I was terrified the first time I filled out my taxes. Combine dense government jargon with financial anxiety and you have a perfect formula for stress tears. Not only did I dread filing official documents and navigating the legalese, but I was living in Mexico City at the time and felt like help was far away.
Enter my knight, TurboTax. It appeared on the market just in time for my young self—still puzzled by words like “dependents” and “deductions”—to successfully complete a government document.
Today, the platform continues to use clear, plain language to cheer on tax filers. Instead of using a drop-down menu to ask whether you’re filing W-2s or 1099s, the platform uses large buttons and illustrations asking if you “had a job” or “side jobs/contact work.” Like a concerned accountant, it even asks: “How are you feeling about your taxes?” with answers like “Good,” “Not so good,” and “Don’t ask.”
The words used throughout TurboTax’s filing software are an example of very fine UX writing. And as you can probably tell, the discipline has a lot in common with customer service. Good UX writing provides a proactive service by anticipating customer confusion and, ideally, preventing it. Like customer service, UX writing leads to conversations that put people first.
Good UX writing provides a proactive service by anticipating customer confusion and, ideally, preventing it. Like customer service, UX writing leads to conversations that put people first.
I’ve heard UX writers describe their practice as “the words on the buttons.” But it’s more than that, and customer service teams have a lot to gain by collaborating with UX writers.
But first, what is UX writing?
UX Writer Lisa Sanchez defines her field as one that’s sensitive and accepting of everyone:
“UX writing (and design) needs to be accessible to users with different abilities, so that everyone can have a great experience, whether they navigate software with their eyes or ears, whether they see certain colors or not. UX writing needs to be inclusive, so as not to alienate any potential audiences. Often it needs to be easily translatable, so it can be internationalized across linguistic, geographical, and cultural boundaries.
You encounter UX writing every time you use an app or the internet. When it’s doing its job well, you don’t even notice it.”
However, when users do notice it, you can bet they’ll call customer service. In this way, UX writing and customer service are inextricably linked. Both require many of the same skills: empathy, inclusivity, active listening, understanding the language your customers use, and sensitivity about how your own words might be received.
Technically, UX writing is every piece of writing you see—no matter how small—inside a product. It’s Siri’s cheekiness, Alexa’s preference for Budweiser. It is, as Sanchez points out, Lyft asking you whether you’d like to ride with “Me +1 friend” versus Uber asking straightforwardly for the number of seats you need. UX writing reflects the brand persona—or, as content strategists call it, the voice and tone—of the company.
Practitioners also rely heavily on user research to make an informed decision about the words users will connect with. Their ultimate goal is to decrease the number of complaints about the product that goes to customer service but to do that, UX writers should work with customer service from the very beginning.
“Customer service agents are your premier resource for what people are asking for,” says Jess Vice, UX lead at Clearlink in Salt Lake City.
Vice and other UX professionals shared how the two camps can mind-meld to make both of their jobs easier.
Talk like a customer
To Ryan Cordell, a content designer at Deliveroo in the UK, customer service teams are invaluable resources. They can help to create the conversational interfaces and user flows he’s aiming for. Customers need to know the why and the how behind businesses’ decisions, and they need those explanations to be told in a human, natural way.
“Customer service is so important because they know the vocabulary users are using,” he says. “It’s easier for users to understand you if they aren’t having to work hard to understand the language. It makes the whole experience feel more like a conversation, and UX writing is all about trying to make it a conversation between the user and the product—that you’re having a drink at the pub, rather than you’re being interviewed by the product, so aiming to be as conversational as possible.”
To accomplish that, Cordell has started collaborating more with his customer service colleagues. He advocates pair-writing, or sitting down with a customer service rep and writing the first draft of an interface together. That way, customer service professionals can be consulted in the moment to draw out their expertise. They can share the way that users speak, and UX writers can finesse and polish that language into its final form and ensure that it’s used consistently across a product.
He advocates pair-writing, or sitting down with a customer service rep and writing the first draft of an interface together.
Outside of language, customer service agents know where problems arise. They have intimate knowledge of where or when customers begin to fall off, get frustrated, or confused. This makes customer service agents expert consultants on user experiences and how those should unfold over time—what questions should be answered, and when.
“You’re sitting on a gold mine,” Vice says. “You have the words for what people are asking for and the temperament of people, if they bought a thing that’s not working… Customer service has a feel for how to answer those questions.”
Designing with customer service—early on
As a UX writer, Vice says that she first looks at sales calls and taps into customer service conversations and writes down what users ask, using the customer’s exact language. “The first thing a customer asks is usually the question that needs to be answered within the product itself—through UX writing.
Ideally, a customer service team’s expertise will be tapped even earlier in the process. To Zach Pousman, chief product officer of Helpfully in Atlanta, customer service orgs and data are underused, underestimated resources in product development.
“When a product doesn’t just look easy but feels easy, it’s because it matches the mental model in your head,” Pousman explains.
And customer service could be the key to understanding people’s mental models—their expectations of how a product should work.
Pousman leads what he calls “data yardsales,” inviting members from disparate parts of a company to share an internal data point or finding that really popped out at them. That way, content creators for customer service teams can stay on top of what UX writers are up to and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa.
“UX writers should collaborate with customer service to define and name what is the right timescale and cadence for a particular interaction,” Pousman says. “The people who know how those things should unfold is customer support. They see where the product might fall down and know how many touches are needed to accomplish the task.”
With the help of customer support, UX writers can create even more powerful products. They might even prevent more twentysomethings like me from crying on Tax Day.
Based in Sacramento, Rebecca Huval writes about design and the many ways it intersects with our world, including tech, food and culture. Her bylines have appeared in publications such as the Awl, GOOD and Communication Arts, where she served as managing editor. Find her on Twitter: @bhuval.