Design lessons #3: (Written) communication is key

August 22, 2020

Design inevitably involves working with other people, and working with other people means talking to them. Sometimes we can chat in person, but most opportunities for communication come in the form of the written word. Emails. Slack posts. JIRA comments. Google docs.

In fact, not only does text dominate interactions within our teams, it’s also the number one way our products communicate with users. Consider how blank and meaningless your favorite app or product becomes when stripped of its text:

Communication is the magical ingredient which allows us to pool our effort, work together, and create something none of us could individually. Writing is one of the most powerful and common types of communication. With it we can reach hundreds or thousands of people at once, cut across timezones, bolster our memory, and scaffold our ideas.

Writing, and writing well, is an essential part of good design work. I think designers often underestimate the power of including this tool in their toolbox. Some may recoil from calling themselves a “writer”, others may prefer to leave the word-smithing to the experts. But a designer who can write well makes themselves both a more effective team member and a better designer.

Much of a designer’s day to day success depends on written communication. If I can’t clearly explain my idea in an email or JIRA story then my idea becomes far less valuable, potentially even harmful if it ends up causing confusion instead.

You can always call a meeting to hash through a particularly thorny topic, but I’ve found that even after extended discussion both parties often walk away with very different versions of the original idea.

Writing forces you — and helps you — to crystallize your own thoughts and provides a more tangible artifact you can review, question, and refer back to when communicating with others.

Written communication also forms the backbone of the products we ultimately spend our time designing. I think this can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of user testing, wire framing, refining visual design, tweaking animations, etc. At the end of the day, it’s words on the screen that guide users through the product and allow them to control features or create content.

Yes, we work with UX Writers and Content Strategists, and we try to practice content-first design. These roles and practices are awesome, but they don’t replace the communication-oriented mindset of a designer who takes writing seriously. Experts and specialists can help refine your work, but incorporating writing earlier into your design process can give you a much stronger foundation to stand on later.

At the end of the day, good design means taking writing seriously. You don’t have to be an amazing writer (I know I’m not). Just recognize the importance, put some effort in, and try to get better, bit by bit.

— Parker

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