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Writing Is Designing: Empathy leads the way in UX Writing

Writing Is Designing, by Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle, caught my eye several months ago. The pandemic was growing by the day; I settled in for the long haul, resigning myself to the fact that our decimated federal government wasn't going to be rolling out an efficient, well-coordinated response anytime soon. The pandemic was the perfect time to reach out to friends with whom I'd lost touch over the years.

Among my friends are a number of leaders in design and in user experience writing. Connecting with each of them has been and continues to be thoroughly joyful. And, because they're all brilliant and interesting people, these were also deeply thought-provoking conversations. We talked about craft, about policy, about the future of these fields.

And at the center of these conversations was a deep and abiding understanding that the work centers empathy. As a people-person who went to law school back in the day because I wanted to pursue a human-centered career, this is a priority with which I deeply connect.

So, in addition to setting up calls with long-lost friends, the pandemic has also prompted me to be profligate in my book buying. Not only did I tell myself I'd have more time to read (somehow this hasn't quite happened but still), I also had even more of a reason to support our local bookstore; their sales dipped early in the pandemic but I believe are now going strong.

And that is how I ended up buying a shelf full of books on design, and why I'm thrilled to read and discuss them.

In Writing Is Designing in particular, I could see from the very beginning that this book and I would get along. The table of contents itself reveals that this is, first and foremost, a book about writing written by people who love words. You might think it goes without saying that a book about writing would be written by people who love words. But I'll point again to my law school experience -- there's plenty of evidence that people who write about writing don't always love words (and might even loathe them a little bit, but lawyer jokes are for another post).

From that quick glance at the ToC:

  • Chapter 1 lays out the case for why writers should be included from the start of a design process

  • Chapter 2 outlines research and development of a strategy for choosing the right words for a project or product

  • Chapter 3 discusses the need for clarity and consistency in content strategy

  • Chapter 4 delves into writing for errors and stress cases

  • Chapter 5 is Inclusivity and Accessibility: Writing That Works For Everyone

  • Chapters 6 and 7 tease out the nuances of voice and tone

  • Chapter 8 offers guidance on collaboration

Chapter 5 is the heart of the book for me. In fact, this is the chapter that I would send to everyone if I could-- and not just because my college roommate Kat Holmes' book, Mismatch, is cited. This is about strategy, collaboration, and a true user focus. It's centered on empathy, about the connections we have with each other, about the connections we have yet to make.

This is the chapter that resonated so strongly for me, I practically read it out loud to everyone in my house. My spouse, my kids and my dog were going to hear me talk about how an empathetic approach to UX writing, to writing for interaction, is key to improving content.

Accessibility is more than a nice-to-have, more than just another way to meet a bottom line, and more than a box to check off to comply with ADA requirements. Accessibility is essential; anyone with a presence on the internet should audit their content regularly to ensure their content is useful and usable for anyone who might potentially interact with that content.

Everyone who creates written, graphic, audio, and video content can and should consider how people interact with that content -- or how people might face barriers to accessing the content. Metts and Welfle provide plenty of real-world examples of how to put empathy into a writing and design practice, how to consider the needs of users unlike themselves. I was impressed with how they vigorously advocate for an empathetic approach to design, and how they encourage writers to stay open to learning and changing.

In addition to grounding in the values lifted up in Mismatch, Metts and Welfle point to Conscious Style Guide as a resource; I said "thank you" out loud when I saw the site. From the About page: "Our mission is to help writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit." Bookmarked.

This is a book I'm keeping on my desk and will open regularly. Highly recommended.


ALSO ON MY BOOKSHELVES: Mismatch by Kat Holmes. As someone who read this book from the perspective of a human rights advocate committed to the idea that everyone should be able to access technology, I found Kat's approach from a designer's perspective richly interesting. NEXT UP: Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock. (As you can see, MIT Press is making good choices.)


BONUS! MORE BOOK RECS: Often I let my local bookseller guide my next book purchase, or my San Jose book club friends who recommended The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom, or my political organizer friends who recommended Caste. All of these I've welcomed to my shelves in the past few months and would love to hear your thoughts if you've read any of them.

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