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Be the first penguin/UX writer

When a group of penguins is about to jump into a water body, one penguin always jumps first to check for predators. This “first penguin” is at great risk — if there is a shark in the water, the penguin pays with their life — but well, somebody’s got to do it.

I was the first (and only) UX writer at both Obvious and Openhouse. Of course, this is slightly different from the being first penguin — there is no danger to life and you’re not exactly checking for sharks that that might swallow you up whole. But being the first UX writer in an organisation is still hard.

You find yourself explaining what UX writing is and fielding questions about how you fell into UX writing. That’s the easy part. The harder part is building trust and finding a way to collaborate with designers and product managers. In charting a path for yourself, you influence how your organisation views UX writing and works with other UX writers in the future.

Looking for a freelance UX writer? 

Sounds like a big burden to carry? It’s not. I’ve enjoyed the blank canvas nature of being a first UX writer, and if you told me to do it again, I’d say yes in a heartbeat.

In navigating unchartered waters (the penguin metaphor really seems to carry on) I found four things to be particularly useful:

  1. Explain why

  2. Build a collective intuition for great, good and bad UX copy

  3. Show up to all meetings

  4. Set up best practices

Explain Why 

A lot of my work involved changing legacy copy or making changes to copy written by a designer or PM. When I’d suggest changes, I’d always talk through my rationale — if I was changing a button CTA from “Yes” to “Yes, cancel” for example, I would leave a comment to explain that descriptive button copy was more helpful to users.

This turned out to be quite powerful. It did three things:

  1. It helped designers and PMs to start thinking of the words as part of the user experience.

  2. It helped designers and PMs build an intuition for good and bad UX copy.

  3. Finally, it helped me build trust in a new team.

Though it was extra effort on my part to write down my rationale, it paid off ten times over.

Build a collective intuition for great, good and bad UX copy

You can be more intentional about building a collective intuition for great, good and bad UX copy too. 

Share examples of UX copy, and articulate what is working or what isn’t. It helps to cast a wide net and look at screens outside your product too. This conversation could happen in an organic way, in meetings or over water cooler conversations. You could also create formal spaces, like Slack channels for sharing good and bad examples of UX copy.

Show up to all meetings 

If you’re the first UX writer in the team, your colleagues might not be sure how to work with you. That means not knowing at what stage to get you involved, which meetings to invite you to, how to give you feedback and what to expect at different stages of the design process.

First order of business: show up to all meetings. Even the ones where you don’t have anything to contribute. This may be uncomfortable at first (I know it was for me), but embrace that discomfort. Being a fly on the wall is a good reason to attend a meeting. Plus, you won’t know if attending the kickoff meeting for a project is valuable if you’re not in it in the first place!

Set up best practices 

You’re the first of your kind and you can set up best practices for collaborating with the design team and best practices for writing.

When I was consulting as a UX writer last year, I realised that it was best for me to be involved on Day 1 on user flows that were heavy on narrative. Think onboarding flows and transition flows. On user flows that were task-based and repetitive, it was best to get my input once the wireframes were approved.

This realisation was the result of a lot of experiments and conversations. Be flexible about different ways of working so that you can learn what works best. And keep talking to your colleagues and your manager about best practices. Once you’re convinced, share them with the rest of the team and set them up for the penguins who will follow you.

You're not alone...

Early on, I found colleagues who believed that UX writing could help create a better user experience. They became my champions — they advocated to get a UX writer involved, they learnt UX writing from me so they could take some things off my overflowing plate and they spoke for me, even when I wasn’t in the room.

Find your champions because you can’t do it all by yourself. You may be the first, but you’re never alone.

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