Design Leader Insights - Katherine Karaus on UX Writing

May 24, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a user experience consultancy focused on creating simple and intuitive digital experiences. Hey Katherine, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Katherine Karaus: Hey Alex, thanks for having me.

Alex Smith: Yeah, awesome. And do you want to give the audience a little bit of context and background in your journey in UX writing?

Katherine Karaus: Sure. Let's see. Short story, long road. I started transitioning into UX around like 2016, 2017. Started just freelance writing. And over the years, built up a portfolio. Quit my day job, went full time freelance. Then I did a contract at Intuit, moved on to full time life at LinkedIn, and bounced around a little bit. Now I'm at Google. I'm a Senior UX Writer, on the help experience team and working on that help center. I think you might be the first if not, maybe the second UX Writer to come on the show, which is awesome. 

Alex Smith: We don't get to talk to y'all a lot. But how should teams, be it UX teams, I don't know if every UX team has a UX writer, and they probably should, more product teams or engineering teams. How should they collaborate and think about UX writing?

Katherine Karaus: That's a great question. You have hit the nail on the head that there's a real dearth of UX writers. So often, teams might be making do with no writers, or one writer, who then burns out and tears their hair out and has a lot of trouble. Definitely, like ratios are kind of a hot topic in this industry. So usually, you'll have like one writer to meet like, five or 10 designers, and that is wild. I will say that in the best case scenario, you have a reasonable ratio of writers to designers, maybe like one writer to two or three designers tops. One to one would be fabulous too. Then we could really give every single project like all the polish it deserves, and do all the design system work that needs to happen. But generally speaking, like you, as a designer, or working with a writer, you will want to understand kind of their workload and their bandwidth, because it may be very different depending on that ratio, and depending on how the writer is being managed, right? So if you have a really wonderful supportive manager, they're going to protect your time and help you stay focused on really high impact work. That's really important to the business. If you have a less good manager, then they're gonna say put out all the fires, handle all the strings. Don't let anything ship without sprinkling a little bit of word fairy dust on it, which is not great because that is not really UX writing that is like glorified and highly overpaid copywriting. And that's not where we want to be. We want to be working really deeply with our designers, we want to be, you know, able to weigh in as much on the design, as they do really, and have our, you know, designers help us with the words. So it's like a real back and forth a real partnership. And those kinds of collaborations are really, really the best when you can swing it.

Alex Smith: Tell me about the mindset about research, like walk us through, kind of like the exploratory phases of either new or maybe redesigning an experience from that UX writer lens. Like what goes into that process?

Katherine Karaus: Yeah, so the work of a UX writer is very, very similar to that of a UX designer, we just look at it from a slightly different lens. So we're going to be like hyper focused on questions of like terminology. So we might be thinking about like, well, what words do people use to explain the concepts that we need to communicate about? So we might be digging into things like support content, we might be, like hyper focused on the transcripts to find like the vocabulary that pops up naturally throughout interviews. My big thing with research is whenever I look at the brief, I am hyper focused on what words are we introducing and what concepts are we introducing through our questions? And can we delete those? Can we take away the jargon and can we make it plain language so that way we can discover through the interview, what the person is, what the person thinks. So that we don't head to jargon town and totally confused everyone. Everybody has so much, so much belief that everyone knows the weird techie words that we know and it's not the case. 

Alex Smith: How should organizations be saying, hey that was a successful UX writing initiative?

Katherine Karaus: Right. Well, we measure our work the same way that other designers measure their work. And ideally, adding a UX writer to the mi will just make you more successful at the same metrics that you've been looking at, right? But in terms of like measuring writing specifically, beyond like looking to the metrics that you already have in place for your project anyway, that you're driving, you can measure things like readability for sure. That's a really simple one that you can do yourself because Microsoft Word has inbuilt like grade level assessments, right? So you can just check that you can say like, yeah, we improved the writing level three grade levels, and that's a great boom for accessibility. That's a good one. Another thing that you can add in this kind of goes back to research is like, card sorting entry testing. Those are two, two ways to really assess like, are you grouping and categorizing elements correctly? Are you using labels that are descriptive? And that makes sense to people? And you can kind of co-design that to really understand how to group things.

Alex Smith: That makes sense. And what about like incorporation into a design system, ensuring that that UX writing is consistent throughout an organization or like a specific product experience?

Katherine Karaus: Yeah, that's a great question. I think there's a lot of chatter right now about like, how can how can writing guidance be more integrated with the design system? Because designers are looking at the design system, and they're probably never going to open your separate style guide that you've so lovingly crafted. Yeah, we're really sad about that. So like, as much as you can like linking to the design system. Could you, can you start with some kind of like framework, you could actually write in your patterns to the components. So that's a really wonderful way to like encourage compliance and encourage designers to think about the words at the most basic level when they pull in a component to use. But yeah, we're also going to be building out like more specific kinds of guidance, like word lists, terminology, do this not that. Showing examples is like really one of the best ways that we can help designers kind of like get it. It's like a general writing role may seem a little bit opaque. But then when you see like an example, a good example, next to a bad example, it really helps clarify for folks, what do you need to be doing.

Alex Smith: I love that. And that's a great transition to our next question, which is advice for new designers getting in the field today, be it designers or people looking to transition into UX writing. What would you, where would you point those people? What kind of advice do you have there?

Katherine Karaus: Well, I wrote a whole article about this, it's on my LinkedIn. So maybe we can link this for you. It has my favorite UX writing resources. I think getting into the field is really, really tough, especially now, especially in the current climate. I started as a freelancer, and I honestly can't recommend it enough. It is a great way to cut your teeth on small projects, with clients who really don't know what they're doing, like they've never hired a writer or maybe they've never hired a designer before. So they just know they need help. So like whatever you're going to be able to do for them is going to be better than what they can do themselves. And you get to learn along the way, at a kind of like a low, in a low stakes environment. So definitely love freelancing. It's a great way to build out your portfolio, I always recommend having real projects in your portfolio as soon as you possibly can. All of these are really like solid matches. But as far as writing skill goes, you need to be able to be concise. You need to be able to ruthlessly edit, you need to be able to be your own editor.  You can't have mistakes in your content because no one else is checking it. You are your own editor, the buck stops with you. So you need those writing skills. But really, it's so much more about thinking through business problems, thinking through customer needs, thinking, having that like deep, deep sense of empathy and understanding how you can use words to get you to the right places. So it's a very particular skill set. You know, I wouldn't assume, just because a person can write wonderful essays that they're going to be a good UX writer because it is a totally, it's a totally different application. Yeah, that's, you can kind of string it together as I did from like a mix of freelance work and like just seeing something and knowing it could be better and practicing that and practicing communicating about why you made the choices you made. You really have to be able to speak to and justify every single word every single line in this work. So having an extremely, having extremely clear thinking is really the only requirement I would say.

Alex Smith: All right, Katherine, thank you so much for joining the show. These insights are awesome.

Katherine Karaus: Oh, thank you so much. Hope you have a great day.