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Whether you’ve embarked on a UX career only recently or been in the field for some years, here’s the principle you should always follow: Don’t waste your time working for a client or employer who views you as a more expensive version of Grammarly. You don’t deserve that.
This article will help you identify a company you don’t want to work with right from the start.
Despite the recent layoffs, there is still a substantial need for UX writers in today’s market. You stand a good chance of landing the jobs or projects you want. But how can you navigate this daunting sea of professional opportunities and choose clients who are worthy of your time?
UX Writing is still a nascent field. And there is high demand for people with any amount of experience.
Really, Figma—our most natural work habitat—was released only 6 years ago.
Over the course of my career, I have worked with several agencies, both in-house and as a freelancer. I’ve worked with dozens of nationalities, in over six time zones and in four different languages. I’ve also learned a number of valuable lessons that I’ve always wanted to share. This is my opportunity.
Although in this article, I will be primarily focusing on toxic traits that junior UX writers are often oblivious to, it can serve as a welcome reminder to anyone facing a career fork in the road. It’s very important to consider the company’s processes and culture and the way it treats its people, even if it has a world-class product.
Why content matters
The language the web, the app, or the software speaks makes up the company’s image and identity. But just as Kristina Halvorson, a lovely host of The Content Strategy Podcast said, “dealing with content is messy. It’s complicated, it’s painful, and it’s expensive. And yet, the web is content. Content is the web. It deserves our time and attention.”
A company that wants to grow sustainably and thrive in the digital era must treat content and copy as serious assets, not as an afterthought.
One of my first serious engagements was with a UX agency that treated copy precisely that way—as an afterthought. It was enough if the copy did not have grammatical mistakes. As a result, they never allocated proper funds to a UX writer. They welcomed my copy expertise but never really created space for me to do a good job—because they didn’t think it mattered. They always called me at the last minute just to fix the grammatical errors. Grammarly would’ve done the job, and I would’ve saved my nerves.
This is something you can notice already at the first interview. Perhaps the company, agency or client offering an engagement to you appears to be progressive and seems to be a place where you could be professionally happy. They may even report good profits. These are all nice indicators, but is that all that matters?
Questions to ask
During the interview process, try to find answers to the following questions:
What are their expectations from you as a content specialist? How do they imagine your contribution to the final product?
How organized is the company, and what is the feedback process? Is there a more senior (or relevant) specialist to provide feedback on your work, or will it be someone who doesn’t understand copy at all?
What’s the mission statement of your prospective client or employer? Do they care about what they do, or are they just in it for the money?
In the case of a freelance engagement, are they used to working with several freelancers? That is, do they understand you may have other clients as well?
What do they do to take care of the mental well-being of their employees or contractors?
Are they implicitly or explicitly hinting that they’d be doing you a favour if they hired you?
Do they understand the business value of UX writing?
UX writers are not digital marketers
As apparent as this may seem… it isn’t clear to many.
Just because they call you the “content guy,” “the copy girl,” or, worse yet, “the language unicorn,” you’re NOT supposed to know every other avenue where language is used.
For example, it’s true that paid advertising campaigns consist of a copy, and it’s essential that this copy is well-crafted. But just because you’re in charge of the copy, that doesn’t mean you should know how to plan, set up and execute paid campaigns. That’s not even copywriter’s job, but a digital marketer’s job!
In an ideal world, the roads of UX writers and digital marketers don’t cross often. UX writers work on the product, whereas marketers help sell the product. In a startup environment or in the case of a freelance writer, one may be tasked to work on copywriting initiatives. As long as it’s a part of the plan, good.
I will never forget how my client asked me, a UX writer, to develop a fully-fledged marketing content strategy for one of its clients—a job I was neither hired for nor qualified to do. My then-boss thought that as a “copy person,” I should be able to do it “because it involved language” and didn’t seem to understand my reluctance.
The lesson was clear: Don’t agree to anything that requires you to compromise the quality of your work. Do not produce work that you would be ashamed to put your name on.
How to spot a bad client or employer?
So how can you, a UX writer, determine whether your prospective client or employer is reliable and worthy to work with? Here are a few tips to look out for:
- Poor contract. In general, a bad client will want you to work exclusively for them, possibly without a contract. If they do provide you with something written, usually it’s of poor quality. They may not even return it to you signed (major red flag!). So make sure that the contract they offer you is clear and well-written. Do not accept the pay of an employee with the responsibilities of a freelancer. Either you are an in-house employee and receive benefits accordingly, or you are a freelancer, and you have the freedom that reflects that. It’s very easy to end up having the worst of both worlds—no benefits, commitment and un-freedom of an employee along with lower pay.
- Ambush calls. A bad client will ambush you with unexpected calls without respecting your privacy, agenda or other commitments. Sending a meeting invite without an agenda is unprofessional—you don’t have to be a senior to know that. If you are a freelancer and you work for multiple clients, your main client (or anyone in their company) must understand that you are not available on a whim.
- Derogatory comments about your work. A bad client is often rude and comments on your work in a derogatory way. As a UX writer, you know how to use the language to craft desired user experiences. You also know how the language behaves in the digital environment. You’re not there just to fix the commas and spelling errors. You know how to analyze user behaviour and what questions to ask. You possess a higher level of empathy. Content is what defines the way your company appears before prospective or actual customers. If during the interview process, or in your first weeks, you see that your stakeholders make derogatory remarks or they’re not aware of the importance of your work, it’s a major red flag. There are so many companies that’ll appreciate you that you don’t need to stay somewhere where they don’t. Such a company is likely not going to be around in a few years’ time, and you don’t need to feel sorry for them.
- Unrealistic promises. When you see the stakeholder promise their clients the moon and the stars, and after the client has left the call, they turn to you and say: “So come up with how we do it,” it’s a great sign of unprofessionalism. If you notice that your client consistently makes exaggerated promises to their clients and provides little guidance on how you should approach the tasks, it’s another huge red flag.
- Unsustainable business model. Some companies seek rich clients in profitable markets but hire a workforce from poorer countries, undercutting the rates and saving on low wages that temporarily maximize profits. The truth is, there are no shortcuts to a healthy business model. Consistent, hard and often invisible work always takes you further. A good agency I work with set this as their goal—to only work with as many clients as they are able to conscientiously handle. Instead of taking up more big clients to increase turnover, they invested in perfecting their internal processes, in quality content, competitive wages for their freelancers and employees, and building a substantial company culture. What is the result? Satisfied clients and freelancers, sustainable and highly profitable business and most importantly—good reputation in the market.
- No (healthy) feedback framework. Whether it’s from real-world users or senior peers, we all need feedback on our work. A typical bad client has no one to give you constructive feedback. When deciding whether to take up a job or not, make sure to know who will be giving feedback on your work. Will it be someone who does not understand or appreciate the value of the content or someone who’s genuinely got your back? Even if you end up being the only person working on copy, it’s a good sign if you have a network of more experienced professionals to fall back on.
As a UX writer, you have all reasons to have confidence. You know how to build a quality user experience, how to ask the right questions and how to put the fine linguistic touch on a digital product. As a junior, I made the mistake of being too desperate just to get a job, so I took a client who wasn’t worthy of my time. Don’t be desperate. Instead of sending dozens of CVs left and right, invest time into building a quality portfolio. One well-done case study can serve you better than a hastily put-together portfolio. Do this hard work. The work is out there. You’ve got this.