6 things I’ve learned about writing user interface text

#1) UI is the hardest kind of techwriting there is.

As a writer for Microsoft, that’s the first thing I learned about UI. You’ll never spend more time writing fewer words. Actually, that’s not quite the right way to say it, because…

#2) UI writing isn’t writing.

It’s user experience design. If a software design team hands you a finished interface and wants you to spray some words on it, you’re too late. Why? Because the writing *is* the user interface, and UI needs to be designed with language in mind from the ground up. Language is how people think. A colleague of mine once made a brilliant presentation about the value of words in UI: he showed a screen shot of software with all the words removed. What was left? Gray boxes. Now, those boxes had some cool drop shadows, and I’m sure there was a ton of complicated programming involved in making the boxes move around, but I’m going to guess a design like that wouldn’t make it too far through usability testing.

#3) Make friends.

Gain respect from program managers, designers, and engineers early in the product design cycle, when they’re first writing the specs. You want them to see you as contributing something essential to the team. Face it: technical types don’t generally think writers have important things to contribute to software design. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they had to take classes in college like Discreet Mathematical Structures, while you took classes like Harry Potter: Myth, Magic, and Morality (I love you, UCSC). However, no matter how smart they are, technical people tend to think terms like “stack overflow” and “fatal exception” make perfect sense in UI.

#4) Be assertive.

Maybe it’s Microsoft, but I bet it’s everywhere else. Program managers and engineers are competitive and opinionated. Technical writers tend to be introverted and circumspect. Now, there’s nothing wrong with introverts (although in a tech company, you may begin to question this), but to earn respect, you have to be verbally assertive (even if you’re bluffing, and especially if you’re female). Try to start an argument during a meeting for bonus points, just to practice holding your ground.

#5) You’re underqualified.

See point #2: UI writing is user experience design. Now, there are relevant UI degrees out there, but most technical writers don’t have them. Techwriters are mostly UI writers by fiat, because UI contains words, and writers write words. If you really want to contribute to good UI, though, learn more about it.

#6) It takes a nation of millions to write OK/Cancel

Imagine yourself writing something. Are you picturing a conference room, full of people who aren’t writers, arguing over every character you’ve proposed? Challenging your authority on every letter of every word? Pushing you for revisions for months on end? Are you envisioning the result of this trial being a few labels, and maybe a sentence fragment or two? User interface writing brings design by committee to a whole new plateau – bring your air tank. Why? Two reasons: UI text is the most important techwriting there is, and everyone thinks they’re a writer. Your job is to prove that you’re a better writer than they are (a given) and that you understand UI design as well as they do (here’s where the work comes in).

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3 Responses to 6 things I’ve learned about writing user interface text

  1. This is great, Cheryl! As a writer on your team, I couldn’t agree more. You’ve really nailed these 6 points. Great post!

  2. Lynne Watanabe says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    I’m a fellow UW MCDM’er and I found this post to be very true (and so amusing!). Hope we have class together next quarter.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Thanks Lynne and Shannon :-) Lynne, I’ll be in Kathy’s class next quarter.

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