M-Theory: Why good story-telling skills enhance good code Craig Daniels May 11, 2017 Featured, M-Theory, News A couple of years ago while drinking with co-workers, one of my European colleagues was telling a story that involved a French customer and a Slovakian development team and a partner in Shanghai, and… A question popped into my head that I couldn’t believe hadn’t occurred to me years earlier. When several geographically distributed teams are working on a project, how do they comment the code? The developers present explained that many people try to comment in English, but their proficiency varies greatly. They may not know how to get a specific point across other than in their native tongue. Some people comment in their native language if they don’t speak much English, or if all of their team members speak a particular language and weren’t working with any other groups for most of the project. When the various distributed parts of a big project come together, the resulting code commenting can be pretty Babel-esque. No one would argue that any of these folks have exceptional writing skills. And yet they have worked for very big companies and delivered massive projects that affect a lot of people. Amazing, really. So when I read an article like this one about writing as a “unicorn skill” for designers, I kind of roll my eyes at the choice of language. Especially since we’re still recovering from that idea that everyone needs to learn to code. (We are recovering from that, right…?) Sure, I guess it’s a natural progression that someone influential will decide at some point that we all need to become writing rock stars as well. But when considering the points in that article, where my brain prefers to go is beyond the idea that designers should be able to produce coherent content with their designs. (Though that makes sense.) It’s not that everyone needs to become a professional-grade writer (especially the aforementioned development teams). But there is value in more people becoming proficient content producers. Yes, I do think that being a writer and a content producer are different things. Sure, thanks to social media we’re all content producers these days. But no one would argue that most online content is great art or Pulitzer-worthy prose. Even among types of online content, writing a compelling column is not the same as an explosive piece of investigative journalism. Writing interface copy is not the same as writing documentation. No one is going to become brilliant at all types of online content that a company needs, nor should they. But I think people in various disciplines can bring other skills they’ve honed to bear on improving their contextual writing skills. As the article mentions: “A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios,” writes designer Susan Stuart, in a blog post highlighted in the report. “These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.” Imagine how different day-to-day customers’ experiences could be if all of their interactions with companies were driven by this philosophy. “Who will be reading this and what do they want to accomplish?” Certainly the article makes an excellent point that good writing skills are important for designers. They can make the storytelling stronger, the overall design more attractive and cohesive and project workflows more efficient. Plus, let’s face it, as my colleagues often remind each other: no one reads on the internet. Writing is affected by trends and evolution like pretty much everything else. Which means that we all need to continually develop our content skills to address that. (Insert emojis here.) Designers have an advantage there in that they tend to maintain the big customer-facing picture in their heads: storytelling, design, workflow, and graphics. This helps to make the final piece — the words — fit well (and potentially with fewer iterations). It works in reverse, too. Good writing is well designed, well crafted. The feeling is pretty much the same as when making something tangible. You’re designing not only what is said, but how, and to whom. Are you just walking a user through a signup process, or trying to persuade them? But wait … signups include persuasion. You’re persuading people to complete the process, to become a customer or at least provide you with their data. Who is the target audience, and how much or how well do they read? What writing style will help build rapport with them? How media savvy are they? Do they like a direct, no-nonsense approach to selling, or do they like a little wooing? That doesn’t even get into how the words will interact with the physical actions we then want people to take. Bottom line, none of us are unicorns, and all of us are. (No sparkly neon-coloured Frappuccino required.) No one person at a company can completely understand every detail and nuance of the company, its people, its products, its customers and its target audience. But improving your writing skills can be a bit of a magic pill. It helps you think in terms of storytelling, and design, and sales, and development. Oh yeah, and in terms of that invisible stranger who you want to convince to give money to your company. “Who will be reading this and what do they want to accomplish?” will pretty much always yield better results than just trying to make captions short enough, or get the customer through the checkout process as quickly as possible. And, conveniently, while your teams might be located all over the world, “Who will be reading this and what do they want to accomplish?” helps everyone see the same big picture, no matter into what languages it’s translated.