Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Ryan Farrell transcript

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast: Ryan Farrell transcript

Ryan Farrell, creator of the Daily UX Writing Challenge, chats with Patrick on the skills they think are underrated in the UX writing community and more.

Patrick Stafford
July 16, 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 Ryan Farrell. Ryan is a content strategist at GoodRx, but you might very well know him as the creator of the Daily UX Writing Challenge

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 Stafford:

Do you know that feeling you get when you make a mistake as soon as you’ve made it? Your stomach begins to churn. You feel like you’re going to vomit. And the ramifications of what you’ve done comes sweeping over you like a wind that tosses you about at sea. I’ve never worked on a ship, so I’m not sure what that actually feels like, but I can imagine it feels close to the way I felt when I realised that I accidentally deleted two episodes of this podcast.

It was not a good day, to say the least, when I discovered that had happened. So if you’ve been wondering, “Why isn’t there a new episode of Writers of Silicon Valley?” That’s why. It’s because I stupidly deleted two episodes in an incident that I don’t even want to talk about, so I’m going to move on. I’m going to move on because I have a cracker of an episode today.

Patrick Stafford:

If you’re in the UX writing community or even in the UX community at large, you’ve probably heard about the daily UX writing challenge. And if you haven’t, well, then this is the perfect introduction. Today, I’m speaking with Ryan Farrell. He’s a Content Strategist at GoodRx and he created the daily UX writing challenge.

Now one of the episodes that I accidentally deleted was another interview with Ryan, but it was actually a blessing in disguise. In fact, I think this episode is the first time I really let my personality come through a little bit more in terms of some of my pet peeves. And we actually get into some really interesting conversation about not only what makes good UX writing, but bad UX writing and some of the habits we’re seeing in the community right now. So, hopefully you enjoy it. I had a really, really great time and I hope you do too.

Now I want, before we get into the interview, I just want to have a couple of announcements. The first is that if you happen to live in Melbourne, Australia, my home town, I’m going to be speaking at the Content Melbourne Meetup on Tuesday, July 30th. The meet up is held at General Assembly and I’m going to be speaking about how journalism skills help you in your UX writing career.

So if you’re in Melbourne or if you’re in Australia and you just happen to be in Melbourne on that date, I would love to see you there. You can register at the General Assembly site. It’s free, but you just have to register. Now secondly, you’ve probably heard me talk a little bit about the UX Writer’s Collective. This is the online training company that I helped create with some UX writers from Google and Amazon.

Patrick Stafford:

Now our UX writing fundamentals course has been out for six months and we have over 150 students, which is amazing. We didn’t expect it to get this big so quickly. But what’s even more amazing is that we are actually now seeing people getting hired after finishing the course. So if you’ll permit me, just before we start, I just want to share a little something with you. I want to share two very quick testimonials from two people who I think you’ll want to hear from. The first is Melissa Gould. Melissa Gould is a Lead Content Strategist at Walmart Labs and she recently hired one our graduates. Here’s what she had to say about the material that she saw in the UX writing fundamentals course.

Melissa Gould:

The candidate that I wound up hiring, she presented some of her coursework and it was just very clear to me, the way that the course was laid out, you could see what the assignment was and then the candidate’s revisions to the wireframes. I’m like, someone is actually making students work in wireframes and this is wild because it’s really important to … It’s very different translating a word document into wireframes and it can be intimidating if you don’t do it often. And so to give students that opportunity, I think, helps prepare them for what we’re going to ask them to do day in and day out.

Patrick Stafford:

And finally, here’s Melissa Williams. Melissa Williams is a student of the course. This is what she had to say about her experience in learning through UX writing fundamentals.

Melissa Williams:

Oh, it was great. I felt like it was really well-laid out. I loved that there was feedback. I think a lot of times with online courses, you’re just left to do it on your own, you never really know if you did a good job or not. And so it was really cool that there was feedback provided and I felt like it really set me up for success. Since I’ve done the course, I’ve actually had people just get in touch with me through my website and say they were looking for a certified UX writer for projects. And so it’s just nice to be able to know that I have the training behind me now, instead of just having to figure it out as I go, I’ve got a system in place to actually create a project. Or in the case of getting a job, I feel like I’m well-prepared for the job market.

Patrick Stafford:

I wanted to put that upfront because I wanted you to hear from people who are actually experiencing the course first-hand, what they’re getting out of it. If you think you’d benefit from the course, we’d love to have you as a student. It’s online, self-paced, and the idea is that it gives you a full fundamental understanding of UX writing. Listeners to this podcast get 20% off, just use the code podcast20 at UXWritersCollective.com. That’s podcast20 at UXWritersCollective.com. But enough of that, now it’s time for my interview with Ryan Farrell. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Patrick Stafford:

Started as a UX writing thing, for you, it was more you wanted to learn … It was a coding challenge, right? You wanted to learn how to build a site and a newsletter and all that sort of stuff. Is that right?

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah. I mean, it started as a challenge for myself. I mean, I’ve had these little warm-up drills that I’ve had for myself, that I’ve also plucked from content challenges that I’ve taken through the years. Being a working professional, we’ve all interviewed everywhere under the sun and I just collected them. And I had these 15 minute drills that I would take for myself when I wanted to get fresh on writing and try something fun and new.

And I’ve been learning how to code for the past two-odd years and so I was like well, I’m going to challenge myself to build a website from scratch and also, quote, unquote, a product. Do a whole product launch and have a roadmap and have a Kanban board of what I got to get done myself and do it all myself, and that was my challenge was the daily UX writing newsletter.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, I think the difficult thing in any challenge like this, whether it’s just coding or UX writing or whatever, is just getting started. And I think the way I’ve heard people talk about coding before, and I find coding pretty difficult, they’ve just said you need to find a problem and then solve it. And that’s basically the best way to learn how to code or how to write or whatever. So it’s interesting that not only have you done that for yourself, but you’ve also now provided that for other people. So you’ve allowed people to get into UX writing by saying here are 14 problems and here’s how you solve them. And it just takes away the friction for people for just getting into it because you’re giving them the problem straight away.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah, and it’s a nice little chunked exercise too because it’s one a day, it’s a very light commitment, you sign up, it’s just your email and it’s really on you whether you want to go through them or not. And the interesting thing that I’ve found is as soon as people sign up, I mean, they take it very seriously. It’s like anything else. I mean, if you buy a Peloton, it’s really on you whether you’re going to get your money’s worth out of it. And people have taken it really seriously.

They sign up, they’ll email me, they’ll ask questions and the discourse back and forth has been really, really cool and really positive for me. Putting this thing together, I thought, cool, all right, I coded this thing by hand, it works, I prototyped it, I tested it. I took a comp from a Sketch file all the way into a Zeppelin file and I hand-coded it into an actual experience that incorporates the backend of Mailchimp, so I didn’t completely code the product, but baby steps.

Ryan Farrell:

But I did that and that was done. And I expected maybe 20, 30 people to go through the course of … Maybe my friends would do it or some of my UX associates. And here we are six months later and it’s 2500 people and I’ve made tonnes of friends and I’ve made a lot of business connections as well and a nice little fun hybrid, like yourself. I would consider you a friend. And it’s just been surreal, man. I put something out into the world, just based on wanting to challenge myself at a new skill that I wasn’t good at and I’m still learning, I’m getting better at. And now it has its own life, it has its own meaning, I guess.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah. It’s awesome. And we are definitely friends, for the record.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

So. Aw, lovefest. What’s been the most surprising thing to come out of this? Obviously, you didn’t expect the popularity, you didn’t expect for the community to take off. I’m wondering what’s something unexpected that’s happened as a result of this that has made you really sit back and think wow, this has gone in a direction that I never thought possible?

Ryan Farrell:

Honestly, how many people are fascinated by UX writing. I never thought I’d see that. I mean, I’ve known of it as a discipline, I’ve done it. I mean, I’ve been a professional UX writer in my career. But I always looked at it as this weird little outlier position that was this offshoot of content strategy and copywriting with this nice peppering of UX on top. And I didn’t really realise that there’s this whole niched community of people that are so passionate about it and they think that they’re not good at it, but they are, but they’re just learning.

So it’s this groundswell of the future of a discipline that is literally, I mean, growing up before my very eyes. I mean, some of the people that put together their portfolios, the challenges that I send to them and that they produce, it’s great work. Goes into their portfolio and it’s like their third piece that they have and they’re going to get a job and they’re going to go on, they’re going to write the websites of the future maybe, or they’re going to go on and develop a product of the future and they started with my newsletter. That’s insane.

Ryan Farrell:

Again, it goes back to my shock that people signed up, that people were into it. But it’s this odd idea that his time has come, it’s writers who are ready to take a leadership position in product development, which, I mean, all of these things that we put together that become websites, that become applications, that become products, they are stories. They’re only interesting if they are stories and who better than to put that together than a writer, than a storyteller?

Patrick Stafford:

I think the most surprising to me is obviously not all of the 2200 people or 2500 people going through the course, or on the list, are working UX writers. And I would probably say that for a lot of them, they don’t even necessarily want to be UX writers, they might be designers or other people who are just interested in the discipline. Which, to me, is much more interesting than if 2500 people wanted to be writers. Because to me, it means that the discipline that has not only a broad appeal, but also legitimacy, that people are beginning to understand that this is something that people do. This is something talented people do and it’s something that needs to be respected in the UX process, which is, to me, that’s a far more fascinating outcome, to see how broad the appeal is because I’m sure … I don’t know if you’ve done a survey of your users, but just anecdotally and through looking at the community, I would assume that you’ve got all sorts of types of people in there, BAs and product managers and all sorts of roles and responsibilities.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s an excellent point. I don’t think there’s really any experts in UX writing yet. I mean, I do know that there’s a lot of thought leaders and there’s a lot of people that are well-known in the content strategy discipline. But like you said, the legitimacy of the field is coming out, but it’s so, again, it’s so niched, that nobody really has a full handle on it to where someone can say okay, this is the way you do it. A good example being there’s a lot of books and they’re all fantastic and there’s a lot of stuff that you could absorb to become a good UX writer if you had the talent, but it hasn’t been until, maybe, six months to a year where that you actually see this emergence of this field and this legitimacy, like you said, where it’s like okay, here are the resources and here are the tools you need to do this.

Ryan Farrell:

Coding has had the W3 for decades, there’s been standards for English and language for longer than that, but the two are now being married in a way that has never happened before and that we have a seat at the table now because people like yourself and people like … I guess, myself, are putting together these tools for people to come together and become experts and authorities and show what they got and show their stuff. And it’s amazing, it’s fascinating. It’s kind of overwhelming. Blows my mind.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, I think we’re stumbling through the dark a little bit and just finding what works. I was listening to an amazing podcast from the BBC, called 13 Minutes to the Moon, the other day. And it’s all about the moon landing, which, when people hear this, it will be probably a few days after that. But the moon landing anniversary is tomorrow, so the 20th of July.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

And this podcast is brilliant, it talks about … Interviews all sorts of people who were involved in the moon landing. Not just the astronauts, but people who were building the consoles for the actual spaceship and installing the actual plating.

Ryan Farrell:

Right.

Patrick Stafford:

For the Lunar Module and so on. And they have this episode where they talk about the computer in the Lunar Module, this fascinating computer. And they were speaking to one of the men who programmed it, or who was at least building it, and he came up with this idea that if they were installing programmes or putting input into the computer, that the input process would literally use the words noun and verb. So they would do verb and then they would pick the programme that they would want to do, like programme 31. And then they would pick noun and it would be 15 seconds. So, literally, the words verb and noun appear on buttons on the Apollo spacecraft computer. And it just got me thinking about how that has been the process for so much in terms of computing and technical documentation since that point, that’s 50 years ago now.

Patrick Stafford:

And it got me thinking about how that’s a very rudimentary beginning, but when it comes to actually teasing out how language interacts with computing, it has a very basic beginning. And we’re still only beginning to understand how things can get better. I think for such a long time, it’s been dominated by technicality and especially design. Whereas now, because UX writing is coming into its own, we’re beginning to understand well, what are the different ways that language and linguistics and sentence structure and so on can be fused in simple ways? And obviously, technical writing has a long history and I don’t mean to demean anything in that field because it’s obviously a brilliant field of its own. But it just got me thinking about how the words we use have such a massive impact on what we do and there’s still so much to learn that we have yet to discover.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that actually makes me think of some … So I haven’t listened to the podcast, but I imagine that that interface probably took a little while to learn how to use those buttons and the users of those buttons were literally astronauts, which, by definition, means they were very intelligent. So I would challenge that as UX writers, we’re given the unenviable task of not having astronauts as our users and we still have to make the interface intuitive, so our job’s even harder.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah. Okay, cool. We’re opening it up now because this gets into one of my pet peeves, right? So the Apollo spacecraft computer, let’s just take that example, right? So the people who were using it, you’re right, are astronauts, which means that they have certain preconceptions about what they’re using, they have biases, like anyone else. They have a context and they have all sorts of baggage that they’re bringing to this experience. One thing that really bugs me when talking about copy or microcopy or whatever you want to call it, is when people … When we show examples of microcopy that become isolated from the problem that you’re trying to solve. So people look at a thing like Mailchimp, right? So Mailchimp, it will have a piece of microcopy and people look at and go, “Oh, that’s great because it has personality”, but it’s not great because it has personality. That’s the end 10% of the process.

Patrick Stafford:

And something I think you do great in your newsletter is that you describe the problem. You say a person has their driving app and there’s a fire nearby and there’s going to be an issue because the roads are closed. How do you present X information in Y interface, while still doing problem A, problem B, problem C? That is the context. And I fear that when we talk about UX writing, we can reduce the conversation to the output.

Whereas a good UX writer will be through the process, so they’ll be sketching, they’ll be usability testing, they’ll be looking at the data, they’ll be working with the developer, the UX researcher, the designer, even the business analyst and the product manager, to understand the full context of everything, so that when you get to the end and you’re actually writing copy, it shouldn’t take that long. Or maybe it’ll take long, but it won’t take as long as the rest of the process.

Patrick Stafford:

It’s like when screenwriters talk about writing scripts, they don’t spend the whole time writing, they spend a lot of time structuring everything, so that when they do go to write, all the hard work has been done before. Anyway, I’ll stop talking now because that’s …

Ryan Farrell:

Definitely struck a nerve right there because a lot of what goes on in UX writing community as far as communication goes is … I mean, Dribbble has the same problem. It’s like okay, well, that’s a really pretty interface and you’ve done a very good job animating it and it’s great, but as a product designer, there’s more to it than just a yeti covering his eyes when you’re entering your password.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah. Yeah.

Ryan Farrell:

I mean, to borrow from a really popular interface design on Dribbble. There is this lowest common denominator and if anybody gets into UX writing thinking that oh, I’m clever, I can pull this off, they have a lot to learn. Doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be great at it, but majority of it is very, very boring and prosaic labelling of things, so they work for the user. Because, I mean, the Apollo 11 … Getting back to the frigging thing that sent people to the moon. Those guys were trained to know what those buttons did even if they couldn’t read them, so it’s a completely different user experience and nothing in that … I mean, I’d probably guarantee you, unless it was written by the astronauts, I don’t think anything in that entire cockpit was funny.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah. Yeah. And that’s the thing-

Ryan Farrell:

Probably not very clever. So yeah. There is a conversation going on in UX writing that it is counterproductive in that it’s making it seem more sexy that it is, when the reality is it’s like well, it’s almost about as sexy as coding. Which, if you don’t find code sexy, sorry. That’s fine. That’s whatever. To each their own. But the reality is UX writing is not sexy, it’s very much aligned to what is the problem, who is the person, and what are you trying to achieve with this series of words? And cool, you know how to write a joke, go on Twitter, that are everywhere.

Patrick Stafford:

And that’s the thing, Neil Armstrong doesn’t need to be told, “Well done” for putting a programme into his computer. And some people will put up an example of microcopy and they’ll say, “Oh, isn’t this great?” And my response is usually, “I can’t tell you if that’s great or not.” I have no context for whether the users of that particular programme will respond to that. Now look, there’s obviously … A lot of tech products are consumer-based, and so they are going to be …

There are times when you can recognise that yes, this is good, or yes, that’s generally bad, based on general understanding. But when you get into something like … So for instance, I work at an accounting software company. The accounting software we write, we have software for people who are making 50,000 dollars a year. We also make software for people who make 50 million dollars a year and have a massive operation that they need to coordinate.

Patrick Stafford:

The way you speak to those people is very, very different because they’re in different situations and a lot of people won’t necc … In fact, we’ve gotten feedback before that is very much, “Stop being so playful, just tell me what I need to know.” And it was funny because I was showing people copy that I didn’t even consider to be playful, but they did. So you bring all these biases and assumptions to the work and if you’re not part of the process and you don’t understand the users, you cannot understand whether a piece of copy is quote, good or bad, to even use those terms.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah. Well, I mean, when people pull up a screen of microcopy and critique it in a vacuum on Facebook or something like that, it’s like reading one page of a 500 page book and saying, “Hey, isn’t this book great?” It’s like no. First of all, you missed the first 499 pages and there’s still several after whatever it is that you put up here and that we’re now all lauding for whatever reason.

I would say that microcopy and segments to the way you’re talking about them, every big product is so hydra-headed and has so many different avenues of where people and where users will take what you’re going to put together, that if you think that you want to be clever or you want to be different or humorous within your writing, you’re not going to get a lot of satisfaction being a UX writer, unfortunately. You’re going to probably be a pretty frustrated writer, to be honest. It’s such a subjective medium. Because like you said, what you think is completely above board and is not glib or humorous or offensive in any one way, can be taken completely differently by a different party. So, I mean, yeah, it’s-

Patrick Stafford:

It’s function over form. It’s function over form.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah, function over form. There’s a utility to it. That’s really the trickiest part about user experience writing is getting into the head of the user and actually … Okay, well, I think this is funny, but I’m also a 29 year old ex-punk rock drummer, so I’m not going to even fucking bother.

jhnh 

But it’s funny because you think about all the signs that we go through every day, so all the signs that you see every day. If you’re driving, you see a stop sign, give way sign, whatever. You would not appreciate whimsy in those signs.

Ryan Farrell:

No.

Patrick Stafford:

Number one, because there isn’t enough room for them and number two, because you want to receive the most fundamental information in the most efficient way possible. And even things like going through an airport, if you need to find gate B32, I don’t need to necessarily be told a whole bunch of other stuff with it, I just need to know where is the gate I’m going to. And look-

Ryan Farrell:

That’s what I meant. Great example.

Patrick Stafford:

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Ryan Farrell:

Things can be beautiful and boring at the same time, you just have to have a appreciation for the beauty and the simplicity of how boring it is. I mean, I can think of very few better examples. Well, the London Tubes are a good one, but in Tokyo and they … I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Japan, but they have a very, very just … It’s a crazy multi-layered subway system, where it’s about 10 different subterranean floors and it’s all designed … You’d have to speak to Japanese to really get it, but even if you don’t speak Japanese, there’s visuals, signals that you can pick up on.

Ryan Farrell:

And I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of jokes written into the subcopy of those diagrams just because the margin for error is just too great, there’s just too much at stake. And as these systems scale, as they get bigger and bigger and bigger, there’s going to be more need for people who can speak with clarity and who can give instructions that make sense regardless of subtext and regardless of nuance and culture and all those things. Yeah, that’s what UX writing is, it’s the ultimate form of clarity in communication.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think people love to use Slack as an example because they have their messages where … They have these cute little messages.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

But actually if you read them, they are functional. So I have got my Slack screen up in front of me right now and I’m on the all unread screen, so it shows you all the unread messages screen. And it has a clapping emoji and then it says, “Everything unread is now read. You’ve done it.” So that first-

Ryan Farrell:

Nice.

Patrick Stafford:

Sentence, “Everything unread is now read”, that’s functional. You’ve told me what I need to know, there’s no extra information there, you’re not belabouring the point. It’s, “Everything unread is now read.” Then they add a little bit of sprinkle by saying, “You’ve done it.” That’s how these types of messages should work a lot of the time. Not every time because you can’t obviously account for every context. I try and tell folks at work as well, there’s a time and a place for that type of quote, delightful experience, but it isn’t before the user has all the information they need to do their job.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah, agree, 100%. Discord is a really big server for people who play video games and their copy is just littered with all this … I’ll have to send you a video of a guy reading through some of the stuff and granted, that’s the audience, but it’s over the top. It’s almost saccharin layer of microcopy that’s also trying to be funny but instructional at the same time.

Patrick Stafford:

Interesting.

Ryan Farrell:

And it’s a good example of if you’re trying to get people through an experience or make a tool that gets them through their day, I mean, yeah, that’s not the way to do it.

Patrick Stafford:

Interesting. I should have a look at that.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah, take a look at Discord’s onboarding, it’s fascinating.

Patrick Stafford:

We sound like the grumpiest old men right now.

Ryan Farrell:

No, I know. Now we sound like a pissed off Facebook group.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, I know. But that’s the thing. But to me, it’s like when you get that function right, when you do drop those extra pieces of satisfaction, they become so much better as a result because you’re holding-

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

It back for the right moment.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, unequivocally. If a receipt is well-deserved … I mean, like you said, I mean, maybe there was a good job, Neil notification after he pushed the right button when he landed on the moon. But I mean, I’m sure that would’ve probably made him happy, so.

Patrick Stafford:

Sure.

Ryan Farrell:

We shouldn’t deprive the users of that typical delight, if it applies and it makes sense, if it’s right, write it there. But if it’s not, kill.

Patrick Stafford:

One of the areas I find where this is most interesting is government services.

Ryan Farrell:

It does start with what people use to get through their life. TurboTax is a solution to a very cumbersome problem that all Americans have to deal with. And I always use TurboTax as a [inaudible 00:32:57] of this takes a horrible, horrible thing that you have to do, it’s very necessary, it chunks it and makes it very usable and it makes it very easy. And really, there’s nothing that great about TurboTax, other than it takes a really shitty thing you have to do in your life and makes it less shitty.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, yeah.

Ryan Farrell:

And the way that they do is, it’s not rocket science, it just guides you, it says look, we know this isn’t fun, but give us five minutes, we’ll get you set up, and then give us maybe 20 minutes and we’ll be finished. So they’re very honest about the entire experience and how it’s going to enable you to get through, what is essentially, one of the worst three days of your life as an American. The other two days are when you have to go vote in California. But yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

It’s interesting you say that though because, as I mentioned, working on accounting software, we can’t say to people, “Oh, this is going to be an amazing experience. You’re going to look forward to doing it.” It’s like this is something they have to do and they hate doing it, our job is to reduce the amount of dread they feel or the amount of hatred they have in their heart for doing taxes and accounting and so on. We can’t dress it up too much because if that gets in the way of doing it, they are going to get really, really pissed off.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

It’s different when I’m on Discord and it takes me a few seconds more to jump online with my friends and play a game, I’m going to be pissed off.

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah, and you’re playing video games.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah, exactly.

Ryan Farrell:

Which is the best thing on earth.

Patrick Stafford:

Yeah. I’m going to be annoyed, but I’m not going to go to bed angry. Whereas if we stop people doing their taxes, that’s impacting their livelihood and their ability to get stuff done. So I think the biggest sin, as UX writers, we can have is really reducing the vast amount of user experiences into, what we consider to be, UX writing best practise. To me, there is no such thing. I mean, obviously there is, but you know what I mean. You know what I’m getting at.

Ryan Farrell:

No, I know. Yeah. But there’s no magic bullet, there’s no write this way and you will be good at this. I mean, it’s the same way that they frame UX design as a design discipline, where you stop thinking about what you think looks pretty and you start thinking about the utility of the interface you’re trying to put together. And will it work and will it work within these constraints? Will it work within these breakpoints? Will it work within the technology stack that you’re using? Can this design function within this ecosystem? That’s not something you can say okay, always use Sketch, always use blue and red and green, or these values and these hexadecimal values and you’re going to have a perfectly good operating system. No, that’s not something that anybody could say with any level of certitude.

Ryan Farrell:

And the same thing’s with writing. I mean, you have to train people to think in a way that enables them to write properly. If you were to sit down and you were to write for Discord versus the government of the UK, or potentially, like you said, an accounting software, you would sit down with the mindset that okay, who are the users? Who are they? What is the goal that they need to achieve by sitting down and using the software that I have to write for? I mean, it’s trite, but it’s true and I’ve said it so many times at this point, but I feel like I am a broken record and I think a lot of us do. But you just sit down and as long as you keep that in your head, that it’s not about you, it’s about where the person is at that time and place in the world, you’ll write something that is functional. And you get better at it and you get more capable of anticipating outliers and anticipating breakpoints and anticipating where things might go awry, and then you have those prepared.

Ryan Farrell:

You may have written it in the past, you may actually have components, what I call components, writing components, ready to go, that you can use in a pinch, and then you could write for anything. I mean, even if you’re not necessarily a good writer, you can still be a UX writer that is a very functional designer of words, as long as you understand that it’s the user first and it’s the … I mean, it’s the word second, to be perfectly honest.

Patrick Stafford:

Exactly. Yeah.

Ryan Farrell:

That’s exactly what it is.

Patrick Stafford:

Creativity is overrated.

Ryan Farrell:

It really is. And I don’t think, even, you have to be that creative to be a UX writer. I don’t. I honestly don’t think that you do. I think you just have to have the capacity to put your own ego aside and just make it all about empathy and empathising for what the product needs to do as you’re producing it and making it come to life, quote, unquote.

Patrick Stafford:

Absolutely. I totally agree. I was going to delve into a lightning round with a bunch of rapid fire questions.

Ryan Farrell:

Oh, cool.

Patrick Stafford:

I think I have too many questions, so I’m just going to ask you a few.

Ryan Farrell:

Okay.

Patrick Stafford:

Hopefully we get through them pretty quickly. It’s just meant to … Don’t really have to think about them, just what really comes to your mind.

Ryan Farrell:

Can we have background music? Is there background music?

Patrick Stafford:

No-

Ryan Farrell:

[inaudible 00:38:30] unless there’s background music.

Patrick Stafford:

We need some Jeopardy music.

Ryan Farrell:

Okay.

Patrick Stafford:

But I’m not going to sing it, so no.

Ryan Farrell:

Do it in post.

Patrick Stafford:

Exactly. All right, so first of all, for any UX writer, what’s a book or an article that they need to go and read right now?

Ryan Farrell:

The Elements of Fucking Style, just because it’s funny. But if you don’t know basic grammar, you’re lost, by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen. Pick it up. It’s amazing.

Patrick Stafford:

What is an underrated skill that you think UX writers should start developing?

Ryan Farrell:

Learn Sketch because you have to know what designers work in, you have to work in their interface, you have to work in their medium. I mean, there’s been so many times that I’ve been handed a file or a Sketch file or a PDF and I’ve wanted to communicate to them and I send them back a Google Doc and then I get this glazed overlook and it just … The lack of respect that’s transferred back my way because I just don’t know the software that they use, it’s demoralising and also, it actually inhibits productivity.

So, learn the software that your designers are using, at a very minimum. At a maximum, learn the software that your developers are using and at least learn how to go in there and edit them. And also, learn the basic nomenclature and the words around code. Learn what strings are, learn the data types, learn what arrays are, learn stuff like that.

Patrick Stafford:

You’ve moved into my next question, which is do UX writers need to learn how to code?

Ryan Farrell:

No, they do not. But they need to learn the words. They need to learn what a string is, they need to learn data types, they need to know what an array is. If they want to go the extra mile, they should learn how to edit strings, they should learn the various ways that strings are populated in a product, and how words actually come to life within an interface. Just learn how to talk about it, you don’t need to learn how to do it. But you’d be amazed at how far just understanding those basic principles can take you when you’re in a design [inaudible 00:40:48] or an actual product [inaudible 00:40:49].

Patrick Stafford:

Chatbots, overrated, underrated?

Ryan Farrell:

No comment.

Patrick Stafford:

What does that mean? You have to dig into that.

Ryan Farrell:

It’s non-existent right now. It’s so not a thing. I mean, some day, the AI will probably take over and it will become the new writer, but right now, it’s either an AI that tries to anticipate you in a way that is completely wrong or an under-built reactionary chatbot that’s just an if, else statement that gets it wrong every time. Chatbots are very, very, very, very bad right now. They need to get better. I hope they get better. I think that they will.

Patrick Stafford:

Do UX writers need to learn presentation skills?

Ryan Farrell:

I think that any designer needs to learn presentation skills. I think that if you have an idea, the worst thing you can do for that idea is to delegate somebody to sell it for you.

Patrick Stafford:

And finally, if UX writers want to get better, what’s something they can do right now, apart from signing up to your newsletter and do all the things that you’ve just said?

Ryan Farrell:

Build their own application. Build a website. Literally, just sit down and build that up. Go to GitHub and get a … Or start a Gatsby app, do a Gatsby starter app and literally try and write inside of an interface and watch how, as you go from desktop to tablet to mobile, how the words just [inaudible 00:42:15] and turn into all sorts of different sizes and things. Try to build a new page and literally click through your own words, page to page, back and forth and see how strange it sounds when you try to write something and then click back to it when you haven’t thought about the next step ahead of you. I think that if you really want to take the next step in being a UX writer, you should write your own experience. It doesn’t necessarily be in code, you can do in Envision and you can do it in a prototype, but just build your own experience.

Ryan Farrell:

Or even do it in paper, make a paper prototype, but write up 10 screens of something that has different ways of utilising it and re-read back through it. And when you come from one screen to the next and come back to the one that you started with, does it read properly? Does it make sense, even if you came from screen 10 back to screen four or five?

And I think that once you do that for yourself, you’re going to get a pretty … Probably a rude awakening of how the words can really work against you if you become too specific at certain points in the experience, but also not specific enough to where it hands you off in a very good way. So yeah, that’s my advice. I know I said they don’t need to learn to code, but yeah, learn to code.

Patrick Stafford:

But you could even do something like Squarespace, where you don’t need-

Ryan Farrell:

Yeah.

Patrick Stafford:

To learn to code, but if you don’t want to delve into code, you can just go onto Squarespace, drop some components around, and then start building stuff and thinking about content structure and how the words-

Ryan Farrell:

Totally.

Patrick Stafford:

Interact with that.

Ryan Farrell:

Totally. Use the free version of Squarespace. It has this really ugly long URL, but it’s still a functioning website, and just start building something. Just start building it front to back. It doesn’t have to do anything, it just has to … Build a non-learning experience. Sign up for the challenge, and then instead of just doing it in a Google Doc or something like that, do it in a website, do it Squarespace and actually build the onboarding that you are thinking that you’re going to write. Doesn’t have to be tied to data. I mean, I don’t even know how data comes into websites, that’s way, way, way beyond my ability. But challenge yourself to work in the medium that your words are actually going to live eventually in some way.

Patrick Stafford:

Excellent. Excellent. That’s it. Ryan, we’re done, for the second time.

Ryan Farrell:

Woo! We did it.

Patrick Stafford:

Thanks so much for doing this again, man. Really appreciate it and-

Ryan Farrell:

Course, man.

Patrick Stafford:

One day, we’ll do it for a third time.

Ryan Farrell:

All right, I look forward to it.

Patrick Stafford:

And there you have it, my interview with Ryan Farrell. If you enjoyed this interview, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts, it helps others find the podcast, so would really appreciate that. And again, if you’re interested in the UX writing fundamentals course, head to UXWritersCollective.com, and use the code podcast20 to get 20% off. In the meantime, if you want to contact me to yell at me, praise me, do whatever, email me at Patrick@StaffordContent.com. I’d really love to hear your feedback. Until next time, see you later.-0

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