Why UX Design is a Lot Like Writing…

(Not Just Art-Making)

Everyone agrees that digital User Experience (UX) Design is part “art,” part “science.” To meet the “science” requirement, a UX Designer must have enough technical knowledge to realistically design for the possibilities and limitations of a platform, and knowledge of some scientific principles of how computer interfaces can affect the brain. But the “art” part is trickier — what underlying creative skills does a UX Team really need to bring a feature-rich application to life? Just visual artistry?

I think most people seeking User Experience Design help for their complex projects know they can’t judge a portfolio by its cover — a good experience is not just visual. But I’ve found that many today are unsure how they should judge good UX skill. A humble statement I’ve heard from smart folks at hot, new companies is, “I’m relatively new at this, and I’m honestly not sure what I’m looking for.” So I’d like to humbly try to shed some light from what I’ve learned from over a decade in this loosely defined, but fascinating field.

Speaking of definitions, let’s quickly cover those first, because if you’re reading this, you’ve probably felt some pain over the inconsistency of how people use “UX Design,” which only emerged as a label about half way through my “UX” career in technology. I believe the phrase itself has been both helpful and problematic. You can see the Wikipedia definition here, which is close, in my mind. It leaves out usefulness as a key ingredient, and doesn’t mention the user interface (UI), which is a key creation in the UX Design process.

That interface doesn’t have to be visual, by the way, though many are. It’s my opinion that UX includes UI (and more); UI is never completely separate from UX. I also don’t believe UI is the “screen design” part — what if there is no screen (as in voice or tactile UI work)? If you can interact with it, there is still an interface, with all its underlying psychological challenges.

So good UX/ UI is not about the screen, not at first anyway — it’s about the interactions. What core creative skill can give a UX Designer an edge with interactions then? Great UX Designers come from many backgrounds — psychology, art, technology, industrial design and more. But you may have guessed from the title of this post that I believe writing and the associated imaginative skills are a natural match for good UX thinking.

Let’s think about what makes good writing for a moment — particularly where the written product is not fine art, but more utilitarian, like most applications. You could say words are there to get the point across, and shouldn’t be distracting. Less of them are usually better. Yet they have to tell the whole truth, and nothing but — so research often comes first. There can’t be gaps. Sounds like a bit like a great user interface, doesn’t it?

Now let’s think about the UX process. Many responsibilities can fall under “UX” — needs analysis, research, persona and scenario development, feature concepting, information architecture, interaction design (creating a blueprint of a UI to address interactions or tasks), visual design, and more. I believe that, at least for complex, task-heavy digital media like applications, these are preferably accomplished by a team. But the one leading the UX will almost always be doing or directing the interaction design, as it’s central to complex interactive media. Again, interactions are really the foundation. And the more complex the thing you’re building (such as an application), the more foundation you need.

Here’s where I’d like to draw the parallel with writing — because a core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of “what if” scenarios. These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing. Their work requires sensitivity and extreme empathy; not only empathy in the present moment, but in every imagined situation. They think through loads of context. They sometimes even write backstory — the story outside the story, because it affects the story. And backstories of characters. And they do their research, because it all has to be true or, in the case of fiction, “ring true” — be believable, complete, and without gaps.

This stuff takes time and thinking. Before one lays down words, one must imagine what happens over time and in different situations with specific kinds of people. Writers are creative, but also analytical and obsessed with all this “what if-ing” — always playing out scenes and conversations in their head (often to their own annoyance).
I don’t always mention to my UX clients that I’m into writing and filmmaking. When I started meeting other filmmaker UX designers, I thought, huh, how strange — just like me! Not so strange, really. Characters, actions, scenarios and enough visual sensibility to bring those things to life in a (primarily) visual medium — that’s what’s needed in a screenwriter/ director, and also in creating the foundation of a good application design. The more complex your application, the more you’ll need these skills in your UX lead.

To sum up, when looking for someone to lead the design of your complex application, look for enough visual sensibility to lay the foundation in a “blueprint,” but consider giving weight to experience with writing (and psychology), where the designer has a strong imagination for characters, actions, scenarios and general “what if-ing.” You don’t need to hire only ex-writers, of course, but see if you can find ways to test candidates’ “what if,” analytical imaginations. Have they written personas and use case scenarios?

These are character explorations and stories about applications. Read them, or have them read a bit to you, to discuss. When you review their portfolios, see if they can articulate how they translated some of both their research and their imaginations into the foundation of their interface — their interaction design.
It’s natural to first react to the visible aspects of anything, including a portfolio. But don’t forget a UX team first determines the interactions, which are largely invisible — and invisible actions and scenarios come naturally to good writers.

This feature was originally written at medium.com / ‘prototyping from UX to Front-End’ by Susan Stuart. Photograph sourced from original feature.

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