In 2008, designer Paul Armstrong launched web.without.words, a project where he eliminated words and turned popular websites into wireframes. For example, he covered what Apple’s website would look like without words, which frankly doesn’t look all too dissimilar from what one of its product pages looks like today.
Armstrong wanted to, “visually represent [his] core belief that hierarchy, grid systems and uniformity ultimately lead to a more natural user experience.” As an author and editorial director, all I noticed was how empty everything was. A web without words would be a web of empty containers.
This isn’t news to you, though. You’ve probably seen the very profane manifesto that can load on an iPhone or a tamagotchi. Perhaps you already accept some writing elements as crucial parts of the product, like the documentation and the changelog. The intention for both of these types of writing are to better understand, or stay informed with, the product. Naturally, they’re seen as extensions of it.
Treat All Writing Like the Docs and Changelog
Sometimes, the lines blur. For example, transactional emails can get messy. Should the automated email be signed off from the team, in first person? Or should it come from the product, in third person? How urgent is this email, and how much action—or how little—should it elicit? What emotion should we motivate the reader with? Is it a friendly reminder or strong call-to-action? Is there any grammar error that will blind the reader from the intended message, like a piece of spinach stuck in the crevice between a speaker’s teeth?
The blog, guest posts, one pagers, sales decks, press kits, and the landing pages should not be seen separate from the product. Just like the documentation and the changelog, everything is an extension of the product. It all needs to be one cohesive experience, even if it’s a range of developers, UX writers, and marketers who contribute their own respective, separate, pieces of writing.
If you’re building software, you don’t need to look further than the usual suspects here. Stripe. Slack. Mailchimp. Each company certainly makes awesome products, and the writing contributes to this overall experience. Don’t get it twisted—just because you can type up an email to your manager or to an investor, absolutely does not mean you’re in a position to write up a documentation or a blog post for recruiting software engineers.
Everything Needs Words
I’m not saying people need to love your product like they love the AIBO. Consider the dining experiences as a product—certainly the dishes and courses—as well as the restaurant’s atmosphere or take-out experience and packaging, the chef’s personality conveyed through cookbooks, interviews, and blog. Invest as much time, care, and capital into writing and editing as you would in other components of your product.
If you want to get pretentious with it, your writing will impute the details of how people experience your product. Look at Apple’s ads. I recently heard—not yet verified—that Apple has 12 designers working on a single image. For example, a colorist works to make sure the colors are just right. I can’t remember the last time I heard of twelve specialist authors and editors worked together on a single blog post (a copywriter for a punchy headline, another for a call-to-action, an editor for voice and tone, another for fact-checking, a proofreader for grammar, a technical expert for product expertise, etc…)?
The companies that take its words as seriously as will give its products a competitive advantage. It means expanding the value and focus of writing—or “content”—beyond marketing, and into everywhere else in the organization. In fact, the ultimate job of an editor will be to create a culture of writing, so everyone at the company writes and edits. The result of better written communication will be a better product. Also, better sales, better customer success, and better marketing. A product with thoughtless words is the equivalent to a nasty, thoughtless, plate of food. A product without words is just a bunch of empty containers.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.