Dear User at Prime Academy


My friend Ange invited me back to share my talk about designing friendlier interfaces with the UX and engineering cohorts at Prime Academy last week.

Their new space downtown is really cool. I meant to take pictures, but despite arriving 25 minutes early I got lost in the building itself and spilled in out of breath 3 minutes before everyone started gathering. It was fine, just a whirlwind. It was a beautiful spring day, finally, and I walked back after across the river. So I did get to take a picture of the Jet Ski that’s still stuck in the St. Anthony Falls lock and dam.

The students were great, of course. I’m in awe of anyone who can make room for an intense program like that in the adult life they are already living in order to level up or change careers. That’s no small thing.

Got some great questions, which I’ve tried to recall and summarize below.

What specifically can developers do to help with this kind of stuff? (Friendlier user interface copy, for example).

Get involved early, if they’ll let you, and help UX designers understand the full scope of what they’ll actually need to design. Even good UX designers get tunnel vision on the ideal path, and neglect to write messages and design for scenarios where things go wrong.

Another way to help is to write something, even if it’s just bullet points about the situation. Designers can run with some basic info, but if you only put “error message goes here” you’re going to have to have a conversation about it, which will interrupt your precious coding time.

When in the process do you focus on this kind of stuff?

Ideally some of these principles, or principles like them, are baked into the design culture of your organization. So everyone is thinking about them all the time. That’s not actionable though, I realize.

Practically speaking, when I was a User Interface Writer supporting a team of User Experience Designers (who did all of the wireframing and user flows), I would typically consult with them in a sort of pre-review before they took their design concepts in front of stakeholders. It was best if this was a couple of days before the stakeholder meeting, as sometimes my questions would reveal a gap in the design concept they’d need time to fix. But sometimes it was an hour before the meeting, and I’d help them punch up the interface language and write things in a more user-friendly way.

What if I’m a developer and I notice that there are lots of bad/unfriendly/inconsistent message strings all over our product?

In the spirit of Dale’s principles, you want to find a diplomatic way to bring this to the right person’s attention, as it may well be that someone worked hard on those messages and they’re still just bad. I’d recommend collecting a lot of the strange ones together and sending off a message to relevant parties asking something like “Do we know how these are getting written? I’m curious about the process and wanted to see if there’s a way to strengthen what we have, and to know whom to follow up with if I have questions about particular messages.”

How do I get executives/stakeholders to care about this stuff?

Constantly remind them about users. Don’t just show wireframes like you’re handing in homework — put those wireframes and other deliverables into a presentation and story and make include the user’s voice/perspective however you can. Photos help. I always like the little thought bubble illustrations representing questions or concerns the user might have at various stages of the journey.

As a content strategist, I’ve found that quotes are very powerful. I like to warm people up to challenging ideas with impactful or emotional quotes from my user and stakeholder interviews that emphasize my point in a compelling way. Quotes are also nice from a pacing perspective, and tend to catch people’s attention as they skim through a document.

I also got the perennial portfolio advice question, but I’m going to save that answer for another post.

Thanks again to Ange, Emily, and all of the students and instructors that shared their time with me. I’m sure I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, remember to smile!