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I recently discovered that my car helpfully sounds its alarm to let me—and everyone else within a six block radius—know when its battery is about to die. It was around 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning, and I was desperate to turn it off. But there was just one problem. In order to completely disable my alarm, I had to disconnect the battery. Which I couldn’t get to because my battery is located in the trunk of my car, which is only opened with my electronic key. Which didn’t work because the battery was nearly dead. I dug out my car’s manual and frantically searched for an answer. There had to be a way to access the trunk in these situations, right? After what seemed like eons, I finally found the section that had what I was looking for and let out a sigh of relief. And then I began to read the instructions and my heart sank. The instructions were unclear and impossible to follow. As the alarm continued to shatter the morning peace of my neighborhood, I tossed the manual aside and tried to figure it out on my own. Over 10 painful (and loud) minutes later I got the trunk open and the battery disconnected. No thanks to the manual. Technical writing rarely gets mentioned when it comes to UX, but it should. If you’re a believer in creating good user experiences my battery story probably made you cringe a bit. And with good reason. Everything your users interact with—including those user manuals—contributes to their perception of your company. In this post I’ll outline a few ways technical writers can contribute to UX and why you need (at least) one on your team.
All good writers are obsessed with usability. No really. Telling a good story is all about usability. If a storyline doesn’t flow well, or the copy isn’t readable or scannable, it’s not usable. That means, by nature, writers are constantly assessing the usability of their content. This is an important trait in any writer, but especially with technical writers. Because let’s face it, technical writing can get, well, technical. And that can make the story a bit harder to tell. User manuals, product spec sheets and help guides aren’t the sexiest of documents, but they’re just as important as your main content and microcopy. Why? Typically if a user is reading a technical document, it’s for a specific reason. They’re not casually browsing around. They have a question or a problem they’re trying to solve, and they want an answer as quickly as possible. A skilled technical writer will make sure that document helps your users achieve their goals with ease.
Part of what makes a writer great is their ability to translate a topic or idea into words that resonate with an audience. This is especially important when you’re trying to share complicated information, concepts, or instructions. Legal documents are a great example of this. They’re notoriously difficult (and not all that engaging) to read and most of us just skip right over them for that reason. But they often include important information that you want your users to know. So how do you translate all that stuff your legal or product teams insist you disclose in a way that won’t make users fall asleep? You guessed it. A good technical writer can translate just about anything into plain-language copy that anyone can understand (and will actually want to read).
Empathy is the cornerstone of good UX. It enables you to relate to your users, and gain a deeper understanding of their needs. And when it comes to writing—especially the technical variety—empathy is super important. Technical documents are by nature somewhat behind the scenes, so it’s easy to overlook the empathy that copy deserves. For example, remember my frustration as I tried to figure out how to unlock my trunk? The instructions in my car’s manual gave no consideration for the situation I could be in when trying to get to my battery. A good technical writer would’ve thought about that and shaped those instructions in a way that would’ve been easier for me to access and understand. Your users will likely interact with your technical documents at some point, and that makes it part of the overall user experience. And the good news is, you may already have a technical writer in your organization. Track down the writers in your company and start looping them into your UX process.
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