What’s the difference between UX writing and content strategy?
How to clarify your product team’s writing needs
This question came up a few times recently, and each time I felt like I only gave a half-baked answer. They’re similar but different! Like, UX writing focuses on the words and how they fit within a strategy but content strategy could also be a lot of different things.
The question rolled around in the back of my head, nagging me to type notes into my phone at inopportune times. Then I asked a few people who work in both fields for their input. And now we have a well-baked answer. Toasty!
TL;DR: UX writing focuses on the words a person reads or hears when they’re using a product, while content strategy focuses on a broad plan for messaging. Content strategy is not UX writing, but UX writing utilizes content strategy.
What is UX writing?
User experience (UX) writing refers to the words you see or hear in a product when you’re using it. For the most part, these words are unobtrusive, and you might not even notice them. Many UX writers believe “good” UX writing merges so seamlessly with the design, the person using the product doesn’t even realize they’re reading.
The main goal of UX writing is to provide the “user” of a product or piece of software with a positive and easy experience.
UX writers generally try to make their writing clear, concise, and consistent.
As Kathryn Strauss, Senior UX Writer at Weebly, puts it: “You don’t have to say everything.” She adds, “Talk about value to users. Invite users to act.”
According to Mike Strickland, Content Design Director at Charter Communications, “The best design is invisible. If your product exists to help someone do something, then there should be as few barriers as possible between them and what they need to do. This means a UI that is clear, unobtrusive, and as simple as the context allows, to (or approaching) the point where your user barely notices the interface.”
Ryan Bigge, Senior Content Strategist at Shopify, says, “There’s much more granularity and nuance in UX writing than I first realized. I’m now very mindful of plain language, the discrete elements of a successful error message, and the pitfalls of nomenclature.”
Where the words live
UX writing is the copy you’ll see in a user interface: onboarding flows, modals, settings, forms, menus, error messages, empty states, notifications, and tooltips. It might also include landing pages and product-related emails. For many teams, it also refers to the words in conversational and voice interfaces.
Who writes the words
Since UX writing focuses on the words, many (but not all!) UX writers have “word nerd” backgrounds in writing, editing, publishing, linguistics, or similar fields.
Depending on the size of the writing team at a company, UX writers also sometimes work on editorial strategy, style guides, marketing copy, training materials, help center content, or other projects related to content strategy.
But it’s important to remember that UX writing and content strategy both have their own sets of required skills and best practices. Marketing copy, training materials, and help center content are not UX writing.
What is content strategy?
Content strategy refers to creating and managing any “content” published on or from your website or app. It can also mean content related to your product. It might also refer to the words you see or hear in-product. Content strategy almost always takes SEO (search engine optimization) into account when creating a messaging plan.
The main goal of content strategy is to plan, map, manage, create, and publish a defined set of messages to achieve a particular outcome or set of outcomes.
Leaf Tyler Pell, Principal Content Strategist at Wealthfront, describes it this way: “Distilled to its essence, content strategy is about determining what to say and how to say it in order to achieve one or more goals.”
“Content strategy often aligns closely with brand and marketing strategy,” says Eileen Reyes, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Dropbox. “This implies a different understanding of the user or target audience that includes their emotions, needs, and wants. … Content strategy has to think about the user a bit more broadly.”
Drew Pearce, Content Strategist on the Brand Marketing team at Dropbox, explains it this way: “Content strategy involves and includes user experience, but doesn’t always live in the product and isn’t always about the product.” Content strategy takes into account “both the nature of the content and the distribution of it across multiple channels outside of the product.”
Where the content lives
Like UX writing, “content” might be landing pages and product-related emails, like transactional and onboarding emails. But it also might include marketing emails, blog posts, white papers, sales documentation, marketing or training videos, chatbots, podcasts, help center articles, FAQ, slide decks, and social media.
Even more broadly, “content” might be pictures, photos, illustrations, graphs, charts, diagrams, infographics, spreadsheets, or anything else that helps you communicate with your audience.
And where UX writing emphasizes where and how words are placed in the product, content strategy has a different aim.
According to Ryan McFadden, Content Strategist on the Customer Experience team at Dropbox, “Content strategy thinks about how to get content in front of customers or prospects. What are the channels available to us, which has the best open-rate, and click-through-rate (CTR).”
Who creates the content
Content strategists don’t necessarily create the content they’re strategizing — although many do, too. Sometimes the content is created in-house, and sometimes it’s created by vendors, freelancers, and other creative production houses or agencies, like for video and music.
Because content strategy focuses on planning, mapping, and managing a wide variety of content that isn’t always words, content strategists tend to have backgrounds in areas like journalism, marketing, library science, information architecture, teaching, or technical writing.
To make sure their language is consistent, many content strategists also manage content style guides. They might also create editorial calendars and conduct competitor audits.
How are they similar?
They both see the big picture
UX writing and content strategy both need to take into account a broad view of the entire experience with their product, no matter if the “product” is software/SaaS, ecommerce/retail, or a media site.
Leaf explains, “Once I’m armed with good context, I tend to identify opportunities to improve the current user journey given the user’s objectives and the company’s value prop. So instead of just filling in the blank, I take a step back and engage content strategy principles to suggest that the narrative arc of the experience is flawed and needs to be re-examined.”
Adds Ryan Bigge, “Regardless of job title, it’s very difficult to enact meaning improvements if content isn’t involved early and often. That’s still a primary concern — intervening at the right stage of the project, and co-designing solutions with the entire UX team.”
They both use words to help people learn about and use your product
A content marketing strategy or brand storytelling strategy starts before a person has even shown any interest in your product. The words used in those strategies help to draw people to your product. Once a person shows interest in or starts to use your product, UX writing helps them have the best experience with it.
They both work cross-functionally
UX writers and content strategists both work closely with many different teams. For UX writers, that usually means working with product designers, design researchers, product managers, engineers, QA teams, and data scientists to learn about people’s problems and define the best course of action for their projects.
As Mike explains, “Our content design team is an integral part of the broader experience design team, contributing equally to the UX of our products with our UX and UI designer peers.”
For content strategists, cross-functional collaboration usually means working with teams in marketing, communication, SEO, and legal to create and clarify messaging across the board.
Examples of critical questions a UX writer might ask:
- Do we have any research on this portion of the user experience so far? If so, what does it tell us about the user’s goals and intentions?
- What are the steps someone would take to arrive at this modal (error message, button, screen, whatever)? Leaf adds, “To figure out the best words to write in [this space], I need to understand who the user is, what the user journey looks like, why they ended up looking at [this space], and where they’re going from here.”
- Can we make this shorter?
- Is this modal (error message, button, screen, whatever) written in our company’s voice?
- Is this button (link, modal, step in the process) necessary, or can we adjust the design to simplify the steps?
- Dropbox UX writer John Saito adds, “How do we deal with all the different edge cases?”
Examples of critical questions a content strategist might ask:
- Who are we trying to reach? Eileen adds, “What are their pain points that our company/brand/service can solve?”
- What are the KPIs (key performance indicators) for this project?
- Who are our strongest competitors in this area?
- Why are we going with this particular brand messaging instead of this other one? Ryan McFadden asks, “How does that content fit within the broader messaging or branding framework for your company or a specific campaign?”
- Where do we rank for these keywords right now?
- What kind of content is going to resonate with this audience? Drew says, “Beyond the messaging itself, we ask whether it’s best conveyed via blog post, video, podcast, email, eBook, or landing page.”
They’re similar, but different!
So, it turns out my half-baked definition wasn’t completely off.
As Leaf puts it, “UX writing is a subset of content strategy — it is content strategy within the confines of the product itself.”
Or in Mike’s words, “You can have content strategy without UX writing, but you can’t (or shouldn’t) have UX writing without content strategy.”
As time moves forward, titles and roles will change, grow, and adapt to newer circumstances. How UX writing and content strategy will be defined in five or ten years remains to be seen.
For now, I hope that helps clear things up. However, it’s possible this post has just raised more questions, so feel free to respond here or send me a message so we can keep the conversation flowing.
IMPORTANT NOTE for context: This article is from April 2018. At that time, many people who were working in what is now more broadly called UX Writing or Product Writing had the title “Content Strategist,” but weren’t doing much content strategy in their day-to-day work lives. The questions that came to me stemmed from confusion between the job titles and the job duties.
The distinction I hoped to make with this article was to define the difference between what content strategy itself actually is and what UX writing actually is, so people could look beyond the titles and dig deeper into the job descriptions. In 2021, there are many more resources to help define what these distinctions are, and more titles like “Content Design” exist to encompass this bridge between UX writing and content strategy.
This article was reposted on Medium on April 17, 2018
Huge thanks to everyone who contributed! 🙌 to the Dropbox crew: John Saito, Drew Pearce, Eileen Reyes, Ryan McFadden, Ben Taylor, and Chris Baty for their conversations and copy edits. And super 🙌 to Ryan Bigge, Mike Strickland, Leaf Tyler Pell, and Kathryn Strauss for their clarity, insights, and friendliness!
Illustrations from Adobe Stock, with a few tweaks
To learn more about UX writing and content strategy, check out some of these great blog posts from around the web: