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Working remotely is something most people dream of. For Sophie Tahran at Invision, it’s a lifestyle.
Patrick spoke to her about what it’s like to work for a fully remote company, how her time at Lyft impacted her design sensibilities, and what it’s like to work for one of the biggest software companies in UX.
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InVision is a really interesting company; it’s grown like a rocket over the past few years, but there’s also something operationally about it that’s very curious. It’s a fully remote company. While there is an office, most people work wherever they live; and I think for a lot of UX writers and content strategists, this is an ideal situation. Most companies now need these types of roles, but geographically you’re limited to the companies within your city.
If more companies were like InVision and fully remote, then there might be more opportunities for this industry. It was really great to speak to Sophie about this, and also about her time at Lyft before joining InVision. She has some really great thoughts about not only UX writing and content strategy, but also how to set guidelines and governance across the company for these types of things.
InVision is a fully remote company. For some people, moving to New York would be a massive burden and it would be a huge life change; for you, I imagine it’s still that, but the ability to work from anywhere really means that the stress of it all is taken away. Is that right?
Exactly, yeah. That’s exactly right. I have been working at InVision for about a year now, and over the summer I ran almost a test run where I travelled through Europe for a little over a month to see if I actually could work and just be as productive and as efficient while on the road, and that worked out really well. I’ve always been curious about New York, and as a California native have always wanted to give it a shot.
With this job, I was able to move out here. I’m just living in a sublet, there are no huge commitments, but I’ll be out here at least to the end of the year, so for the next few months, and I’m just giving it a shot without having to change jobs or have this massive upheaval in my life; and I have a lot of flexibilities that comes with it, which is really nice. I can go back to California, travel a little bit more if I’d like to.
Really, the big constraint is good wifi and time zones; as long as I have those working in my favour, then I’m good to go.
I don’t live in San Francisco; and I think living there, and having gone there, there tends to be sometimes a type of bubble mentality. You get very wrapped up in what’s going on in the industry, and that could be a good thing obviously, but moving away I think you get a different perspective when you’re working outside of that environment than you do when you’re working in.
So, moving to a different city and doing the same type of work can open you up to new forms of inspiration, and all sorts of connections that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Absolutely, I completely agree. That’s something that I felt just when I started working at InVision because my team is all over the world.
Especially as a writer, I found myself going through design reviews or content reviews realising that I was having to switch some of the words that I was using because they didn’t work universally, they weren’t as internationally friendly as I had thought.
One thing that came up was an error message that said, “That doesn’t quite look right,” I think is what the original version said, and my manager who’s in London pointed out that he uses the word “right” or “quite right” a little bit differently than I would, so just a quick copy switch using “correct” instead of “right” was one of many lessons that I’ve learned from working with people all over the world, and I’m now taking that one step further by actually placing myself all around the world, and experiencing living in new places as well.
I want to start with you have a pretty extensive history in content, and specifically UX writing, and I think it’s interesting because you’re seeing a lot of people move into UX writing who have all sorts of different backgrounds, some in editorial, some in UX, some in technical writing, but you have a pretty strong background in writing and editorial, which I think is increasingly rare in this industry.
To start really broadly, how did you get interested in product writing and UX writing, and before that editorial? Where did that come from?
I was a big reader growing up, and I think that encourages a lot of people to get into writing, but I didn’t realise that you could get into writing without necessarily writing something like a novel. I didn’t realise that there were so many different opportunities in workplaces and companies to tell a brand story, describe their products, improvement of user experience, until I got out of college and had the opportunity to work at Lyft.
I joined when Lyft had about 100 employees where everyone was wearing a bunch of different hats, just basically doing anything that they possibly could to push the company forward, and I always loved writing. I studied copyediting in college, but it was at that point that I had the opportunity to join the creative team and become a copywriter.
I learned a lot and worked on a ton of different aspects of the business, from our knowledge base, to support guidelines, help centres, response macros, up through driver-facing communication, and finally writing products launch communication.
Once I started working on product launches, I realised that I liked moving even further up into a product life cycle, so that I was not only announcing a product that was fully formed, but starting to work closely with our product design team to identify how we could use content to improve the user experience.
It was there that I really had that opportunity to move into more into a UX writing type role, and then took that one step further at InVision where I became our first UX writer and was able to really build-out the craft there, in which case it’s not only writing.
It’s a lot of building relationships, building out processes, and figuring out what works best for everyone so that it is a nice collaborative effort, and content is part of the entire product creation process.
Yeah, absolutely. What facilitated that move from doing knowledge-based content to wanting to move to the creative aim? Did you look at what they were doing and think, “That looks really great”? Had you always wanted to write for products and use interfaces? What was the driving force behind that decision?
I would say at the time, especially at Lyft, we were and still are very scrappy, it was just a matter of wanting to really understand all of the different types of writing that could be done, and I talk about this all the time.
I’m so thankful that I had a chance to work on knowledge-based content with the support team because I felt that it gave me a very nuanced understanding of the product, and you are out on the front lines.
We are understanding what users want and how they react to something so that you’re not writing from that glass castle. Once I really understood the nuance of the product, then I wanted to be able to weave that throughout the entire company.
I really set my sights on working with the creative team; I loved the work that they were doing and the writers that were already on the team, and I wanted to really mesh my experience on knowledge-based with something that’s a little bit more consumer-facing and a little bit flashier in copywriting.
Yeah. It’s interesting because I think I’ve spoken to a couple of writers already on the podcast who spent a great deal of time in technical writing and working in the instructional areas of their business, and then moved into concept writing, UX writing, and I think it’s a really great example of how UX writers need to be product experts, and they really need to know their products extremely well.
I’ve spoken to UX writers and content writers who know a little bit about the product, and they know broad strokes. But when it comes to the real nitty-grits detail, they don’t have it and they often rely on the technical writers for that type of knowledge; whereas I would say that actually every writer, no matter their position, probably needs to be an expert in the products they’re writing about.
It’s interesting to see that you’ve moved from that side to the next; because obviously it means that you still, I would assume, carry that importance of really knowing the product you’re talking about.
Definitely. I completely agree. I’m a huge context person, and that’s one of the reasons why I believe it’s so important for writers to be in the room and involved as early as possible.
When you really understand the designer’s point of view, and all of the strategy that went into every decision, then you’re not only making sure that writing is part of that strategy and part of those decisions, but you’re also educating yourself so that you know all the thought process that went into it, you aren’t completely in the weeds, so that you can work at simplifying that and just delivering what the user really needs to know at that point in time.
Exactly, and obviously it’s easier in some businesses than others, right? Obviously, there are some that are going to have a pretty straightforward app. I would assume that Lyft, even though I’m sure there are complex elements to it… and there are different features, and so on… it’s really one straight product, and maybe you’ll correct me on that.
Whereas if you’re working for let’s say a software company that’s producing ERP software, there’s obviously going to be huge different streams of knowledge that you need to get your head around, and obviously, so the difficulty of that it’s going to move from company to company. Not that I’m saying this would be simple by any means, but just obviously there are differences from business to business.
Another layer of complexity to add to it is the number of audiences that you have. With Lyft, what we ran into time and time again, is that we have a number of different audiences. There’s driver-facing, there’s passengers; and then in the recent years, really after I departed, they’ve branched into autonomous, they’ve branched into scooters, and there are all these different types of use cases that you’re writing for.
It’s not only a matter of understanding the product itself, but also understanding your audience, so it really goes both ways, as I’m sure you’ve experienced as well. There’s a lot to wrap your head around.
Tell me about the workflow at Lyft. Was it you sitting on the side and coming up with copies for designs that had already been made? Were you an integral part of the UX team and taking part in sketching and wire frames? How did the process look there?
When I was on the creative team I really did move through a few different areas. I worked on everything from radio ads, to Facebook ads, to product launches, to words that we were putting on ping-pong balls and stone pieces, up through writing for a product. I think one good example of working closely with the product team was for the launch of the Lyft Driver app.
I’m not sure how many people are familiar with this, but when Lyft first launched, and really for its first few years, there was just one app for both passengers and drivers, and that worked to begin with; but as Lyft grew, there were just so many features, and so many different pieces that we were trying to shove into one little app, that it was time to split it into a dedicated passenger app and a dedicated driver app so that we could better serve both sides, speaking of all those different audiences that you’re working for.
In that case, I worked closely not only with the product marketing teams to come up with a name for the Lyft Driver app. Were we going to get really creative and call it something like Zoom, or whatever it is, or do we need to be pretty straightforward with it, which was the direction that we ended up going, and after some user research, and just call it a Lyft Driver app? A lot of consideration came into play there.
Some drivers don’t speak English as their first language. We were considering whether we would need to translate this some day, and ultimately just what would resonate with our audience best and most easily when you’re trying to get on the road. That was an example where obviously it’s a huge product, it’s a huge undertaking.
Constantly, you’d be in the room with the PM, the PMM, so people that are in charge from all sides, the engineers working on the product, the product designers. Really, every step of the way, you’re just trying to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and all of those different little pieces are aligned.
Then, what would happen, when I was working in product design, was I would step into design reviews so that the product designer would have those initial wire frames, and walk us through all the different touchpoints. We would talk through where we needed to include copy and why.
Whenever there was a chance to communicate through motion or visuals, then it would be on that. Sometimes we would need more space for copy because it was a little bit more complicated of a concept, and it was a nice really collaborative effort, and I think everyone felt pretty good about the end result.
That’s great. It’s not often that you see that type of collaboration, particularly in a business like that where it’s incredibly fast-moving. I’m actually a little jealous to hear you talk about it because my experience has been even though you might have collaboration between engineers, UXs, and producers, and so on, it’s rare that you always get everyone in the room talking about it as you go.
You might have some in the first stage, and then some in the second stage, so there is that collaboration, but it really seems like it was tightly woven into the actual process, which is a good thing.
Yeah. I think I really attribute that to a few different things: when you are moving that fast, really making sure that you’re being as efficient with your time as possible is huge; and planning ahead, making sure that you’re asking all the questions up front, so that it’s just a matter of actually executing on it, and we could see from there, and also just having great people leading the way. We had incredible PMs on the project who were always thinking 100 steps ahead to try and clear any obstacles out of the way before we got there.
I feel I experienced the same thing, that ambition as well, incredible minds that are somehow able to think way ahead of the game so that, when it comes to the creative work of design or writing, we’re able to think big and design without boundaries, and then come together to work that into what’s actually feasible for that stage in the product writing process.
Looking back at Lyft, what do you think? What do you think was the biggest lessons you’ve learned during that time, not just about UX writing, but also just about the process of interacting with a team? Is there anything you really take away from that side?
Yeah. I would say I absolutely loved working there, and I feel like that’s generally a pretty common feeling, which I think is always great to see. A couple things that really stuck with me: first off, how much of a mission-driven company it is.
You talk to the co-founders, you talk to the people that have been there since day one, and they really believe in this bigger mission of changing how people get around, and putting people together through technology instead of just looking down at your phone, pressing a button and stepping into the back seat.
There were those big ideas that were driving people forward, so that that alignment came not only from meetings and documents and OKRs and goals; it really came from a common goal that everyone was working toward, which I think is not easy to create, but you can really see the impact of that.
In terms of actual day-to-day work, and the workflow that we were going through was how dedicated everyone was to not just checking the boxes, but taking a task, pushing it as far forward as they possibly can, not saying, “We’ll tackle that tomorrow,” or “Let’s bench that until the next meeting,” or whatever it is.
We were really pushing forward 100% every day so that we could all get to that one common goal together. A lot of great teamwork, a lot of really inspiring people that we were working with, and working on cool products that are consumer-facing definitely doesn’t hurt either.
Absolutely. What have you come out of there thinking about UX writing? Because this was really your first time, you mentioned moving into that type of work from other types of editorials.
Coming out of there, did you have any thoughts about not just the work you had done, but also the industry? Because I think it’s in the past couple of years that UX writing has really emerged I guess not as a discipline, but it’s becoming more defined. People are really forming universal product descriptions around what they want in a UX writer.
Coming out of Lyft, did you have any thoughts about who you were as a UX writer and where you fit in the industry, and where you might want to go next?
A couple of things, and first was really the power of a company voice, and what was especially interesting about UX writing at Lyft was Lyft has such a strong brand voice that stemmed from really the first writer that was there, and really the first team. Jen Chen is someone that I really look up to; she really paved the way in the brand voice there. It’s very unique. It’s very conversational, human, real.
When it comes to UX writing, one of the biggest things that I had to learn was UX writing is so different from something like copywriting because you’re not looking for the splashy moment, you’re not looking for the pun: you’re looking for clarity above everything else. Taking that brand voice that is so unique, and so uniquely Lyft, was a real challenge in communicating that same feeling, that same tone, that same voice, that same personality in a way that wasn’t disrupting from the user experience, and that was huge for me.
In terms of my place in the UX writing community, especially during my time at Lyft when I was first starting out, I was amazed at how open people were to meeting up with me. John Saito, a UX writer at Dropbox, was very open to meeting up with me. We grabbed coffee, when I was first starting to do this UX writing thing, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was grasping at Medium articles, Googling things, just looking for any sort of help and information about this field, because there isn’t really a tonne of content out there in terms of textbooks and classes.
A lot of it is very grassroots, so I literally just reached out to anyone who had “UX writer” in their title in Silicon Valley, and I was able to meet up with writers from Pinterest and blogs and Facebook, and all of these companies that I have looked up to, and they were incredibly helpful, and so generous in meeting up with me and building this community of writers, kind of creating and advocating for this field on their own.
I talk to younger people a lot about getting into tech and development and UX writing, and I think one of the things that they often don’t think about is you can go up to people and just ask to spend 20 minutes with them. It’s worth it to just jump on LinkedIn, even if you have to pay for the premium for a year, just messaging as many people as possible and just saying, “Can I buy you a coffee? Can we chat for 25 minutes?” Most people will either say yes; or if they can’t do it, they’ll at least be willing to go and meet with you, and obviously you need to be smart about it. You need to go with a list of questions, and you can’t just be, “Vaguely, tell me about your life.” You have to get something out of it.
But I think one of the best things we can do in moving into a discipline, including UX writing, is really just contacting the people who were doing it, and getting as much advice as possible, because it will steer you right from making wrong decisions, it will give you the best practise on what to do next. It’s really the best way to go. I think you were smart to do that because not a lot of people do it. I guess it’s assumed that, “They’re off doing their job, and so they’re busy, and so I won’t disturb them,” but really you’ve got nothing to lose.
Yeah. It is a scary thing to reach out to someone cold, and that really was a beneficial part of being in San Francisco where if I reached out to someone and they were open to meeting up, I was two blocks away from them usually, because all of these companies are all really packed together in one place. But I completely agree it’s just about doing it in a respectful, smart, kind way, appreciating that people have a limited amount of time. If you felt you knew exactly what you’re looking for, why you chose to reach out to them specifically; be on time, all of that.
What I found is those people that I reached out to, who were so helpful to me in those beginning stages, I have been able to become good friends with. We see each other at MeetUps all the time, at conferences. It really does come full circle, especially in the UX writing community where it’s still comparatively small. It’s still relatively tight-knit, so those people that you’ll see, and I’m guessing will be happy to help you out in the beginning, will be around for years to come.
It’s interesting that you mentioned they’re small because it is small. I think there’s only 100 job ads on LinkedIn right now for UX writers in the United States. There’s very few in Australia where I’m based, and I know there are several in Europe and the Middle East, and so on, but it is a niche thing.
I’m interested in your thoughts on whether you think it’s going to grow. Because as Silicon Valley does, the rest of the world follows, and obviously UX writers are becoming more popular there. Is this going to become a more popular job title, do you think, or is it going to stay niche?
I think I’ve seen a lot of growth in the past year. Really, what I’ve seen is a lot of companies, especially if you are the Googles and Facebooks and Apples of the world, they just don’t have the resources to dedicate to someone that specialised at this point; but what I have seen is that many more companies are starting to open up contract roles for UX writers, so they’re really testing the waters, and I think that’s a good sign.
They’re starting to open up this role to see if they do want to take the leap and commit full-time, so I have seen a lot of openings open up, or people reaching out to me asking if I can recommend other UX writers, or if I’d be willing to help out as they start shaping these job descriptions and shaping these roles. So, I think there is definitely a lot of movement toward a bigger commitment to UX writing.
In terms of the longevity of the role, what I see as being pretty permanent is dedication to providing a good user experience regardless, and I think words are a big part of that, and I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. The actual title shifting, I could see the placement of the role shifting.
Different companies call UX writers “content strategists” or “content designers,” or a ton of different terms out there that mean slightly different things in some cases, or the same thing in other cases; but I feel like having someone focused on the words that you’re actually interacting with, and how you describe a product to a user, is something that I think will be around for a while.
Yeah. In the end it really doesn’t matter what the job title is. The job title is really incidental. It’s more the skills, what are you doing, and how you’re you contributing to the user experience.
I want to talk about InVision because I think this is an interesting company. Obviously, it skyrocketed pretty quickly over the past few years. I don’t know a UXer who doesn’t use the product, and it’s become really a standard, so it’s an interesting company to talk about. What drew you to wanting to work there?
When I was at Lyft I absolutely loved the team. It was very bittersweet. It was a really rough decision to make to leave. But after being there for almost four years, I was interested in the opportunity to build-out a UX writing from scratch at a slightly smaller company.
InVision, when I joined, was at about 600 employees, which was really one of my favourite trends at Lyft, where the company has matured, it’s found its footing, but you still have enough flexibility to have ownership over what you’re doing. You know people across the company, but you’re in this stage of growth that’s really exciting, you’re bringing in a lot of human leadership.
So, I really liked the place that InVision was in. I loved how specialised it was within the product design industry. I felt that, especially for UX writing, it was pretty priceless to have such an insider look at the design process, and the people that were creating it. Also, given the InVision is such a strong community advocate and very active, in a sense, in creating resources and guidelines and books about the design process, I really loved how active the company has been in the design community, so all great things.
The role was something that I was especially interested in, being the first UX writer, and of course the people that I would be working alongside are really my inspirations for other people that I knew and have been inspiring me for months and years, so being able to work alongside them was something that I just couldn’t pass up.
It’s interesting that you mentioned you were the first UX writer there because I think there’s a lot of discussion online about, and particularly in Slack communities, the content and UX writing Slack communities, about how to create style guides, and really how to create process and governance around UX writing and turn of voice; I imagine that would have been one of the first things you tackled when you joined there.
Exactly, yeah. I came onboard, and I also was very, very lucky because InVision has such an incredible content marketing team already. I wasn’t the first writer. I was just the first writer on product design, so I was really standing on the shoulders of giants because InVision has this incredible blog with so much great content and such great writers at the company already.
It was a matter of reaching out to the writers on the marketing side to see what resources we already had. We did have a concise style guide already, but we worked to really build that out to be something that the entire company could use.
Whether you’re a writer on marketing or product design, a support agent, a lawyer, really anyone across the company who’s writing something. Even an email could refer to this to make sure that we’re all sounding like InVision. Exactly, that was one of the first projects that I tackled. I also extended it out into different tone guidelines.
Coming up, we’ll be expanding on content-specific guidelines, “How many characters do we have space for in an error message? What does a popup look like, a banner?” just so that we’re not reinventing the wheel every time. Doing a lot of that foundational work is huge.
I also sit on our basically design system team within product design. The entire team that I’m on is focused on standardising those practises, building-out these processes, laying that foundation, so that when we’re working we can work as efficiently and consistently as possible.
I think this is one thing that people don’t realise a lot of the time in a UX writing role: it’s as much about the governance as it is about the writing.
You need to really set out guidelines for the rest of the company or the organisation about how to write, when to write it, the process of doing so. I would really love to ask you about the specifics of doing this because I’ve seen this question come up again, “How do I create a style guide? How do I create tone and voice?” especially because people find themselves not in tech organisations where I think turn of voice is probably something that’s quite well-known; and if people talk about the turn of voice, they understand what that means.
But if you’re a small IT services company in Indiana with maybe 1000 employees, and you come on and you’ve been asked, “We need to update our communications,” or “We need to create a tone of voice style guide,” people have a bit of… they’re a bit confused about how to start.
How did you go about creating that tone of voice? Obviously, you had a bit of a head start. You said there were writers already in the organisation. But what were the first steps you made towards creating the document on governance, and distributing it to the wider team?
I think the most important thing for me, when it comes to voice and tone, is that a company’s voice, it’s not made up. It’s not like you’re going into it saying, “I would like to sound like X, Y and Z.” It comes from a place of truth, and that’s what I experienced at Lyft, that’s what I’ve experienced at InVision, and on science projects that I’ve worked on over the years. A company has a voice; it’s just a matter or articulating that and identifying what exactly it sounds like.
Specifically at InVision, what I started out doing, because I was coming into a company that was already a few years old and it had 100 employees, was I conducted interviews. I talked to people across the company, in a number of different organisations, that had been there for multiple years, and they’re just starting out, and I ask them a bunch of different questions like, “If InVision were a person, who would they be? What would they do? What would their hobbies be?” We also talk about things like, “How do you think our audience and our users perceive us, and is that consistent with how we perceive ourselves?” to make sure that we aren’t just talking to ourselves.
We’re speaking to our audience and our users in a way that resonates with them, and that feels real to them and feels authentic. I ask a lot of those questions, and then distil that into a set of recommendations, and shop that around to people across the company to make sure that it really felt like us.
Really, what I was hoping to avoid altogether was the feeling that I was putting my fist down and saying, “Okay, we sound like this now.” It was mostly a matter of identifying what we had been doing, and whether that was exactly how we wanted to sound and relate to our audience, and that was the expectation that we wanted to set moving forward.
Yeah. It’s an interesting process because I think for a lot of people the tone of voice, as you mentioned at the start, they think, “I want the company to sound like X, Y, Z,” whereas really, as you said, the real question is: “What are the values of the company? What are we trying to achieve? What’s that strategic vision?” Those are the more important questions to be answering.
Because I think a lot of the times sometimes writers want to make something funky or sassy or quirky to show that they’re a great writer, and they can do all this type of cool stuff and they’re flexible, but really clarity is the most important factor here. If something is clear and concise and able to get the message across, that’s much more valuable than being able to write a sassy headline just because you think you can.
Right. Exactly. I completely agree. I feel like, especially when it comes to voice and tone, a lot of companies, especially when they’re starting out, you lean on what works. As a writer you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh, I want to sound like this specific company. I want to sound like Slack or Dropbox or Apple or Facebook,” or whoever it is.
I understand if you’re just starting out you don’t have the resources to really go through an entire exercise, but I can’t underscore enough how important it is to really carve out your own path and figure out what you should sound like, and how you are talking to and with your users, and your audience in general, to make sure that it sounds authentic in the end.
Really, I’d say the voice that you use and the words that you use really determine what your relationship is with your users. Are you an advisor? Are you authoritative? Are you a friend? Identifying that and communicating that through how you speak to one another is really one of the most powerful aspects of writing, I think.
It is. I agree, but I think there’s an interesting contradiction to this. If you look at a lot of software companies… and I think actually InVision is one exception to this, which I think is really great… if you look at a lot of software companies there’s a bias towards, “Everything needs to be short and snappy and precise,” which is good as a principle, but it’s also the same as if you were doing what I described earlier, doing this wacky writing without any sort of direction to it.
If you go the opposite direction the entire way, what you can do is make it so concise and so short and so bland that you really strip-out the tone of voice, so it doesn’t sound like anything at all.
It’s a hard balance to get right, and I think InVision is good because there are these little moments of colour, both in the product and on the website where you’re reading and you think, “Okay, I can see the tone of voice coming through, even though it is adhering to those concise, short principles,” which I don’t think every company gets right. Maybe you have a different view, but it’s certainly how I see it.
No, I completely agree. I think one of the important considerations there is there is a time and place for everything. If you’re going through a billing flow, or you’re having trouble logging in, and you’re just trying to present your work to a client, or it’s a high-stress situation like that, that’s definitely not where you want to add-in those different personalities and show a little colour. Those are the places where you really just want the user to get to that next step because that’s all they’re focused on anyway.
If it is something where it’s a fun success screen, or it’s an interaction that they won’t see very often, that’s a place where you can add that fun touch where it’s unexpected, but it adds a little bit of flavour and shows that there is a human behind the screen after all, just in a place where the user will welcome it.
Exactly. MOYB, we talk about tone of voice like a mixing board. You have your three or four tone-of-voice characteristics; and on any one page or screen of the product, you dial up certain aspects of the tone of voice, and then you dial others down, like you would when mixing music. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be funny and silly; and other times, that’s just going to make the user hate you, so I completely agree.
One thing I want to talk about: you’ve got an extra challenge in doing this, though, because as we mentioned before InVision was a completely remote company. Everyone worked either from home or from their own working spaces, and to a lot of people that sounds extremely scary. I know for myself, I get a little bit nervous just thinking about it and thinking, “How could I even go about working in that type of environment?” I’d really love to hear you talk about how you’ve managed to do that in that type of working situation, and particularly the tool you’re using to make that process easier than it might otherwise be.
I would say people have different reactions to working remotely. For some, they say, “That sounds incredible. You have all this flexibility. You can work from anywhere. You can travel the world,” and for others it is a scary thing because a lot of your routine is rooted in going to an office every day, you have your commute, you have that schedule.
I think really the key to it is building that same sort of routine and comfort into how you work from home, and a lot of that comes from not just leaping out of bed in your pyjamas to hop onto a screen two seconds before a call. For some people that’s taking a walk before you go online, scheduling-in breaks. A lot of people will come into your workspace, or a coworking space, and we do make sure to have regular meet ups in person as well, so that helps really build that camaraderie.
But in terms of how we work and make it as efficient as possible, first off whenever we have meetings we use Zoom and we always keep our videos on, so that way you’re still able to read your body language, you still have semblance of actually being in a meeting, being in a room with people; it’s just that you’re in a meeting with people in North Carolina, Cleveland, London and Berlin at the same time, so a lot of those tools really help.
I also feel that we’re pretty good at documentation as well. Instead of having those hallway conversations where you catch one person up on a project, and then you may forget to fill in the rest, we rely pretty heavily on our various documents. We’re a mix of paper and Google Box right now.
We also are huge on Slack. I was very surprised to see that we really aren’t an email heavy company. I actually barely ever use my inbox. We’re just all about Slack. Being on a lot of different channels, we constantly are updating all of our team channels so that everyone has the latest news, obviously have all-company meetings very regularly, so it’s just a matter of keeping everyone aligned.
What I found is really, when I was first starting out, a lot of the discomfort that I felt was shaking-off the assumption that productivity was tied to physically being in an office. Sitting at my desk was seen as being productive, versus when you’re working remotely your productivity is linked to what you’re actually delivering.
I had those first few days where you’re thinking, “Okay, if I am working from the co-working space versus home, versus my desk, versus my kitchen table, does that mean that I’m a better or worse employee? Does that mean that I’m contributing more or less?” and the answer is really just find what works best for you, and really what matters is what you’re actually bringing to the table.
There’s also a lot of trust built into it. If you are online, and you’re getting your work done, and you’re doing what you need to do, then the rest doesn’t really matter, which is completely different from going into an office every day where if you’re sitting at your desk from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., or whatever your hours are, then you could be seen as being just as productive as anyone else when that isn’t necessarily the result when it comes to your output.
Really, a big part of your job is not just showing what you’ve written, but your process and your ideas of getting there, and your rationale, which is really I would say more important.
I’ve interviewed copywriters before that we’ve asked them to do a copy task, and to me I’m not really looking at what they’ve written so much, although that’s definitely part of it. I’m really looking at, “Why did you decide to make these choices, and what’s your thought process there?” I imagine working next to someone, and I literally sit next to a UX designer, so I can show them, “This is my thought process. This is what I was doing,” and so on.
Remotely, obviously you can do that as well, but it obviously depends on the tools you’re using, and so on, to do that in a structured way, so you can share them both visually and with audio, and I imagine you’ve baked that into your work experience so it feels natural for you working remotely. But I think for other people who perhaps they work remotely with freelance clients or someone, or they work from home and so on, they may not consider that part of it when displaying their work; and as you’ve described, it’s an essential part of that UX process.
It really is. I agree. I think InVision has done a really good job of setting up a typical day-in-the-life so that we’re constantly talking to each other, or constantly on the same page. We have a lot of hours that overlap in a typical workday. Even though a lot of my team is in the UK or in Europe or on the East Coast of the US; we start, or at least it’s my morning, I always start the morning in design jam.
We spend normally an hour in the morning showing our work, going over what everyone has been working on, so that we’re not only all on the same page, but we have a chance to weigh-in with any feedback or changes before the project moves too far forward. We’re really looking out for those lo-fi designs. I’m in all of the design jams, even as a writer. I’m in there alongside all of the product designers, and then we also have of course researchers and UX designers, UX engineers, so that I get that context, and so that I can weigh-in really at every step of the process, even pretty early on.
Then, over the course of the day, normally people log off over the course of the morning, my time here in the US, which is nice as a writer because it means that I have pretty quiet afternoons to actually focus and do that deep work, and that’s something that I really appreciate because that’s something that’s hard to find when you’re in an office where you can get that desk nap really any time of the day. Being able to really focus and take a deep dive into what I’m working on in a quiet space is really helpful.
But with that being said, we’re on Slack all day, we have Zoom all day. Normally, over the course of the day, I’ll get a Slack message asking me a quick question. I usually respond with a million more questions because I just want to make sure that I want to understand exactly what’s going on. More times than not, we’ll just hop on a quick Zoom call. There’s a great actually great command on Slack that’ll start a Zoom meeting for you, so we’ll hop on, turn on video, share our screens, walk through the process; and then I can go back to that quiet time, that deep work, to tackle the problem at hand.
It’s a good way to do it. I think what surprises me, and I should say for disclosure that I actually write articles for the InVision blog, and working with the people who manage the blog, and now talking to yourself, I think one thing that comes across is that you’re all extremely positive people, and you seem very quite bright… not just smart, but bright… in terms of demeanour.
I had a fear that’s probably because you are working remotely, you probably need to have that positive optimistic attitude in order to work productively together. If you’re not downtrodden, but if you’re grumpy, it’s not going to work very well working remotely because I can imagine that the productivity would go down. Is that right? Am I right there? Because it seems like you’re always extremely happy people.
I haven’t thought about it that way. I agree, I think generally the company as a whole is generally very positive and optimistic, and just friendly in general. I always felt that it was probably partially just because having more flexibility in that work-life balance where if you need to go pick up your kids from school, and you can take five minutes to do so, then that’s totally fine, and I think that builds a little bit more understanding and camaraderie into how the company works together. You totally get it if you need to go answer the door because the delivery guy showed up in the middle of your meeting, or something like that. I think there’s just that common understanding there, which helps.
In general, I’ve met most of the company in person. We fly everyone out at least once a year to meet up. We have another all-company meet up scheduled for upcoming February, so it is fun to meet everyone in person. The sense that I’ve gotten is that everyone really is just such a great positive understanding person, whether you’re behind a screen or in person.
No wonder you have such an emphasis on written communication, and obviously the Invision blog is highly well-regarded within the industry. It’s no wonder because you obviously have to rely on written communication so much for your everyday work, so there’s obviously that built-in respect for the written word and communicating that way.
Definitely, and especially when it comes to the blog. I can take no credit from that because of the great content marketing team over in the marketing org.
But just speaking to the fact that you’ve written so many great articles for the blog, and a lot of that content comes from the design community, so I think a lot of that also speaks to just the fact that everyone wants to get together and nerd-out and write these articles, and share their common understanding. I think that the success of the blog comes from not only the great team that we have on the ground, but also the larger design community as a whole.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I could sit here and talk to you all day about this sort of stuff, but I did say that I would take up no more than an hour or your time, and we are heading to an hour, so I do want to start to wrap up here.
But one thing I ask everyone before we finish… and apologize I didn’t ask you this question beforehand, so I’m putting you on the spot here, because that’s how I usually get the best responses… but I usually ask, for people who are in UX writing right now or thinking of getting into UX writing, what’s something they can go away and read that you think would be beneficial to their work?
I always point people to John Saito’s Medium article. I mentioned him earlier. He was really the guy that got copy with me very, very early on. He’s actually one of the people that pointed out that InVision is hiring a UX writer to begin with. He has created incredible content for people who are not only starting out in UX writing, but even for people who have been writing for years and years and years. It’s all written with a very approachable tone. He’s just such a kind guy, and everything that I’ve seen comes from his Medium articles has been endlessly helpful.
But with that being said, there’s so much great content out there. I think Shopify has a tonne of incredible content as well. Biz Sanford not only speaks very often; I’ve been very lucky to meet her in person, but also tend to turn those talks into articles as well.
So, Medium in general, if that can be my answer. There are so many incredible people out there that are very generously sharing their thoughts and sharing a lot of the knowledge that they’ve picked up along the way.
Excellent. Fantastic. Well, Sophie, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate your time. For anyone online, where can they find you online, if you have anything that you broadcast or you want them to read?
Yeah. In general, I’m just getting back into Twitter, so I’m @stahran. It’s some design stuff, some writing stuff, a lot of dog stuff. I’d say that’s really the best place to reach out to me, and I’m always happy to hear from writers, designers, people that also like Tweeting about dogs. I’m always happy to connect.
Awesome. Thanks again, Sophie. This has been great.