ux writing vs content design

UX Writing vs. Content Design

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Table of Contents

What’s in a name? And would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet? Technically yes, but you’d never stop to smell it in the first place if it was called a shoehorn. Maybe names do matter.

In this article, we’ll explore what, if any, are the differences between UX writing and content design. Many philosophize about what these terms ought to mean, but I want to uncover what they mean in practice. How are they used among those who are recruiting or hiring UX writers and content designers? What tasks, duties, and responsibilities are expected? And what experience and education are required? 

To answer these questions and shed some much-needed light on the matter, I analyzed UX writing and content design job postings.

But we’ll be doing more than just combing through humdrum LinkedIn posts. There’s gonna be a fun quiz, I talk to the Duo Lingo owl, there’s a random title generator for writers, a downloadable “A–Z of Writers in Tech Titles” poster, and oh, so much more. So clear your schedule, cancel your Zooms, and grab a snack—it’s gonna be a fun one.

UX writing vs. content design

Everything starts with research. I searched the terms “UX writer” and “Content designer” on LinkedIn, and took ten examples from each to examine a few key metrics: responsibilities/duties, qualifications/experience, and required education. I look for commonalities, both within each title, and then between the two.

I focused on hard rather than soft skills like “works well with others.” I also didn’t just take the first ten search results, which tend to be dominated by a few large companies with duplicate posts. Also, I looked at posts from a variety of countries to ensure that the results weren’t skewed by one country’s approach. 

Below are tables and summaries of twenty job posts: ten for “UX writer” and ten for “Content designer.” I paraphrased things for brevity’s sake—you’re welcome to check the posts for the original phrasing.

UX Writing posts table (view on Notion.so)

UX writing positions: summary

UX writer icon

Digging through these posts was downright delightful. Seeing how nearly every post made it clear that the UX writer would be an integral part of the product design team warmed my heart. Read through the “highlights” column, and you’ll see what I mean. The idea that the writer will just come in later to fix the copy is dead. The message is out. Writers: pull up a chair. You are part of the product design process, and everyone knows it

But there’s more good news. Many posts referenced a style guide, design system, or brand voice. Some referenced user- or human-centered language, while others mentioned balancing user and business needs. This shows how brands now understand both the value of UX and the important role that writers play.

Another pleasant surprise was how often the posts mentioned some form of advocacy for UX writing best practices. So not only are UX writers part of the product design team, they’re expected to lead and share their knowledge.

Other noteworthy takeaways are that many companies expect the UX writer to have basic competency with design tools and that product design decisions should be based on user research and testing, in which UX writers are expected to participate.

Finally, I found that most companies don’t require a Bachelor’s degree; only two of the ten asked for it. Curious, I decided to dig a bit deeper on this point. I checked another fifty or so posts, quickly scanning for the degree requirements.

Only about 20%–25% of the posts ask for a degree, with larger companies more likely to require one. And when a degree was mentioned, it was like a broken record: English, Journalism, and Communications—over and over—were the most common.

The degree types didn’t surprise me. As I poured through posts, I saw an emphasis on writing: writer, storyteller, grammar-nerd, wordsmith, language lover. Copywriter, product writing, and technical writer were frequently mentioned as relevant experience. So while companies now understand that UX writers are part of the product design team, they also recognize that this is a role for a writer.

UX writing job posts were remarkably consistent, showing how the role is now established and well defined. So what about content design? Let’s dig in.

Content design posts table (view on Notion.so)

Content design positions: summary

Here again, I took one or two posts from the first page of “content design” results and then skipped ahead to get more balanced results from different countries. The first difference between the two terms was immediately clear: “content design” was far more prevalent in the Anglosphere, particularly in the U.K.

And what else differentiates the two terms? Turns out, not much.

Based on the job postings, when we’re talking about the role that Apple so eloquently phrased as “the writing arm of the design team,” which 19 out of 20 of the positions above are talking about (more on that 20th post shortly), there is no significant difference between UX writing and content design—they are, in effect, the same.

They share with great frequency these primary responsibilities and qualifications:

  • Being part of the product design team and collaborating with team members to solve design challenges and create user-centric products and experiences
  • Writing clear and concise UX copy
  • Having a strong general writing background (bonus points for previous product writing experience)
  • Simplifying complex concepts and language
  • Creating and using design systems/style guides
  • Advocating for/educating team members about best practices
  • Conducting research and testing
  • Making data-informed decisions

Posts for both terms are equally likely to ask for a degree, with English and journalism being most prevalent for both. Both occasionally ask for proficiency with design tools. Content design posts were just as focused on writing as UX writing posts, and UX writing posts were just as focused on contributing to the product design process as those for content design.

This puts to rest the idea that UX writing is just writing interface copy while content design is part of the product creation process. Some may attempt to define the terms this way, but in practice, it simply isn’t true.

And this shouldn’t surprise anyone. We can see that these terms occupy the same conceptual space in people’s minds from how often they’re used together. It’s got to the point where you almost can’t mention one without the other, as is seen not just in social media posts, but also in the numerous job post titles that list them together, conjoined with a slash.

Some content design posts used less writing-specific language, instead favoring the term (you guessed it) “content design.” But other details make it clear that writing was the focus. For example, one post mentions delivering “high-quality, error-free, accessible content design work.” That’s a bit vague, but the post later mentions “interface language, education materials, product names, navigational nomenclature, terminology, taxonomies.” All of these are, of course, things that one writes.

When it comes to content design vs. UX writing, there are just as many differences between individual posts under the same title as between any two posts under different titles. The roles are indistinguishable

Don’t believe me? Then see how well you do on the world’s first UX writing/content design game show. It’s time to play: Name That Job Title!

The UX writing vs. content design quiz

Having parallel titles for one role isn’t great, but if that were the only problem, we could live with it.

But what was up with the content design = graphic design job post from question #9? That snippet came from our 20th job post, a post whose discovery helped me uncover a much more serious problem with content design.

This is where things get interesting, folks—let’s look at that 20th job post.

Content design: the multi-headed hound of Hades

cerberus

(Bear with me—that subheader will make sense.) 

My research led me to an unexpected discovery. And so, I must also steer this article in an unexpected direction since comparing the two terms is more complex than it appears.

In my research, I happened upon a content design job that was, in a word, different. It mentioned visual brand standards, solving visual communications problems, proficiency in Adobe Creative Cloud, working in HTML code, and (here’s the kicker) prior experience and a post-secondary education in Graphic Design. Say what? Indeed, this “Graphic Designer role combines creativity and technical skills to communicate ideas through visual concepts.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like content design at all. Or does it? Or should it!

This discovery led me to dig deeper and examine more posts. As I did, I found several content design jobs that were completely unrelated to product writing. In fact, close to 10% of content design jobs were for visual/graphic/multimedia design roles. For example:

I found all these in a few minutes. But it doesn’t end there. Other types of content design roles kept popping up. Sometimes it was for video games, sometimes akin to information architecture, sometimes for creating educational materials, and more.

If you’re confused, I’m not surprised. It turns out that the term content design is what’s technically referred to as “a hot effin’ mess.” Let’s recap our two major finding:

  1. UX writing and content design are, in practice, the same
  2. Except for when content design means:
    1. Graphic design
    2. Instructional design
    3. Information architecture
    4. Video game narrative design
    5. God knows what else

So how did we get here? What’s the history of these terms?

Content design vs. UX writing: the history

Content design vs. UX writing: the history icon

UX writing as a term basically didn’t exist before 2017, when Google brought it to public awareness at Google I/O ’17. Since then, it’s been on a meteoric rise. Not so with content design; that term has been around since the Web 1.0 days. Back then, it had a different meaning. 

This W3C press release from 1997 refers to content design as “To use CSS and features of HTML to achieve best practice for the content provider.” Skip ahead to 2002 where environmentalist and designer Gerry McGovern describes content design as the laying out and organizing of web content so that it can be easily read and navigated. Then in 2008, NN/g talks about content design for the Kindle. In these examples, content design equates to web typesetting, focusing on arranging elements and page layout, a usage that eventually morphs into meaning “product writer.”

Yet the term always had other usages. In 2001, Professor Dave Marshall of The Cardiff School of Computer Science & Informatics described content design as having 5 elements: scripting, graphics, animation, audio, and interactivity.

This multifaceted approach makes sense since the word “content” refers to all of these things, not just text. And this approach is in keeping with how Wikipedia defines content designers as being “skilled in language(s), graphic design, and the technical requirements of front-end development” and “experts across various media … skilled in drafting compelling text, images, and videos.”

The Wiki page continues with how content designers “are often involved in online marketing, and usually focus on animated graphics, texts, videos, and sound.” It talks about “content designers who specialize in programming” and many other facets of the roles that have nothing to do with product writing. 

Now, if you’re shocked by this, perhaps you shouldn’t be. This definition is more logical when we look at those two words, “content” and “design,” and how they work together.

Content design: break it down!

Let’s do a little analysis of the term.

The word “content”

The Cambridge dictionary defines content as “everything that is contained within something.” Makes sense. They list another definition as “information, images, video, etc. that are included as part of something such as a website.” (I sense a theme.) 

Yet the concept of “content design” as synonymous with “product writing” asks us to think of content solely as the words—just the written content. “Content” alone is often used as a shorthand for “written content,” but using this truncated version for a job title lacks clarity, something writers should be keenly aware of.

Even within the world of digital products, the term means all forms of content. When Netflix talks about its content, it’s talking about its shows and movies. “The golden age of content” isn’t referring to extraordinary UI copy. Yet Netflix recently held a presentation, Why Your Team Needs a Content Designer, where content refers to “the language that appears in your UI.” This inconsistency is unbecoming and the kind of thing that writers should be warning again rather than embracing.

Likewise, Instagram business insights show you “Content You Shared”—again, nothing to do with digital product copy.

Instagram content

Content is many things: photos, graphics, videos, podcasts, webinars, blog posts, newsletters, emails, text messages, a giant ad on the side of the Burj Khalifa. And though it’s often used inconsistently and inarticulately, should writers follow others down this path of ambiguity, or should they lead others in the use of precise language?

The word “design”

Back to Cambridge where “design” is defined as, “to make or draw plans for something, for example clothes or buildings.” Sounds about right, and explains the existence of roles like interior design, jewelry design, costume design, set design, logo design, fashion design, fabric design, furniture design, and modern roles like graphic design, UX design, product design, brand design, web design, front-end design, animation design, game design, etc. 

Notice the connection. The word “design” has an inescapable visual connotation, something that should be glaringly obvious, especially to writers. We design things that are visible or tangible—at least metaphorically—and we write things that can be read. 

The term “content design”

A compound noun is when two or more words (open, closed, or hyphenated) are joined to form one noun, as in “content design.” The final word is the head, and previous words are dependents or modifiers. In English, modifiers come before the word they modify. A “teacup” is a cup for tea. A “dog catcher” is one who catches dogs, and a “project manager” manages projects. Easy peasy.

This means, grammatically, a “content designer” should be one who designs content. And if you’re putting a banner ad together, and you refer to it as “content,” then this title makes sense. Visual roles make much more sense for “content designer” since “design” implies something visual.

Compare it to “content writer.” If a content writer is one who writes content, we can easily infer that the content in question is written content. Likewise, if a content designer is one who designs content, we should logically conclude that the content in question is visual content.

But when “content designer” is used synonymously with “product writer,” is it meant to mean “one who designs content” or “one who designs digital products via (written) content”?

Any way you slice it, it doesn’t work. If it’s the former and “content” is short for “written content/copy/words,” then we get, “one who designs written content.” But written content is not something that’s designed—it’s written! We don’t design words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, or articles—we write them! 

Or, if it’s meant to mean “designing digital products via (written) content” or “designing with words,” then it makes no sense grammatically. Again, modifiers come first in English, so X designer means someone who designs X, or designs for X, not uses X to design something else.

And if this kind of grammatical analysis is above your head or bores you, I’ve got bad news—you’re probably better off as the type of content designer that works with Photoshop. 

Content design: the wrong name for the right job

It’s no surprise that the term “content design” is now used inconsistently, with both words being so vague. But if “content design” means everything, then it ultimately means nothing.

Here’s the cold hard truth, plain and simple: “content design” is the wrong name for the role of the writer on a product team. There’s just no way to make it make sense. But the worst part is, we, as writers, are the ones who should be advocating for clarity, nuance, and precision in language. If we can’t use clear, articulate language to describe our own profession, how can we expect anyone to take us seriously? 

We must lead by example. A job title that either fails to recognize the nuance in its own words or is itself a grammatical error is not a good look for a writer. That, together with the role having at least three other meanings, makes “content design” a massive failure.

The term is so convoluted that most content design job postings explicitly mention UX writing or product writing. If you have to use a different job title to explain the role, something is wrong. 

One position I came across was so ridiculous, I just had to call the company and speak to a representative. Here’s a transcript of the call.

A conversation with Duo the owl

Ring ring …

“Hello, and thanks for calling Duolingo. For English, press 1. Para español, oprima 2. For High Valyrian …  ” [beeeeep]

Duolingo: Duolingo, how can I help you?

Me: Oh, hi, yeah. Can I talk to your owl? His name’s Duo, right?

Duolingo: Of course! One moment please …

[call transferred to Duo. Man, that was easy]

Duo the owl: Who? 

Me: Hi, my name’s Aaron, I’m calling about a job post of yours I saw. I wanted to ask …

Duo: Who who whooo …

Me: I just told you, it’s Aa … oh I get it. No, we’re not doin’ the whole ”who’s on first” thing ‘cause you’re an owl. So shut your beak and listen up. You have a job post in which you ask candidates to have:

  • UX writing samples
  • Product writing experience
  • A gift for expressing complicated things in plain language
  • A background in technical writing
  • Experience giving constructive feedback to writers
  • Experience writing copy with localization in mind

You mention the words “writing,” “writer,” or “language” eleven times! And what do you call this role? Content designer. Duo, that makes NO SENSE! And you want to teach me French! You can’t even figure out when to call a writer a writer. I wouldn’t even trust you to teach me Klingon …

The conversation went downhill from there. He started crying and I told him not to send me any more guilt-trip notifications. **Here’s the post: see for yourselves.

duo the owl crying

Comments from the peanut gallery

So why are companies calling writers “designers”? And, more tragically, why are so many writers calling themselves designers? Look at the experience of most content designers, and you’ll see they have backgrounds as writers. (Except for folks like Saniya, Crystal, and Paula.) Simply because the work takes place in the context of creating/designing digital products is not enough to justify calling a writer a designer any more than a screenwriter should be called a film producer.

“But UX writing/content design/product writing is so much more than just writing!”

True. You know what else involves more than just writing? Literally every other type of writing. Fiction, non-fiction, journalism, history and science writing, speechwriting, screenwriting, grant writing, copywriting, ghostwriting—they all involve research and more.

technical writers do more than write

There is no miraculous production of a final draft in any form of writing. You think novelists just wing it? No. Research is part of the process. Some academics spend their entire careers researching just to write one book. Research, planning, structuring a narrative, it’s all part of writing. That’s one of the reasons we need writers on the product team, to help construct a narrative in the product, to create an arc, a journey. That’s what writers do! That’s writing, not designing. 

And arranging a few elements on a screen doesn’t make someone a designer any more than writing “Sign up” on a button makes someone a writer.

“But we need to be called designers so that people understand we’re part of the team and we can get the same respect and pay as the designers!”

I’m unimpressed. Companies now recognize that writers need a seat at the table. Every post I opened made that clear. And last time I checked, product managers were making the most money on the team. So should we be UI copy managers now? 

There’s nothing about “designer” that signals more money than “writer.” Copywriters still have higher average salaries than graphic designers. Product writers will start earning as much as designers when they prove that the work they do is equally valuable. And a nonsensical name won’t earn us any respect.

“But ‘content designer’ sounds cooler!”

Ah, ‘tis true that tech employees do like to cloak themselves in flashy monikers. This satirical generator of pseudo-design titles pokes fun at the trend. That’s fun and all, but it demonstrates how “content design” is the style over substance title. Again, just the opposite of what writers should be doing.

Here’s the pitch

be a writer pitch icon

The painters have their brushes and oils, the sculptures their hammers and chisels. And what of the pencil, the compass, the ruler, the line and the shape? Those belong to the designer

But we are writers. Ours is the word, the sentence, the cadence and the assonance, the idea and the thought. After all, what is writing if not the transfer of thoughts, from one mind to another via the written word? Writing is thinking.

The world needs writers. And if we don’t call them writers, people will start to think that anyone can do it, bringing us right back to where we started. So if you want to hire a writer, ask for a writer. And if you are a writer, be a writer

If you work at a company that calls it “content design,” maybe have a little chat with your boss. But if you’re free to call yourself whatever you want, please add the word “writer” to your title. Wear it like a badge of honor. Hashtag it, shout it from the rooftops: #IAmAWriter.

The top “writers in tech” title is …

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “OK, he’s a talented rhetorician, but isn’t he just trying to smear content design and promote UX writing?” 

To this I would reply, “Thank you—you didn’t have to say that.” And also, “no.” I believe every word I wrote here. “Content design” is a terrible name for what we do, but I’m not particularly attached to “UX writing” either. Indeed, there’s another name that I think is better: (digital) product writer.

Don’t get me wrong, ”UX writer” is infinitely better than “content designer,” but I prefer “digital product writer” to “UX writer” the same way I prefer “product design” to “UX design.” But alas, that’s a discussion for another day. 

Finally, if you just can’t let go of the word “design,” allow me to suggest an alternative: product design writer. Hulu has used this, and it’s a solid contender for the top title.

The future of writers in tech

It would be great if the industry could rally around one name, but it may not. We may plod along with several names, and it’s not the end of the world if we do. And should “content design” become the dominant title in the end, I will, begrudgingly, accept it. 

What’s important is that companies now, more than ever, understand that writers must be a part of the product design team and be involved in decision-making from the outset. And that’s the big win, no matter what we’re called.

But “content designer”? For a writer? C’mon … 

Think about it, sleep on it. I believe you too will conclude that it’s just not the right name for a digital product writer. And if you think I’m wrong and you prefer “content designer,” well, I hope we can agree to disagree and still be friends. No hard feelings. 

Or, perhaps, we should all go the fun, wacky route. I know a “Galactic Viceroy of Content Excellence,” and she’s great!

And if the designers have their name generator, then we writers need one too. So it’s with great pleasure that I present to you with:

  1. The Writers in Tech Random Title Generator
  2. The A–Z of Writer in Tech Title poster

The Writers in Tech Random Title Generator

Can't decide what to call yourself?
Need to spruce up your profile?

Generate a new title!



Your new title awaits you!


The A to Z of writers in tech

Download the poster: The A–Z of Writers in Tech Titles

Thank you www.flaticons.com for the icons.

** Quick note: I made up with Duo the owl and we’re total bros now. In all seriousness, Duolingo is a great product with excellent UX—I’ve used it for years and want to say “thank you” to the fine folks who work on it. I just happened to see the job post and thought it would be fun to riff on it a bit.

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