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Evolving from writers to UX writers

Elizabeth Hui Reese, Microsoft

Talk to anyone who started out as a tech writer at the beginning of this century, and they’ll regale you with stories of spending time in big docs, long publishing times, and an inability to change things quickly. I started out during this period, editing big binders of training materials for our customers who were studying to gain Microsoft certifications. These days, it’s rare for me to write an article that’s more than 100 words. The focus of the writers on my team is no longer on text-heavy documentation, but on how to craft the right in-product messaging that’s targeted, helpful, and delightful—all in phrases that are sometimes shorter than a 140-character tweet.

And it’s our customers who have driven this evolution. Time is a valued commodity, and any taken away from the task they’re trying to complete because they have to read an article about how to do it has a direct impact on their satisfaction in using our products. Our challenge as writers has been to figure out how to meet our customers where they are and serve up valuable tips and information in ways that are easily discoverable and consumable.

How did we do it? The first thing we considered was how we were talking to our customers. What was the voice and tone of Microsoft? How were the words we were using affecting our conversations? Several years ago, several writing teams at Microsoft, working independently at first, but then coming together with our peers in Marketing and Branding, looked at how we’d been talking to our customers. We quickly realized that our words were getting in the way—sometimes preventing people from getting the info they needed. So we developed three voice principles—Clear and concise, Ready to lend a hand, and Warm and relaxed. We’ve applied them across all our content, from pre-sales marketing to end-of-life support content and for all audiences, from average end-users to highly technical developers and IT admins. In addition to grounding our writing, we’ve been able to point engineering partners to these principles when there have been concerns around the language, and they’ve provided us with a way to talk about our audience and how to meet their needs through the UX and content.

The next thing we turned our attention towards was the data. Our goal as UX writers is not only to impart information, but also to create clarity. And we’ve learned that we can’t base decisions on our assumptions about our customers’ needs. Having the ability to experiment with both our product UI and on help articles has provided some valuable insights, which in turn have allowed us to show how the specific skills of our writers can have a tangible effect on the bottom line.

Take for example the first-run experience for the Microsoft Edge mobile app, where the original version was very text heavy, and it was unclear what action the customer was supposed to take. In the 2nd version that we tested, the writer shortened up the descriptions, and then rewrote the titles to make them more actionable. With these simple adjustments, we saw a 3.7% decrease in abandonment on Android and a 9.4% decrease in iOS.

Before

After

In another example, we identify the help articles on support.microsoft.com that lead to the most support calls and chats. We then review the verbatims and chat sessions to determine what changes we can make to answer people’s questions and reduce their need to call support. For one article, Cancel or turn off recurring billing for a Microsoft subscription, the addition of a simple, clarifying phrase at the beginning of the article lead to a savings of more than $14,000 the month after we published the change.

With strong voice principles to guide our writing and a process for collecting data to drive some of our content decisions, the 3rd pillar in our UX writing strategy is in how we’re delivering content to our customers. My peer at Microsoft calls this “thinking outside the docs” and I think this describes it perfectly. Time is short, and docs can be long. The challenge we put to ourselves was “how can we meet our customers where they are?” The ideal is to create an environment where people never have to leave the place where they’re working to go out and search for help or guidance. We’ve been exploring different ways we can surface content within the product, including the Cortana Show Me app. (If you’re running Windows 10, download it from the Microsoft Store and try it out.) Pick a task you’re wanting to learn, and the app will walk you through the steps, with both audio and visual cues to help you learn how to do it on your own the next time.

I’m sure you’re spending a lot more time in the Settings for your devices than you’d want to. People open the Settings app in Windows millions of times a month, and we’re experimenting with how to give them the answers to their most commonly asked questions for any specific Settings screen. Take a look at the right side of Settings the next time you’re in there, and you might see a handy tip or links to the very question you needed help with.

Habits shift and morph along with the technology, and while we’re writing less, the words we are putting to paper have more importance. UX writing is less about documenting everything you can do with a product, and more about 1) determining what your customers want to do within a particular experience, 2) having a seat at the table to influence the design and ensuring those customer needs are met, and finally 3) meeting your customers within that experience to help guide them. When we think in these terms, our impact on both the customer experience and the business can be huge. And our value as writers becomes less about the amount of content we’re creating, and more about how we can directly impact customer satisfaction and engagement.

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