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Our job as UX writers is to make complex information as simple and clear as possible. But there are many things that threaten this. Assumed knowledge, biases, internal myths and jargon can all cloud our vocabulary and seep into our writing.
What we think is clear, concise copy can quickly become technical, confusing commands that lack any empathy.
So how do we avoid this? One of the best tools in a UX writer’s toolkit is what I refer to as ‘healthy naivety’.
I see healthy naivety as an expansion on beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind, or shoshin, is a term from Zen Buddhism. To have a beginner’s mind is to have an open attitude that lacks any preconceptions. You approach things willing to learn something new and without bringing any biases.
Healthy naivety is a similar attitude. When writing you, of course, need some understanding of what you’re writing about. But keeping yourself a safe distance from everything you need to know can be really beneficial. We need to write in the simplest way possible for many reasons. By having a healthy naivety we can question things where appropriate and also better explain things in plain English.
By not having a complete understanding we’re more aware of things that aren’t clear or don’t make sense. What might make sense to somebody who’s worked on the product for years might actually be really unclear. So you can question and investigate that.
Getting a colleague to explain things by email can lead to overly-formal explanations. They might even copy and paste from a number of different authors, some technical, some not. But by getting people to explain things out loud, in conversation, you often get much better language cues. You can then use these in your writing. This keeps your copy human and allows you to clearly define things for the user.
Users don’t sit in the office looking at your product all day. They’re new to it, so it needs to be understandable for them.
Healthy naivety allows you to be separate from the internal language. Then you’re not bogged down by the technical terms and internal jargon.
Trying to explain things clearly to users can end up becoming too many words and terms you think they’ll understand. Internal company language can lead to unconsciously writing in a more formal tone. By being apart from that you can bring plain, simple language to the product.
It’s unfortunate, but some stakeholders may just not respect you and your role. They might not understand what you do, especially as it’s a relatively new industry. I’ve even had stakeholders dismiss me because of my young age. But I’ve used this against them.
One stakeholder had written a long list of options, things a user might own in their home. It was full of incorrect terms and out of date references. What particularly struck me was ‘palmtop’. What they were referring to was PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and similar handheld computers. Palmtop computers first appeared in 1989. And PDA was first used in 1992 (the year I was born).
So I feigned ignorance. I swallowed my pride and pretended to be naive, to show how silly the term ‘palmtop’ was. When we were discussing it, I simply said “What’s that? I’ve not heard of that before.” The stakeholder scoffed. But when they attempted to explain it, they soon realised it wasn’t something people used anymore — it wasn’t relevant.
So we then happily discussed other options. Things that were more relevant. They soon realised I could help them and discussing it in-person was much simpler. From then on, I had a great working relationship with that stakeholder.
I’m not suggesting this is the only tool in a UX writer’s toolkit. But it can be a really helpful one to have.
Overall, we have to be comfortable accepting what we don’t know. But we can use that lack of knowledge to our advantage. It can show up any flaws in thinking that happens within the status quo.
It’s also important to question everything. It’s the only way to build an understanding and learn these things. But it’s OK to keep your distance and not get too in-depth.
And always keep an open mind. UX writing isn’t about your preference, it’s about what works for users. So make sure you write plainly and simply. (Of course!)