective, pitch us an idea or blog at uxwriterscollective.com. Also, check out all of our courses at uxwriterscollective.com too. Until next month, take care.


We hope you enjoyed this transcript!

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