The barrage of articles reminding us what poor designers we are is seemingly endless. Either we do too much user research or make abhorrent design choices. For me, this is not a missive about incorrect word usage in error messages. Guy Ligertwood’s insights from Google I/O 2017 cover those requirements. Instead, I am more interested in maintaining rich storytelling in my design. I suspect you do too.
The realization of my negligence came at the hands of John Maeda. In his 2017 Design in Tech Report, Maeda explains why writing is a must-have for designers. Maeda referred to proficient writing as a “unicorn skill.” He notes users still depend on the “copy to interact with apps and other products. If designers don’t know how to write well, the final product can suffer as a result.”
Design fiction is a new discipline combining prototyping and storytelling techniques to envision speculative futures. It is understood, when utilizing design fiction, ideas will be ugly, unattainable, and unwieldy. Andy Budd has an in-depth Medium story over at Clearleft, so I will not go too deep. Design fiction aims at exploring futures that go beyond our mental and physical limitations.
The strange and oddly intriguing physical form of design fiction comes from designer James Auger. He poses the age-old question — What if we could use Smell to find our soulmate? You’ve heard of pheromones, no doubt, but this takes it to a whole other level. Auger created the Smell Blind Date project to explore the human experiential sense of Smell. His H.R. Geiger-Esque design concept does not leave much to the imagination.
Novelty aside, kicking this strange idea into action is storytelling. Design fiction enables you to imagine and explore possibilities for the future through creative writing. Our new social order demands new visionaries. Visions and ideas meant to push beyond centuries-old versions where the world is faster, more efficient, and smarter.
What shakes out is a framework for better UX writing. National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA), based in the UK, illustrates this framework as The Futures Cone.
1. Probable futures are statistically or socially likely, including the knowledge and the resources to make them viable.
2. Plausible futures pose reasons such as present social, political, and economic tendencies as not likely to happen, but the knowledge and resources are viable.
3. Possible futures are possibilities that do not yet exist but are not strange for us to grasp mentally. For example, if an alien species gave us a new technology that allowed us to travel to any point in the universe in a matter of seconds.
4. Desirable futures work, whether probable, plausible, or implausible obstacles exist. They are desired by society or by a specific group but aren’t realize until much later.
As a designer, it is easy to imagine the future through the cone, but it also makes possible a structured way of writing a present, near-future, and beyond in your creative brief.
For a less lofty approach, Shaunta Grimes explores a simple framework for organized writing, the PSST framework. Grimes suggests PSST breaks down a complicated idea (those are not in short supply in UX) into manageable writing tasks. The structure includes “premise, story, subheads, and takeaway.”
Bad design writing is just bad writing. Poorly written material wastes productive time. Writing is frequently ineffective because it’s too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.
Junior designers get little training in how to write in a short, clear, and incisive way. Instead, they are exposed to poorly edited briefs and jargon-filled employee manuals. The junior’s inherent poor writing habits go unnoticed, and they fit right in.
In Josh Bernoff’s “Bad Writing Is Destroying Your Company’s Productivity,” he recounts how bad writing goes all the way to the C-Suite. During Yahoo’s sale to Verizon, then CEO Marissa Mayer illustrates weak and ambiguous writing. Here’s a passage from her email to staff on that occasion:
“…our incredibly loyal and dedicated employee base has stepped up to every challenge along the way….The teams here have not only built incredible products and technologies, but have built Yahoo into one of the most iconic, and universally well-liked companies in the world…. I’m incredibly proud of everything that we’ve achieved, and I’m incredibly proud of our team. I love Yahoo, and I believe in all of you.”
The four uses of “incredible” or “incredibly” in a single paragraph reads like misdirection. Happy, vacuous language certainly didn’t inspire Yahoo’s workers, and it won’t inspire end-users.
In contrast, Apple’s Tim Cook communicates in his clear, jargon-free defense of the company’s decision not to crack the encryption on a terrorist’s iPhone.
Bernoff shows fuzzy writing leads to fuzzy thinking in his Yahoo story. Ambiguous and passive language reflects gaps in thinking. Fuzzy thinking poses risks for visual designers unable to articulate what they want to achieve and who can help them achieve it.
Designing is about telling stories. Possessing solid writing skills is required to succeed in the user experience (UX) profession. Portfolios must not only showcase skills and work histories but a representation of storytelling. The story gets people excited about the design. The excitement gets budgets approved, and designers paid.