The life and times of a UX writer with Torrey Podmajersky

11 min read David Renwick

Welcome to our third speaker interview for UX New Zealand 2019 (check out our other interviews with Gregg Bernstein and Nate Foulds). In the lead up to the conference, we’re catching up with the people who’ll be sharing their stories with you at the conference in October. Today, we chat with Torrey Podmajersky, a UX Writer at Google and the author of Strategic Writing for UX.

Thanks for chatting with us Torrey. Let’s dive in with a little bit about your background. What was your path into UX writing like? How did you get started?

Torrey: It’s funny, I did not start in anything like a normal way, because UX writing was so difficult to hire for in 2010, when I was hired to do that at Xbox. They already had a very small writing team at the time that they had inherited as a result of technical writing needs, and the writing manager knew that he needed to hire another. But it’s funny – the title of UX writer/content designer or anything like that just didn’t exist.

At the time, I was looking to transition from doing internal communications at Microsoft into more of product-oriented work. So it seemed to be a great fit. And actually, that writing manager talked me into it, because he knew that I had been a high school teacher. I taught high school science for nine years, and he said, “Perfect. You can explain difficult abstract concepts to teenagers, and have them not hate you at the end and probably have them pass a test.”

It’s fairly well known that Microsoft was one of the pioneers of the importance of UX copy, especially with regards to Microsoft Office. What was that culture like when you were there?

Torrey: So it’s worth mentioning that every part of Microsoft is separate from every other part, or at least that was the case when I was there.

It was the various products people were working on or even the teams inside those products that really defined what that culture was. And that culture when I was working at Xbox was incredibly collaborative and incredibly user-focused because we knew who our audience was and we knew how we wanted to expand that audience. So we knew about the core gamer and the people who were already Xbox enthusiasts at that point because we had shipped the Xbox 360 several years before.

We knew that for every household with an Xbox, there was usually one person in that house that knew how to use it and was excited about it. But we also knew that they lived with other people who could potentially also be excited about it. So focusing on the core user and that core user’s family made it really easy to make product decisions and UX decisions. It kept everybody on the same page.

Talking about the Xbox specifically, can you speak a little bit about the relationship between marketing copy and UX copy, and how those work together?

Torrey: Absolutely. It’s important as soon as the people turn the Xbox on and are looking at the UX for the first time themselves. There’s a clear transition from marketing copy, like, “What does the box say? What do the ads say? What does the flyer say or the poster?”. And then people set it up, they’re turning it on. How does it greet them? How do they, or if their family member has set it up, how does it include them or exclude them when a new person wants to play for the first time? That is a UX problem, in the sense of a design problem that needs to be solved.

Do you know much about how that process worked in other parts of the company?

Torrey: I actually don’t think it’s very different anywhere else. Not just at Microsoft, but anytime you’ve got a team that understands their user. No matter if they are inside Microsoft or making a consumer app or an enterprise app. If they know who their users are and who they want to target next, every experience maker is looking to grow the audience and the appeal of their product.

It sounds, more than many other UX roles, like UX writers spend a significant amount of time working across a range of products and services. Can you speak to that at all?

Torrey: When I’m generally presenting to my teams, or talking about what I do or what I’ve done, people get this surprised look on their face. Because they say, “Well, how did you have time to work on all of those things? How did you ship those nine different features?” And the problem with UX writing is that it is endemic to everything. The writing, the words in any experience are probably about half of what a person experiences. People need to use those words for navigation, and control, and all of the functions, all of those user experience interactions. And there are very, very few UX writers to go around.

So whether I am consulting on those features, or engaged with the design process, or just editing them as a last minute thing, the context switching for a UX writer is pretty intense. Because I’ll be talking about one feature with one team, and then my next meeting will be a different feature with a different team, sometimes with a totally different audience.

So that’s something that I think every professional UX writer is working hard at right now. I mean maybe not every writer, but a large majority of UX writers are working on how they manage their time and energy so that they can be most effective? And, how do they prioritize the work to be done so that the most important work is getting done well, and the rest of the work is pointed out to say, “That can’t be done with the staffing and resources we have right now”.

Engagement and conversion are thrown around quite a bit when talking about UX writing. But also, in my experience at least, that’s also one of the prime concerns of a marketing copywriter. So there’s definitely a crossover, but where is it? How important is collaboration here?

Torrey: There’s a diagram I put in the first chapter of my book that talks about the entire life cycle of getting customers into a business or interested in a product. Getting them onboarded, engaged into that product, supporting them if anything goes wrong, and hopefully transforming them into repeat customers or fans of the experience. And hopefully then they also bring along their friends and family or coworkers, or whatever’s appropriate for that experience.

What happened then is the first part of that cycle really is the domain of core marketing and copywriting, the descriptions of the app, the positioning in the marketplace. The social media engagement that uses that brand voice extremely well, and differently than the UX writer does. That’s where to entice and engage and make things that are snappy lines, and very memorable taglines, for example.

And then that person really cares about the funnel, and getting people to the point of purchasing and engagement in that first moment of using the experience. And sometimes that that moment is bridged by a different person entirely, doing sales. So we have the marketing motion, the sales motion, and then when people are in the experience: that’s when the UX text really needs to shine.

Interestingly, and this is especially true for enterprise apps, the people who need to be engaged with the marketing and the advertising and who are committed to the sale are not the people who are going to use the experience every day. For example, in an education environment, it’s school boards and administrators that choose the software for the school district. And then it’s teachers and students who end up using it.

So it’s very different audiences there for the two groups. But even when they’re the same group, if the copywriting before the moment of sale and the UX text after the sale are not aligned, if they don’t feel like the same product, that’s a big problem. So there needs to be a lot of alignment there.

In New Zealand and Australia we’re just now starting to see the growth of UX design as a practice. Do you have any advice for UX writers and UX designers who need to make the case for why UX writing needs a seat at the table – and even in the organization in the first place?

Torrey: This is something that plenty of companies are still struggling with. Whether that’s Microsoft, or Google, or even Facebook. I mean, Facebook has a bunch of content strategists, Google has a bunch of UX writers. Microsoft has a content developers and content designers and UX writers. Part of the problem here is the difference in titles and also the widespread title differences. But trying to make the case for, “Why should we have this person or somebody in charge of this?” is a tough thing to do, until you start saying, “Hey, if we took out all the words on this screen that we’re designing, nobody could use it at all. If we took out all the labels and the titles and descriptions, it’s unusable.”

In fact, for most of the experiences we design, the text is half or more of what people interact with. That text creates a story and creates a sense of the brand. We can build people’s confidence, we can hint at what’s coming next.

So when the value of UX writing is made clear, people tend to get it pretty fast. But it’s making that case and finding different approaches that is difficult. It helps that there’s more books coming out about it, it helps that it’s becoming more widely recognized, “Hey, these people are great at that.” Well, they have somebody full-time, writing those words. Turns out, that’s an area that makes sense to invest in.

Let’s chat about sharing and consistency. Setting up the processes so that, when writers come back in the future, or a designer comes back to look at something or some part of the app, there’s an explanation for why it’s written the way it is.

Torrey: I like to ask people, “Are you shipping things with words on it?” If you are shipping experiences that have letters next to each other that form words, or characters in non-letter-based languages, then you have UX writers. Are those the UX writers that should be doing it? Or is it everybody doing a little bit of it? What are you doing to keep them consistent? What are you doing to make sure that you have only hired people to do the UX writing, who have capability in the language that you’re shipping in?

If you’re shipping in say, American English as we generally do in the US, are you only hiring people that have English as their first language? Whether it’s the engineers or the product owners or the support personnel, do you look at their writing samples before you hire them?

It’d be pretty silly to do that, but at the same time, it’s also pretty silly that we have historically not been paying much attention to the language skills of the people who are putting all of this language in front of our customers. People spend a lot more time with the UI text than they do with any single piece of marketing text, and that marketing text I know gets a lot more scrutiny.

So if we just switch gears, can you explain a little bit about what you do at the School of Visual Concepts?

Torrey: Sure! The School of Visual Concepts is a Seattle-based independent school. I developed the UX writing curriculum there several years ago with Elly Searle, and have been teaching sections of it ever since. It’s a 5 week class, so classes once a week for 3 hours each week. We go through the very fundamentals of what it is it to be a writer.

This means everything from defining voice to creating and editing text to be conversational, clear, purposeful and concise. We also go through critique of that in class, and eventually come out the other end with portfolio pieces. This means that these students, some of whom are already designers, some of whom are looking to get into UX design, have some of these fundamental UX writing skills so that they can make their designs really sing.

Thanks Torrey. Just to wrap up, what are you looking forward to most about UX New Zealand?

Torrey: I am so excited! I’ve never been to New Zealand before. I have heard amazing things about Kiwis in general. So I’m really excited to just breathe new air and see the ocean from a different perspective. I’m also there to learn a little bit about the culture. I’m taking a few days before the conference to just enjoy Wellington a little bit. And then at UX New Zealand, similarly soaking up the UX culture of a new place. We’re are all making this up as we go along, and we make it up better when we do that together and when we learn from each other.

We’re all still struggling with the same fundamental curiosities of figuring out how we interact with humans at scale. Whether it’s to delight them, or inform them, or enable them or empower them, whatever it is we are doing with those humans, we’re trying to work out the right ways to do it. What are the ethical ways to do it? What are the effective ways to do it? I’m looking forward to having those conversations at the conference.