Applying UX Principles to Life II: Writing – UX Planet
Can we improve the way we write like the way we design? Let’s explore how we can use UI/UX evaluation techniques to learn more about our readers and improve our writing.
Over the past two years, I’ve taken up writing to share progress on my previous startups and personal milestones. These days, I like writing on design and my philosophies around it, but something made me question whether my writing was getting better overall. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what exactly has been working or what has changed; and that’s when it hit me.
Other than the feedback I get from friends and the responses on my articles, I use Medium stats as a baseline indication of my progress. For those of you who don’t know, Medium writers have access to statistics on the articles that they write, such as the ones below.
The problem is that none of this data is actually informative.
The numbers aren’t indicative of the specific qualities that make an article good or bad. For example, if the title and thumbnail for my last article were better than the others, this could explain the lower reading ratios, but why did I have twice as many fans? When do people leave the article? Where are they skimming content and where are they actually reading? Let’s dive deeper.
If you click into the details of a story, the statistics show you how people found your article, which can be helpful for marketing and attribution purposes but not so much for improving yourself. Simply put, there’s not enough information to infer anything constructive, and as the research shows, this is something that needs to change.
Understanding the Medium Ecosystem
As one of the biggest blogging platforms globally, Medium has made a name for itself since it’s inception in 2012. On average, 140,000 articles were written weekly in 2016, and today it boasts over 60 million monthly visitors. The company’s mission statement reads:
Medium taps into the brains of the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter. So whatever your interest, you can always find fresh thinking and unique perspectives.
While Medium’s interface caters to both readers and writers, if readers are attracted to good stories, then it would be in their best interest to help their writers improve.
I spoke to 33 bloggers, authors, journalists, and content marketers who use Medium to publish their work. They expressed that they used writing to convey their own thoughts and ideas to specific target audiences and industries.
The writers who self-identified as “serious writers” spoke on their improvement strategies as indirect. These included getting feedback from friends, reading other similar content, and writing on a consistent basis. However, those who considered themselves successful were unable to express their methodology for success.
In speaking with 26 frequent Medium readers, one interesting finding I’ve found was that article claps are sometimes simply distributed between friends and used as bookmarks, even though Medium has their own bookmark functionality. While these readers generally like the quality of the work on Medium, they quickly navigate away from articles that don’t provide them any value.
The Medium Trifecta
Understanding the relationship between each stakeholder, we can see that everyone benefits from better writing. So how might we actually do that on one of the world’s biggest blogging platforms?
My eureka moment came when I realized that improving your writing is a lot like improving your designs: it’s driven by data. Right now, this data comes in the form of loose feedback and claps on an article; but there’s actually more that we don’t see.
In design, we use evaluation techniques on websites and interfaces to test whether our work is effective at meeting certain criteria and goals. If we treat Medium articles as websites (which they technically are) then there’s a plethora of quantitative data could be very useful in unveiling what’s really going on. The real question is
Can we improve the way we write like the way we improve our designs?
My approach to this question is based on design research techniques and metrics that are used to evaluate existing interfaces (IDEO calls this type of approach as analogous research). I’m going to be exploring two different ways that Medium could help writers improve their work while keeping to the platforms style and branding guidelines.
1. Simplified Heatmaps
Imagine if you knew specifically what people liked the most about your article. As a writer, it’s important to find out which parts of your story stand out and which parts make people leave. Enter Medium Points of Interest.
In the context of web design, heatmaps show where users are spending most of their time and where they are interacting the most on a given page. A typical website heatmap shows where the most interactions (red) and the least interactions (blue) occur.
For the sake of Medium’s simplicity, we can boil these maps down into points of interest with the context laid out clearly to non-technical individuals. I’ve used a magnifying glass with either a plus or minus superscript to indicate positive or negative quantitative feedback. Once clicked, the data would show you the amount of time people spend on a given section and where readers begin to leave over the length of the article.
2. A/B Draft Testing
Imagine you wanted to test out what style of writing your audience prefers. Writing two different articles isn’t considered a controlled test because of timing, context and a number of other factors. So what if you could publish the same article but distribute different versions to everyone?
A/B testing shows designers which version of an interface is favorable to the target user. For example, if there are two web pages that a designer wants to test, they can see which version users stay longer on by distributing the two pages randomly among visitors to the website. Applying this methodology to writing is what most writers do nowadays (testing out different writing styles with subsequent articles) but in a controlled manner.
Having an option to A/B test your articles could result in writers understanding the effects of incorporating different writing style, titles, subtitles, and pictures. While there are a few challenges with implementing A/B testing (quality control, highlighting functionality, displaying preview thumbnails etc.), the idea is something that holds a strong position in testing out designs.
Blogging on Your Own Website vs. Medium
Because this technology already exists in tools like Unbounce and Hotjar, these methodologies can already be used if you are interested in starting your own blog. However, because Medium’s reader base makes it much easier to become relevant in the online writing space, it would be amazing to see such features implemented on their platform. Moving forward, these improvements tell us a lot about the future of writing and other outdated industries in general.
The Future of Writing
I remember hearing the story of how JK Rowling got rejected by 12 publishers before finding success with the Harry Potter series. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine integrating the methods I’ve described in this article to books or even script writing given today’s advancements in technology.
The intersection of technology and outdated industries has inspired the ability for us to work smarter not harder. While this may be seen as something that takes away from the artistic practice of creative writing, there are a lot of other writing applications that would benefit from a better understanding of reader behaviors.
One thing that helped justify this small redesign was the incorporation of business motivations and not just user motivations. Design should thought of as holistically as possible, and designers should understand the consequences of their designs relative to a variety of other factors.
I also understand that building up domain expertise within a problem space helped inspire a pragmatic way of solving this issue. I was able to come to this conclusion because I was invested in becoming a good writer myself and experienced the problem firsthand. It’s important that designers not only empathize with users but also experience the problems being tackled in order to get a better understanding of how to approach them.