Blog Post

March 31, 2024

Elevating UX Content Standards: A Page from Print History or — What Would Mom Do?


Jill Nagle

My mother was an editor by trade, and also an aficionado of the written word. She kept a two-volume hard-bound etymology dictionary within arm’s reach at all times, and used it — frequently. She also read more than most people I’ve ever met, and in a Victorian tradition, kept commonplace books (small blank journals) on every available surface in her small dwelling to write down quotes from her reading that sparked her fancy. Every year or two, she would type up her commonplace books’ entries, print them out on a dot-matrix printer and send them to me as a package. Reading them in sequence was a delight. They contained such gems as, “Kierkegaard said that the irony of life is that is lived forward but understood backward,” and “Oliver Sacks, in Awakenings: ‘How are you?’ and ‘How are things?’ are metaphysical questions, infinitely simple and infinitely complex.” Taken together, her voluminous entries seemed to coalesce into their own voice, or personality, and I’ve often thought of publishing them as a collection — Rhoda’s Uncommon Places, or something like that.

For us logophiles, a well-strung-together sentence is more than a literary achievement — it’s like brain candy. I’m certain that if Rhoda had been hooked up to an MRI machine when she captured those quotes, her brain would have lit up like a Chanukah bush. The flip side of her delight in well-wrought prose was her passion for rectifying that which missed the mark. Of her editorial work, she’d say, “I love nothing more than for someone to give me a huge mess, and let me have at it.” She also once looked me in the eye and said, “No one should write unless they feel they have to.”

Duly noted.

Most UX writers and other content professionals I know take similar delight in getting our words just right. But UX writing is a whole other animal from creative writing. We write to enable tasks, not to please with prose. This is partly what drew me to the field — its populist element. In 2022, around 90% of U.S. residents owned a smartphone. We now use them for everything from shopping for groceries to finding a mate. Good UX writing helps people to carry out the work of everyday life irrespective of class, age, “race,” gender, and so on. At its best, it lives at the intersection of empathy, interaction design, and yes — well-crafted, concise, on-purpose words.

So imagine my surprise when after years of working as a print writer and editor myself, I entered the digital world to find such gems as these (thank you Microsoft for providing far more than your fair share of such fodder):

As recently as last week (March, 2024), I stumbled upon this on a microloan site:

If nothing else, it’s good to know Microsoft doesn’t have a monopoly on bad error messages.

In fairness, the digital world comes by these honestly — engineers driven by business, not writers, laid the foundation for computers and later, software (now apps). The field of user experience came after that, and UX writing even later. Large segments of the digital universe still struggle to find seamless ways to integrate UX and UX writing standards in particular with the programming code that drives and enables their products, as the above gems illustrate.

However, UX writers too often face opposition to flexing our expertise from colleagues whose job is other than words. For example, a number of content strategists have told me that their in-house attorneys often insist on capitalizing common nouns to follow legal convention, even though it doesn’t increase understanding, but rather introduces inconsistency with the rest of the content. In this survey for content professionals about UX content standards (open through May 10th, 2024 — please participate if you are able), I asked respondents to indicate their level of agreement with this statement:

“My content expertise at this organization is valued, respected, and well-utilized.”

At the time of this writing (March 26th, 2024), more than a third have responded “Disagree” or “Strongly disagree.” When I first read this, tears welled up in my eyes. It’s hard enough to create great UX content without a company culture that allows engineers, product managers, business leaders and others to insinuate their linguistic misconceptions into UX content strings. With those obstacles, it becomes impossible to consistently implement content standards, even sometimes basic rules of grammar, let alone to co-create organization-wide standards. One respondent said, “There were times when I was working with fast-growing startups who would rather invest in quick wins and the velocity of operations. To define the content standards was a challenge and it never worked out.” This is unfortunately not unusual.

Digital versus print

Traditional print publications (newspapers and magazines), whose success, reputation, and credibility depend on upholding impeccable content standards throughout their pages rely on editors to approve every sentence, phrase, and word before publication. (This is above and beyond fact-checking, which is also important.) By contrast, websites and other digital products notoriously publish UX content inconsistent with both other UX content and also other types of content associated with the company (marketing, emails, customer service, and so on). Most product and service websites and apps have no editor-in-chief counterpart, even though digital products need such safeguards even more urgently than print publications. When print content standards fail, someone might get offended, or a reader might roll their eyes. At most, the publication will correct the error.

Because we now rely on digital products to perform so many vital daily tasks, the risks of failed UX content include the user missing a plane, overdrawing an account, getting an incorrect medical diagnosis, exposing themselves or their families to harm, and so much more. UX words often exceed their mere linguistic meanings — they perform or fail to perform life-altering actions. Companies also face external risks — of lowered net promoter scores, higher customer service costs, and even legal liability. They also face internal risks in the form of reduced morale among their content creators, which could lead to higher turnover.

This nonsensical disparity between print and digital content makes a bit more sense through the lens of history. The ancient Romans brought us the first newspaper in 59 BCE. Germans introduced the first printed newspapers in 1605, and the first magazines in the U.S. came out in 1741. That’s a long time to develop and nurture a language-forward tradition.

By contrast, UX language in digital products is practically larval. The first widespread use of the internet began only thirty years ago, and was driven not by words, but by data. It was less than two decades ago that Apple’s iPhone (in 2007) sparked the current wave of smartphone popularity. We now have more than 4 million apps available across iOS and Android platforms.

In addition to print’s long history, usability also is not new — it goes back millennia[1] to Chinese concepts of feng shui, the attention to the flow of energy within a space and how the items within it impact us, and writings from ancient Greece on ergonomics.[2] However, the first digital products made for public use included little or no attention to usable design or language.

The engineering-forward structure of the digital world persists in today’s tech companies (and in the tech branches of traditional companies such as stores and banks), where the industry standard ratio of developers to designers is between 10:1 and 20:1. Most of us who have been in the field for a while have been on content teams with too few members who get invited to the design table too late and wind up having to advocate for content not only to development teams, but also to designers. In 2022, The UX Writing Hub conducted an annual salary survey of more than 1200 UX writers in tech that found that only 20% of designer to writer ratios were 1:1or 1:2, with more than 60% of respondents falling between 1:1 and 1:5, and only 5% in the 1:20 or more ratio. The article goes on to conclude that “...things are moving in the right direction.”

To move beyond the right direction to an ideal state, it helps to know what that would look like. Print publications offer some valuable clues. One could argue that print publications necessarily value writing more because they’re selling their writing, not a product or service. However, UX writing is not trying to sell its literary value — its aim is to facilitate processes, which I’ve argued above carry even greater risks. With that in mind, when UX writing grows up, it could (and I would argue should) look like its historical predecessor, print publications, in these ways:

  How print does it (and how my mom did it) UX current state (how I’ve done it) UX ideal state (where I’d like us to get to)
Consistent implementation of standards Multiple editorial functions: editor-in-chief, departmental editors, copyeditors Standards implementation varies across the organization State-of-the-art content creation tools that incorporate digital style guides across departments
Overall quality of writing All words published written (or rewritten) by professional writers Professional writing can be overwritten by non-writers Writers have final say on all content (and discussion is valued and pursued)
Filtering for errors Fact-checkers, proofreaders Many stages at which errors get introduced; few or none in which they get remedied Human or digital proofreader
Parts relate to each other, and to the whole — consistent “brand voice” Editorial oversight of multiple departments Parts of a digital product sometimes clash or contradict each other, creating a spotty user experience UX, marketing, email, and other departments work together with editorial oversight to unify the brand experience


A more complete model of UX content maturity, which I’ll cover in my next article in this series (and others also have covered well), would include even more elements, like how the organization creates, publishes, repurposes, evaluates, and ultimately retires content. But for now, let us mind the gap.

In an ideal world, UX writers wouldn’t have to advocate for content as part of the job of creating content. But the digital universe is still finding its content sea legs. So in the meantime, here are some things content professionals can do to elevate content standards within their respective organizations:

  1. Exchange brains with your content colleagues. In the absence of an editor-in-chief, your content colleagues can help keep your content sharp. At eBay in the 2010s, Deanne Wright headed up the very helpful “content collaboration hour,” which after a time, got affectionately renamed to “content comedy hour.” At Symantec, my manager Elizabeth Carlass are required that all content go through peer review, among many other innovations.
  2. Leverage cross-functional relationships for cross-functional consensus-based content standards. Whew, that was a mouthful! Basically, if you can find them, talk to folks in departments like marketing, customer service, and corporate communications as needed. In organizations without structural consistency built into content processes, relationships can go a long way in creating better content standards and user experiences.

    As an example, when I was at OpenTable, I had done an inventory of customer-facing content, but now I was on the restaurant side for a second contract, and new to the environment. My job was to craft a single sentence letting restaurant managers know that their portal would be inaccessible through the summer. The PM and the developer were each sure that they knew just what that sentence should say. I was skeptical.

    I ferreted out a customer service operations manager. I told her what I was doing, and asked if she could give me insight into the language that customer service representatives used with restaurant managers.

    She practically wept with joy.

    She said her team had an incredible wealth of information about how managers used the portal product, but no one had ever asked her to share it, or even cared enough to take her up on her numerous offers to do so, even though she had known for years how valuable it could be.

    We talked for quite a while. It turned out that not only was our initial makeshift sentence all wrong, but we lacked the vital context for writing anything that would have made even basic sense. Without her expert input, our sophomoric sentence could have resulted in numerous expensive customer service calls and lowered net promoter scores. We’ll never know, because she helped us get the words just right.
  1. Research and advocate for adopting state-of-the-art tools like Writer. Modern technology can save human hours, catch errors, and help “consistentify” standards across the organization.    
  2. Make friends with your PM. Your product or project manager has stewardship of what you’re working on, and might think that includes final say about content. In an organization I won’t name, the design team I was part of liked to keep their work under wraps until it was fully baked. I saw time and again that this surprise unveiling method made PMs and other business folks anxious. To manage their anxiety (my analysis), they reacted with numerous requests for changes in the designs and content.

    After witnessing this a couple of times, I started sneaking down to talk to the PM about my content-in-progress. This helped me craft more accurate content, and also built trust with him. Including him in my process removed the surprise factor — he got to see his own input, and how it shaped what I wrote. Instead of anxious, he was relaxed, and signed off easily on the final product, which in turn helped the other stakeholders do the same. This trust allowed for us to have greater say in upholding standards. It’s also a great example of what can happen when when we move from static one-up/one-down interaction by role, e.g., I own this so you do as I say, to a more relational model built on sharing expertise in a container of trust.

In my upcoming two-part participatory workshop (one in April, the other in May), I’ll expand more on that relational model, present a full UX content maturity model, and offer participants the opportunity for generating ideas for furthering standards within your organization. I’ll include responses from this survey, which is open through May 10th, 2024 — please respond before then if you would like to, and haven’t already.  

In the meantime, I encourage you to experiment with small actions to elevate content standards —they can help. I think if my mom were alive today and saw some of those error messages above, she’d probably plotz. Like me, she’d want to make things better. I’d tell her I was trying my best to move the field along, despite the endemic resistance. I think she would cheer me — and all of us — on. I hope she’d be proud.

Next article in series: We’ve Got Standards — Now What?



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