Some days, I feel that content writers have one of the most constantly changing, growing, and demanding jobs in the tech world. And before anyone jumps to defend the intensity of their own role, let me clarify that by demanding, I don’t mean hardest or most time sensitive — I mean a role that requires a huge range of skills. Unlike a developer who has specific skills in certain programming languages, content writers usually have a broad range of skills across writing, marketing, research and more.
Why is that, you might ask? Well, in my experience, it’s mostly because employers tend to throw any writing-related tasks our way. Edit a blog post? Sure. Check this pitch deck. Yup. Help the design team with microcopy? Definitely. Draft a user journey for this section of our website? On it! (Are these all things I was asked to do at some point in my career even though my title didn’t exactly match the tasks? You bet.)
Then, What IS the Difference?
With all the various things a writer might end up doing, what exactly are the differences between a UX writer and a content strategist? Since these tend to be ever-changing roles, you might get slightly different answers depending on who you ask.
The biggest takeaway in my experience (TL;DR) — content strategists tend to focus on big picture content while UX writers tend to get into the minutia of the details. Despite this, the skills for both roles often overlap and both roles require collaboration across departments.
Having done both UX writing (microcopy for mobile games) and content strategy (for big and small web clients), I think instead of comparing specific job roles, a better approach to learning about content positions is looking at the differentiated skills needed for each one and what that could look like in a real-job scenario.
Generally, UX writing is any writing that relates to micropy on an app, website, or product that a user will interact with. It’s writing but with limited words, limited space, and a very specific purpose — to make things flow for the users. So, what sort of skills do UX writers need?
Lots of people will tell you that copywriting is specific to marketing and advertising. While I don’t disagree, copywriting is still a skill that a UX writer can benefit from. Because the whole point of marketing and advertising is to get a potential customer to do some action, this can translate well into UX writing.
While a UX writer doesn’t have to sell anything (because the users are already there, using the product), they do have to get the users to complete some action.
Copywriting also is great practice for paring sentences and paragraphs down to their true purpose and cutting out extra fluff while still understanding the overall importance of concepts like branding and voice. All of which are helpful to UX writers working on microcopy for a product.
Real Job Example:
When helping designers and developers create tutorials for mobile games, I had to take complex tasks and operations and pare them to the very bare bones due to the size and time constraints within the app. Having extensive copywriting experience really helped me provide copy that was easy to understand and concise enough to fit in the tiny popup box within the game.
Part of the research that UX writers do is looking into the users who are actually using their products. A good UX writer can put themselves in the shoes of others and understand those different user types and the issues they might encounter. This ability comes from a variety of places: research and experience, but also empathy.
Whether it’s adjusting language to account for accessibility or ensuring that non-native English speakers can easily navigate products, having empathy for your users is a great skill for the UX writer and ensures that microcopy used in the product is universal and inclusive.
Real Job Example:
When one of our games went into live beta testing, my team discovered that we had users from all over the world, not just from the US. We quickly had to make adjustments to the copy to help those users avoid any pain points while playing the game. If we’d had more time before going live, I could have made user journeys to anticipate those types of interactions. (Which I should have done anyway, but I was still new and learning!)
Marketing is a broad field but if you’ve done any type of online marketing work, then you’re going in the right direction. Social media posts, infographics, anything with short form writing or messaging is great practice for UX writing because it’s part of the job of the UX writer to direct the user when they hit touch points. And that’s what good marketing does — direct a potential customer to an action.
In UX writing, it might be CTAs or error messaging but you want to direct users through the flow with as little pain points as possible. Online marketing teaches this skill because pain points don’t equal sales or likes from customers. In products, pain points equal lost users. Same stakes, different goals.
Real Job Example:
Within our mobile games, it was up to me and the game designer to come up with names for power-ups and quirky characters. Having a background writing marketing copy, it was easy for me to brainstorm choices that were catchy and unique without being too complex, jargon-heavy, or boring. Those names may seem like a small thing but they add to that overall, immersive experience that keeps users engaged.
The role of the content strategist can be a bit more broad, again depending on who you ask. For some, the content strategist is actively engaged in creating a strategy and/or pipeline for new content. (Often this is the case for planning marketing content, ie blog posts, social media, videos etc.) For others, the content strategist organizes existing content, creates rules and guidelines for future content, and ensures that all the content matches the goal of the company or brand. In my opinion, there are a lot more moving pieces to deal with in content strategy than UX writing (though your mileage may vary). But at the core, the skills aren’t necessarily that different.
It should go without saying that anyone attempting to create a content strategy needs to be highly organized and very analytical. Part of creating content strategy is developing an overarching architecture that will guide and house every single content piece. If you don’t like categorizing things or creating systems for organizing information, content strategy might not be the best content job for you.
But if you like putting things in their proper places or making charts and graphs out of a mess of information, content strategy provides many opportunities for organization and analysis that brings content together like a giant puzzle.
Real Job Example:
I’ve created content strategy outlines for a handful of web clients across industries where I redeveloped the architecture for all of the information on their current websites in order for them to re-brand or redesign those sites. I had to sort through multiple pages to figure out where content should live in the new design while asking questions such as “should this anecdotal blog post live on the About Us page or would it be better somewhere else?”
The Ability to Balance Business And Users
To be a content strategist is to be pulled in many different directions at the same time. On one hand, you’ll have a client or employer (a.k.a. the person paying you). This could involve a few people or it could involve dozens of internal stakeholders depending on the organization. Part of the content strategist’s job is to ensure that the content on the site or app is following the goals of the business and the business’ stakeholders.
But on the other hand, you also need to understand the path of the users. You have to be able to see things from their perspective and provide insights to the business that they might have overlooked. If this is sounding a lot like empathy from the UX section above, that’s because it is. It’s the same skill but applied in order to achieve balance between the organization and the users.
Real Job Example:
I’ve been asked to create a variety of user journey maps for one of the more corporate clients I’ve worked for. One that was actually used and shown to stakeholders was a job seeker user flow, which I mapped from landing on the home page to digging into the About Us section all the way to finally getting to the application page. Not only did I present a few possible flows of job seekers, but I also had to provide potential information about each type of job seeker, i.e. who they were and what they would want to discover first in their individual job search.
Doesn’t this phrase look familiar? Like with UX writing, having a background in marketing copywriting can come in very handy for a content strategist. Your client/employer might hand you the most jargon-heavy articles to sort through and add to your growing architecture with little to no references. Guess whose job it is to cut down on the jargon so it’s digestible and engaging to read for the various types of users on your site or app? If you don’t have a dedicated content team, it might very well be your job as well.
It goes without saying that if your content strategy is a marketing content strategy, you will also need those copywriting skills as you’ll probably end up writing a good bit of the content yourself. Some content strategists just organize or create the strategy, but a good number have to also implement the strategy once it’s created. You know, we have to write all of the things.
Real Job Example:
Usually if a client has asked me to create a better content strategy for their website, I end up working with them on the actual on-page copy as well. I started my writing career with drafting and editing copy and it’s the one constant skill that I use nearly every day, no matter what my job title currently might be.
As it turns out, both UX writers and content strategists have similar skill sets that they then do different things with. Now, these skills above are just the basics. There’s a whole realm of other things that UX writers AND content strategists have to do on a daily basis — like collaborate with design teams so content is created at the same time as new designs. Or redrafting that one line of copy four hundred times to better suit a user or a client.
The true take-away is that good writers have skills they can use across content roles. They also understand that writing doesn’t usually happen in a bubble and great writing is the result of great collaboration between teams, stakeholders, clients and users. So, I guess the true question isn’t “what are the differences between UX writing and content strategy” but rather, “what skills do I need to succeed at either of them.”