Our Narratives, Ourselves

Taking a cue from Transcendentalism, we can write—and rewrite—our own history through the decisions we make about language in our products.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson1

When I was new to the technology industry—not wide-eyed exactly, but still doing a lot of double-takes at strange terms and blithe turns of phrase, followed by a lot of surreptitious Googling—I was struck by how very idealistic the whole enterprise seemed. Cycling down Valencia Street in San Francisco, past the coffee shop where I had crammed fifteen hours a day for my doctoral qualifying exams, the sense of possibility was palpable. I felt, like Emerson crossing Boston Common, the extraordinary at work in the everyday.

Indeed, Silicon Valley takes a lot of lessons from transcendental idealism. Its ethos combines a sense of connectedness to a larger force with the freedom to define yourself; the promise of this strange, exhilarating, half-mythical cocktail is that you determine your own fate. It’s a boomtown mindset, undoubtedly—there a lot of people stumbling around drunk—but also a concrete manifestation of something that the Transcendentalists understood on a more philosophical level: you can change the world by imagining it differently.

This piece is about reimagining narrative. The pervasive sense of possibility means that, as an industry, we exist in a perpetual state of self-definition. Neither our products nor the organizations that produce them are static for long. In such an environment words matter, of course, but why? How do we deal with language in the course of designing things that we think might, just might, change the world, even as those products themselves are always changing? Finally, in doing this thinking around narrative, what can we learn about our industry and ourselves?

Works in Progress

We’re constantly seeking to make technology products more human. The current emphasis on storytelling stems, we claim, from the belief that fewer things are more inherently human than the power of narrative. And this isn’t just tech talking: it’s a grand American tradition to reap the rewards of telling a good story. Benjamin Franklin, that abundant source of aphorisms and productivity tips, is infamous for a story in his Autobiography about, of all things, fishing.

On a sea voyage from Boston in the 1720s, Franklin’s ship is becalmed off Rhode Island, and his fellow passengers begin catching cod. On a “vegetable diet,” he views “the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter.”

This view seems “reasonable,” but Franklin, previously “a great lover of fish,” is also hungry. As the cod in the frying pan begin to smell appetizing, he battles with desire until recollecting that, when the fish were sliced open, smaller fish were taken out of their stomachs. “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you,” thinks Franklin and dines happily.

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature,” he reflects of this story in the Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771, “since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”2 What the reader might be tempted to call a lack of conviction Franklin pins instead on a renewal of principle: hungry for fresh fish, he simply revisits his original reasoning and finds it in need of iteration. Presented with the most deliberate artifice, this evolution is nonetheless organic, imbuing the colonial recollection with a sentiment that should feel familiar to us today. The narrative structure does as much work as the events of the story, defining Franklin not as a vegetarian or pescatarian but as someone who is always redefining himself.

It’s the tale, in other words, but also the telling.

People in Progress

Industry catchphrases reflect a penchant to iterate fearlessly on products—rapid prototyping, “fuck it, ship it,” lean principles, “fail fast”—but rarely do we delve into the constant evolution around how we define ourselves as we build them.

One of the things that I learned early on, without any Googling at all, is that professional identities change before our very eyes. There wasn’t, for example, a community manager or head of people ops at most organizations five years back. It’s hard to know how marketing and support hybridized into “community,” or when precisely human resources began morphing into “people operations,” but our colleagues who work in these fledgling fields would likely agree that they represent an evolution in thinking rather than a simple etymological switch.

The field of design in particular has undergone a long and dramatic change. In 1986, Brenda K. Laurel wrote that designers “remain a ‘luxury item’ in the consumer end of the industry.”3 Ten years later, design was still a nascent discipline. Over the last two decades, however, it has professionalized fiercely. Though it’s still common to hear reductionist arguments about design as a way to “make things pretty,” a good designer is now considered a necessity for any organization intent on building something usable and useful.

The new luxury item of the design and development process is the writer. Even in the midst of a content renaissance, designers, product managers, and engineers often fill the writerly void, inserting language in their particular style and paining persnickety custodians of voice and tone everywhere.

As a writer, my job titles have spanned various permutations of “user experience writer” and “content strategist”—including, for the minimalist win, “writer.” “Design” is occasionally thrown in. “Wordsmith” and “storyteller” have been tossed around. I’ve been referred to as a “word engineer,” “word designer,” and “word expert.” All of this is fair: I deal primarily with words, which are a type of content. I work on UX and product and exploration teams. I craft (design? engineer? smith?) narratives.

My résumé, then, is a slow-motion capture of the chaotic evolution of our thinking around narrative. If you look closely enough, this etymological chaos reveals a lot about our industry-wide relationship—ambivalently attentive, intermittently enthusiastic—to words.

All the Content

For writers who care deeply about language in web and product design, content strategy is a gateway drug. Content strategy is not, however, exclusively or even primarily focused on writing. To deploy Kristina Halvorson’s widely quoted definition, “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”4 The term surfaced in the late 1990s as a strategic approach to dealing with what the typical user faced on the web: a morass of words and images and data and sounds and video and comments in desperate need of architecting. Formulating itself as an umbrella discipline, content strategy claims jurisdiction over, well, everything that the user encounters on the web plus the organizing principles behind it:

Everything is content … What about design? Yes, it’s content. Structure? Content. Metadata? Also content.

— Rachel Lovinger5

The web is content. Content is the web.

— Kristina Halvorson6

In the web industry, anything that conveys meaningful information to humans is called ‘content.’

— Erin Kissane7

These definitions are provocative by nature, open for interpretation like a Rorschach inkblot test. As a result, they sometimes lead to disclaimers. “Is content strategy the same as content marketing?” asks Jonathon Colman. “No, never.”8 Content strategy “doesn’t belong to any of us any more than graphic design belongs to advertising or project management to aerospace engineering,” contends Kissane.9

These sources, along with many others that have shaped content strategy as a discipline, point to two related challenges. First, like the value of design in 1986 or even at the turn of the millennium, the value of writing and careful language is still not assumed. We are well on our way, but content strategy, the intuitive entry point for changing hearts and minds, is a “big, big world” that—and this is problem number two—currently covers perhaps too many sins for its own good.10 It’s time for a conversation about what sits under the “everything” umbrella.

Get Thee to an Ivory Tower

This discussion might seem rather academic, but that is, frankly, kind of the point: it’s a way of pulling back the curtain on how we specialize and adapt in an industry that moves quickly. Indeed, as we map the content terrain to make it more legible for both practitioners and observers, we might take a page from academia.

Consider the field of English, which I use as an analogy because many writers and content people have a background in literature, myself included. Like content strategy, English is a big, broad discipline rather than a niche one; it contains multitudes. To accommodate the specialization necessary for careful thinking, it has splintered into subfields. Practitioners identify their work by period as well as by ethnicity or nation or “other”—gender and women’s studies, animal studies, African-American studies, disability studies.

Specialization does not, however, mean silos. Disciplinary boundaries are permeable and overlapping. A nineteenth-century American literature course, for example, might cover Transcendentalism, slave narratives, sermons, philosophical essays, poetry, and popular novels by female writers, with texts that include prints, paintings, caricatures, and material objects in addition to books. This approach makes the implicit argument that you can’t understand a sliver of cultural history like nineteenth-century American literature without context. You can’t produce good work in a silo.

Forging a field that claims substantive ties to a broader discipline does not require living in an echo chamber. For writers, now is a moment to define not just how we manage “content,” but how we approach the language that constructs the user experience. What does it mean to think more deliberately about narrative, writing, words—not to divorce them from content writ large, but to formulate practices for the corner of content strategy that accounts for linguistic style and nuance? What does it mean to practice narrative design?

The Narrative User Experience

We’re familiar by now with the assertion that every product tells a story. We work so hard to tell good ones, but words matter even more when, in product design as in poetry, we’re using fewer of them. Deconstructing stories and designing them for particular contexts is a specialized craft—a craft that requires engaging with language on its broadest and most persnickety levels simultaneously to create precise, systematic nomenclature.

Words are extraordinarily powerful product tools, but we’re not yet accustomed to dealing with them in the design process. Organizational dynamics and workflows often conspire to contain the messy work of narrative with a modular approach:

“What’s a better word for [insert random word]?”

“I’ll just lorem ipsum this for now.”

“Can we get a line of copy?”

“I need words here.”

The peaceable response would be to say, “Just a sec,” “Fine,” “Yes,” “OK,” and generate some words for whatever piece of interface or mockup or wireframe your well-meaning colleagues are pointing at. But if you’re concerned about overall user experience, it is, instead, a thousand times, “No.” Narrative is a collaborative effort. Each time we move a user through a flow, designers and writers together have the responsibility to help them relate to it and make meaning along the way. It should, then, come as no surprise that work approached in a piecemeal way doesn’t end up being as good as it could be.

Despite the odd panoply of titles, the core of my job has always been to fashion, in concert with interaction design, a consistent narrative experience that guides users through a product or interface or feature. Acting as a drive-by human thesaurus or a drop-words-here copywriter made me bad at that job, but the product suffered, too. I wanted to change the nature of the conversations happening throughout the design process, not by claiming everything as my purview but by honing in on what really matters when writing for the user experience: a holistic approach to language.

As we build products, we would do well to think more deliberately about the narrative we want users to take away. What is the thesis of this feature? How does it allow the larger product to fulfill its destiny? What are the microelements with which the user interacts that allow the narrative to take shape gradually and organically? What impact do those elements have on the larger interface? Narrative UX addresses the linguistic facet of these questions so that users can immerse themselves in an experience—so that the seams, which often chafe when product language is halting or robotic or poorly considered, melt away.

Always Be Rewriting

Let’s return to that term, storytelling, which often manifests when we talk about user-facing language. We tend to account for its intense hold on our collective imagination by noting that, in an age when people are wired tautly together, stories are a natural unit of human intercourse. But naturalizing something, claiming that it’s innate rather than learned, is an easy way to discount the work and skill required to create it. Popular conceptions of the art of storytelling—the fact that stories are, simultaneously, what we read to children before bedtime and what we believe to be a key conversion and retention tactic—belie the complex structure and linguistic precision that go into the practice of writing for users.

Good stories aren’t the breezy outcome of inspiration any more than they’re the final, neglected task on a product manager’s checklist. Rather, good stories are the sum of many technical decisions. We prize an accessible, conversational narrative experience for users, but an easygoing tone isn’t easy to achieve. We want the magical experience of the final product to supersede the labor that went into creating it, to be greater than the sum of its parts. That means doing to our products what professional writers do: endless drafting, fearless cutting, perpetual revising.

It’s the tale but also the telling. What Ben Franklin teaches us, in an industry that’s constantly redefining itself, is that demonstrating to the world who you are and what you stand for is an iterative and ongoing process. Though famously influential, the Autobiography was never finished—Franklin worked on it from 1771 until his death in 1790, expanding and recollecting and correcting and revising. Technical decisions over the course of almost twenty years crafted what we experience as the final product, a narrative construct that becomes conflated in most reader’s minds with the man himself.

Then as now, narrative is a moving target. We reimagine it because, in order to evolve, we must. The promise of Silicon Valley’s transcendental ethos—the freedom to define yourself by tapping into a larger force, thereby determining your fate—is really just a commitment that we make to transcend our current state. We design the narratives that we think might, just might, change the world by always rewriting both our software and ourselves. We shape our own history by writing over it a more refined narrative than the one we wrote yesterday. Channeling Emerson, we write our imagination into reality, and idealistically into a better future.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (James Munroe and Company, 1836).

  2. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888).

  3. Brenda K. Laurel, “Interface as Mimesis,” User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

  4. Kristina Halvorson, “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” A List Apart, December 16, 2008.

  5. Rachel Lovinger, “Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data,” Boxes and Arrows, March 27, 2007.

  6. Halvorson, 2008.

  7. Erin Kissane, The Elements of Content Strategy (A Book Apart, 2011).

  8. Jonathon Colman, “The Epic List of Content Strategy Resources,” Jonathon Colman (blog), February 4, 2013.

  9. Erin Kissane, “Content Strategy Is Not User Experience,” Brain Traffic (blog), February 10, 2011.

  10. Ibid.

Jessica collier

Jessica Collier is a writer and perennial 19th-century Americanist. An English PhD, she consulted on language and style for startups such as Medium and Delicious Monster before becoming the first user experience writer at Evernote. She now leads narrative UX at Stellar.org in San Francisco.

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Illustration by Sarah Mazetti · Portrait by Roman Muradov