Right now is a very interesting time to be a copywriter in the UK. As an industry, copywriting seems to be going through something of an identity crisis.
On the one hand, you have the copywriting old guard: extremely skilled and experienced craftspeople who cut their teeth in the Golden Age of Advertising or have followed in the footsteps of those who did.
Joy for these venerable wordsmiths is in delivering a piece of long form copy powerful enough to change a person’s entire worldview while they’re sitting at a bus stop. Or crafting a one-line zinger so taut and on-the-money it can cause a giggle-fit in a library.
“As an industry, copywriting seems to be going through something of an identity crisis.”
On the other hand, you have the new generation of copywriters. Weaned on tales of the Golden Age, but presented with a drastically changed landscape, they’ve had to adapt to a completely different way of working: more platforms, more knowledge, less trust and less time.
Joy for these multimedia multitaskers is in hits, dwell time, shares, trends, virality and any other measure of effectiveness.
One side bemoans the other’s lack of craft and creativity, the other side can’t believe the first ever had it so easy.
And that’s just the view from the inside.
A 2015 DMA poll found that copywriters on the whole aren’t happy. 54% cited a lack of respect in the industry for the value of copywriting, while 28% believed that if a project’s budget were to be cut, copywriting would be the first role to go. Veteran copywriter Tony Brignull (pictured above) even went so far as to say that ‘Copywriting is dead’.
But why? There’s never been a greater need for copywriters. With the rise of voice user interfaces like Amazon’s Alexa, conversational UI and chat bots, AI and machine learning, and automated phone services, the whole industry is looking for ways to have better quality, more cost-effective dialogues with users.
“The whole industry is looking for ways to have better quality, more cost-effective dialogues with users.”
These kind of information exchanges need skilled narrative and conversational designers — specialists in language and communication.
It’s an open goal for copywriting talent.
How did we end up here?
How is it that copywriters now feel pushed out of the conversation and relegated to the kiddies’ table? To understand, I think it’s useful to compare how the disciplines of copywriting and design have evolved quite differently over the last few decades.
As we touched on above, ‘copywriting’ today is such a broad term neither those within it nor those on the banks of it know quite where its edges are. A single role can include:
- print advertising and marketing
- digital advertising and marketing
- TV advertising and marketing
- social media and community management
- technical writing
- web content writing
- video and voiceover scripting
- content strategy (in the absence of a content strategist)
Just these few examples represent an enormous and insurmountable skillset for just one role, especially given how quickly the digital landscape can change. Ultimately this leaves your average copywriter spread very thin — a jack of all media, master of none.
So let’s park ‘copywriter’ for a moment and look at the other specialisms in commercial writing.
On the whole, they tend to be defined by subject matter. For example:
- finance writer
- legal writer
- property writer
- non-profit writer
- corporate or business writer
This, of course, is a good thing. These industries are rife with technical terms, impenetrable jargon, obscure legalese and unique ways of working. They need subject matter experts who are also brilliant communicators to break down the acronyms and steer readers of all backgrounds through it.
But compare this to design as a discipline.
What was once simply known as ‘graphic design’ has split and split again into a huge range of specialisms. For instance:
- visual designer
- UI designer
- UX designer
- graphic artist
- web designer
- app designer
- games designer
- 3D animator
- photo retoucher
That’s without even touching development as a form of design. Which it is.
But consider these roles for a moment. They aren’t defined by subject matter, like copywriting, but largely by platforms and processes. They’ve evolved as a direct response to emerging technologies and user behaviours. Crucially, they’ve also evolved in parallel with developer tools and workflows (as Sandijs Ruluks illustrates here).
This means better and better integration of workflows, language and resources between designers and developers — to the extent that processes like atomic design are now possible.
This is great news for service design. But in all this excitement… who’s watching the words?
In my experience, when it comes to delivering new online tools and services there is a large and obvious skills gap on most service design teams: there’s no one to champion language.
At the early stages of a project, it often falls to designers and developers to fill this gap and make do as best they can. This is not their fault. And it’s not fair on them.
“Despite the team’s best efforts, copy will always come second to design.”
The result is that, despite the team’s best efforts, copy will always come second to design. So at what point does it become important?
All too often as a copywriter I’ve been brought in part-way through or even at the end of a design project. And usually with the same impossible brief…
Finesse the design
Firstly, if you’re bringing a copywriter onto a project to ‘finesse’ an already-agreed design solution, there’s a good chance your design is more broken than you think. Secondly, you’re presenting the copywriter with a lose-lose scenario.
Let’s say it goes to plan. The copywriter recommends some substantial, impactful changes to the design and they take no time at all to implement. The project gets across the line and everyone is happy. But the copywriter’s input remains nothing more than a footnote. Copywriting remains stuck at the kiddie table. Fair enough, you might think. And I’d agree. Except, this scenario never actually happens.
More likely is that the copywriter doesn’t have time to make substantial, well-informed changes, or there simply aren’t the resources (or appetite) to implement them properly. It’s too late in the project. So either the project hits the skids, with the copywriter to blame, or it crosses the line with poor or inconsistent copy and, you guessed it, the copywriter to blame.
All of the above outcomes serve to continue eroding the perceived value of copywriters (we’re already unhappy, remember) when in fact, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use them effectively.
How to start using your copywriter well
1. Understand the scale of their task
When thinking about copy for a digital design project, it’s easy to overlook quite how much there actually is. Bringing in a writer part-way through might seem logical. But consider the nuts and bolts of the UI more closely.
As well as the usual headers and body copy you’ve all sorts of hidden text and microcopy to factor in, such as:
- contextual help and tooltips
- error messaging
- in-line validation
- interstitial screen content
- form fields
- legal notices
- UI animations
All of which can represent significant challenges when it comes to ensuring quality, accuracy, consistency and proper governance. A copywriter needs the time and resources to manage all of these effectively.
2. Plug the skills gap
Designing a friendly, conversational UI without the help of someone skilled in narrative structure, language, nuance and persuasion is like trying to play ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on a tuba. A) It’s bloody hard work, and B) the audience may tap along, but nobody’s falling in love.
Every single user touchpoint and every piece of visible copy (including all the microcopy) is an opportunity to demonstrate your brand’s unique tone of voice and actively engage with the user and how they’re feeling at that precise moment.
Are they angry? Help them resolve their frustration or give them somewhere to vent. Are they sad? Cheer them up or give them a shoulder to cry on. Are they anxious? Reassure them they’re doing the right thing. Are they excited? Give them a high five.
You cannot do this with visual design alone. It needs the right words, delivered in the right way, at just the right time. Great content happens when copy and interface work seamlessly together.
“Great content happens when copy and interface work seamlessly together.”
To achieve this as a service design team, copywriting needs a seat at the table, right from the start.
What’s preventing copywriting from being an integral role in every service design team? I believe it comes down to four things:
- Client understanding of the user and business benefits of good copywriting
- Universal understanding of how to use copywriters effectively
- Tools and processes to integrate designers, developers, and copywriters
- Platform-specific job titles for copywriters to clarify job specs and simplify recruitment
Copywriting isn’t dead
On the subject of point 4, earlier we touched on the enormous, soul-crushingly unachievable skillset required of a copywriter today, from print ad campaign concepting to in-app microcopy-writing. How did one role end up encompassing so much?
Perhaps in our arrogance, we believed we could apply the same universal writing skills to any medium. Perhaps we’re a jealously elitist cabal that fears change. Perhaps we just don’t like saying no to people.
Either way, it’s meant that while an HR manager or recruiter can quickly find a suitable designer for a project, finding the right copywriter for a job is like searching for a needle in a haystack made of needles.
So perhaps it’s time we acknowledge that ‘copywriter’ as a descriptor is just too damn broad. What the industry needs are clearly defined specialists in platforms and processes that complement the specialisms of designers and developers.
One such specialist role is ‘UX writer’.
What is a UX writer?
The role of a UX writer is to craft and govern the verbal and conversational elements of a user interface. Working with UX designers, visual designers, and developers, they weave business needs and user needs into an effective narrative structure that uses clear and empathetic language.
“The role of a UX writer is to craft and govern the verbal and conversational elements of a user interface.”
What does a UX writer do?
Here are just a few tasks to fill the billable day:
- Integrate fully with design, development and client teams from the project’s outset
- Adopt the same agile processes (if agile is your bag), workflows and delivery goals
- Speak the language of designers and developers
- Use the same collaborative tools (or at least, compatible ones) as designers and developers
- Work with the delivery team to find verbal and visual narrative design solutions
- Partner in user or audience research
- Collaborate across the entire team (marketing, IA, project management) to improve copywriting and communication
- Partner with content strategists to ensure the effectiveness, appropriateness and proper governance of language
- Write amazing copy
- Teach and empower others to write amazing copy
A UX writer doesn’t:
- take all the copy worries away from the design and development team
- work alone in a corner
- berate people for grammatical infractions and drag the whole discipline into nazi territory
- use page tables (at least exclusively)
Proof it works
I know what you might be thinking. Here’s yet another team member we now have to explain to clients — selling UX design is hard enough. We don’t have a workflow for this. We don’t know how to budget for this. It’ll never work…
Well, it already is working.
On the west coast of America, UX writers are popping up in design teams for some of the world’s leading tech companies, from Google to PayPal. They’re already fixing the problem. (Kristina Bjoran has some great examples here).
And of course, let’s not forget there are lots of agencies and organizations in the UK already employing highly skilled and talented copywriters as part of their design teams. They’re simply working under a range of job titles. ‘UX writer’ just gives their role some heft.
So what can you expect as an outcome of having a UX writer on your team?
- A more efficient design process: better results more quickly
- More reliable user testing: prototype the complete design, not just the visuals
- Less stressed designers: free to focus on what they do best
- Better copy: no more second-guessing or copywriting by committee
- Improved verbal and narrative design skills across the team
- More detailed and collaborative style guides: not a forgotten document in a cupboard
So we’ve established there’s a problem with copywriting in the UK today. We’ve explored reasons why this may be the case and we’ve found a solution. The question now is: do you care enough to do something about it?
I’m talking to you, copywriters. And you, project managers. And yeah, you too, designers. This is a role that can’t work in isolation, but its benefits to the industry and design team as a whole are huge.
It needs early adopters here in the UK.
So what do you say? Let’s bring UX writing to these great and noble shores and show our US cousins a thing or two about UI design.