The Wine Dark Sea: A Classical Tradition of User Experience (UX) Writers

UX Writing and User Experience Design are relatively new and burgeoning disciplines, but User Experience theories and iterative design-thinking strategies were common for those in the arts, since before recorded history.

Leverage Human Patterns
The “rosy fingered dawn” arose over a “wine dark sea,” two common epithets in Homer’s Odyssey. These mnemonic devices, used by poets and bards in the Ancient Western world, maintained story threads, managed cadence and established transitions for the audience and the speaker alike. Bards depended upon their performance, their careful maintenance of the user experience for their livelihoods. It was a matter of life or death. If you were a lousy poet, had a bad memory or got a too hammered on your host’s wine, you didn’t eat and you weren’t welcome long.

The hospitality of your host meant survival. For the traveling poet, rules described in the same poetry they recited, commanded hospitality for travelers. That didn’t get the bard off the hook. He had to perform and the virtue of his performance dictated the length of his welcome. If he was good, he enjoyed favor; it the user experience was a bad one, he was out on his ear. He could be the communities entertainment for a season, or a wayward hungry wanderer.

Now consider what these guys were doing, and in what context. They were traveling poets. They walked across the known world in search of reasonable hospitality. Weary, hungry and often drunk, these poets had to perform for their lives.

To perform, to recall thousands of lines of often well-know stories, night after night, poets relied on patterns, epithets, like those used as UX Writing strategies. Patterns, the common epithets found in ancient texts, such as “the wine-dark sea” or “the rosy fingered dawn,” were the very life preserver of the ancient, weary, drunken poet. These patterns triggered memories, biding poets time to recall the next series of lines, to find their rhythm in often lengthy tales. UX writers rely on patterns much the same.

UX writers use text patters and string matrices to develop, refine, launch and test copy. Using text patterns, like titles, buttons, empty state texts, and notifications, writers create recognizable starting points for crafting quality, scalable text based on common user experiences. These aren’t prescriptive, by any means, but common devices to launch user text in the desired direction. Think of text patters as the “rosy fingered dawn” of the user experience.

Working In Constraint
Sonnets, stanzas, iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, haiku. Rhyme, meter, line length, all chosen constraints of a poet selected to create a voice, convey a tone and otherwise filter and refine a message, a feeling. Again, not prescriptive, these constraints convey a sense of feeling; there is a power in constraint, a refinement and focus. Constraints exist for a UX writer. Within these constraints, the power of UX writing emerges.

UX writers must work within existing constraints—business constraints, customer constraints, mobile constraints. Bound by constraint, a UX writer strives to convey a voice, a tone and forge a feeling of kinship with the user, a meaningful conversation.

Content crafted within these constraints must be viable, feasible and desirable, common requirements of successful UX Design. How do the users respond to the copy? How does it fit, in a mobile screen, as a tooltip or in an onboarding message? Can the developers and UI designers fit the copy in the space they’re given?

Good UX copy is like haiku. Like a Shakespearean sonnet. Powerful, succinct, refined and relevant. UX copy conveys the voice of an organization and the tone of an experience while serving the needs of the user, placing the user at the heart of the experience while weighing profitability, viability and marketability. An experience emerges, like poetry, within these constraints. Words begin to mean more than simple directions for an App; they begin to matter. When the words in an application or products engender kinship and community, when users champion products because the application or product champions them, communicates with them, bonds, as brands, occur. This is where the UX writer earns the hospitality. In context and constraint, the writer disappears in the words, becomes the conversation.

Like any good poem, contextual writing, writing with constraints, takes time. It also takes feedback and collaboration, with product owners, marketing executives, developers, managers and designers. Here the UX writer works as part of the larger whole, understands and represents the organization as well as his audience. He is the champion of the conversation and he accounts for all the needs. This is where the poet, the bard, the UX writer earns his keep. He is pleasing to his host and audience alike. Like magic, the UX writer disappears into the constraints and from this emerges a user experience, a brand experience.

Experience Collaboration
It takes the team, the user, the experience and the conversation to make this magic. As when you’re shoulder to shoulder with a thousand other bodies, mesmerized, transfixed and completely immersed in a performance. This is the experience. The one time, here and now where this takes place for you, the user, in the context of the brand and its inherent constraints. This is the essence of collaboration.

We experience collaboration constantly, often without notice. Every show we enjoy, product we utilize or musical performance we appreciate is the product of collaboration, the collective effort of a few or a few hundred minds. And this is where the strength of your UX writer emerges, in this collaboration.

The songwriter might arrive to practice with a few lines scratched on a cocktail napkin, or humming a tune he’s got fixed in his head. But it’s not a song until he introduces it to his bandmates, until they get an impression and offer their own perspective. This is where the UX writer might work his magic, might motivate, inspire or otherwise activate his team into thinking, acting and appreciating a perspective. He might have talent and prove exceptional, but he is not the star, the experience is.

Forever championing the user and the experience, the UX writer embraces the perspectives of the user, the developer, the market, timelines, and key stakeholders. How many beats-per-minute might we write the song in? What’s the cadence for delivery? How many notes are we permitted? What are our design limitations? Like a skillful composer, the writer works with his team until the song emerges, until the words reinforce the sounds, embrace the platform and a feeling emerges. With devices, patterns of human experience and constraints, the UX writer feels his way through the tune, moving here to the developer, there to the designer and, finally, to key stakeholders until all are playing in unison, keeping time and emerging at the end of an agile or scrum process to perform their magnum opus. The product launch is the collective energy of the whole, a collaboration of effort that, when performed in unison and with heart, is breathtaking or immersive, a universal experience. This is not without considerable trial-and-error, not without versions, demos and prototypes.

Paying for Experience
“Hey, you gotta pay your dues. Before you pay the rent” so goes Pavement’s seminal song “Range Life.” Pavement, as any UX writer or burgeoning indie rock musician, understands this. That’s not to say you can’t jump in the pool and expect to swim, it just doesn’t happen that way for most. It takes time, many mistakes, awkward research, empty venues, clunky prototypes, crappy recordings and myriad iterations to get it right, to define and refine the experience and its audience appeal; it takes effort to understand what “it ” actually is, before you can pay the bills.

Knowing this, embracing this iterative process is, over anything else, a critical role for a UX writer. They can’t fix on words as gospel. They make mistakes. They get it wrong. The UX writer must maintain a thick skin and be humble. Flexible yet unperturbed, the UX writer advocates for prototypes, puts their own ideas on the line and, again, perseveres, within the constraints, accounting for stakeholders, for viability and with the users, always with the users. A UX writer knows, without an audience, without a connection, a conversation, that the work will fall on deaf ears.

There are times, for sure, that prototypes captures the essence of an experience, just as some rock demos become fan favorites after an ethos, a feeling and a voice emerge. And still, prototyping continue. A cappella versions, solo songwriter piano renditions, single track basement takes, covers, outtakes, all prototypes or iterations of the same song. A studio recording seldom has the same feeling as a live studio take or a live recording from a concert hall sound board. Each resonates differently with audiences. Products must go to market, even when fraught with imperfections under the scrutiny of an artists eye. Prototypes often suffice, are good enough, until new iterations emerge, evolve from the user experience.

You have got to pay your dues before your pay your bills. These dues can be abject failures. There’s more than one album, or product, that is a total failure. Sometimes the writing falls flat or the tune doesn’t foster the feels. Sometimes the drummer or guitarist leaves mid-tour and you’re forced to adapt and evolve. Sometimes the prototype just misses the mark. This is paying the dues. This is expected. This is understood.

Prototypes are like demo recordings, the raw feeling mock-up of an original work. These might capture the essence, the feeling, but still be unpolished, rough. These may follow, they may lead and they change, for the better or the worse. Differences between prototype and finished products can be so subtle as to be negligible, but they continue to be the process of constraints, collaboration and patterns; the hard won effort of many, and the basis of the user experience. Even raw recordings don’t capture the final mix down of a song, there’s so much to the interaction, the collaboration and the effort. But, if it’s good it becomes worth iterating. When it resonates, it gets copied and covered. It conveys a message, a feeling and a sense of belonging. The product, demo or song gains a following, an audience.

Disappear in Experience
The UX writer belongs to brands, on UX teams worth the time and effort. Just as the Homeric bard needed to belong to survive, so does the UX writer. The poet could sense a reception, recognize when he’d overstayed his welcome or embraced a willing crowd. He also knew where he might be valued.

The poet can craft an experience of uncommon renown; so can the UX writer. The poet and the UX writer know restraint, know their tools, devices and audience and are aware of their reliance upon the hosts good graces, the cooperation of collaborators and the support of advocates. UX writers must return your investment if they hope to remain in good graces. Aware of their place, within these constraints, the UX writer is right there at home, forging the voice of experience, quietly building a brand.

Should you find yourself some rosy-fingered dawn, outfitting a UX team, conjure a poet, collaborator and bard, contract a UX writer. Charge them with crafting a song that becomes an experience; ply them with your constraints. They’ll prototype, they’ll iterate, they’ll deliver and then should disappear with little trace into your product and your user’s experience.