Thea Hogarth is Lead User Researcher / UX Writer at BrainPOP, an educational technology platform for K-12 students. Thea develops copy and points of style for a set of web resources aimed at both students and their instructors. In her interview with the MS in Professional Writing (MSPW) below [Note: conducted pre-COVID], Thea describes the strategic challenges of UX writing that keep her engaged, as well as the increasingly important art of writing “microcopy.”
Q: Describe your current role and your daily professional responsibilities.
A: I work at an educational technology company called BrainPOP where I have a dual role. My official title is UX Researcher / UX Writer, and I like to say that this combination means I’m responsible for the human side of writing. In a nutshell, I document language so we can communicate and educate more effectively. The research I do helps me build our in-house style guide and develop our approach to writing accessible platform copy for anyone from a busy 7th grade teacher rushing between periods to a curious 4th grader.
On a typical day, you might find me interviewing teachers about their lesson planning habits or visiting a classroom to observe how students use our new games or features. But it’s also my job to bring my research findings back to the teams that build our product. I meet with product designers and developers to talk about how the technical elements of the user experience can help start a meaningful relationship with the people who use our platform. The writing that appears on our site—whether it’s as long as an article or as short as a button—is part of that relationship. A lot of what I end up actually writing falls into the category of microcopy-- drafting those little bits of text that probably work best when users don’t notice them at all.
Q: Talk about a mentor, book, or experience that helped shape who you are as a writing professional.
A: First of all, I’ll say I’m lucky that throughout my career I’ve had mentors who, above all, taught me to value my skills and share them generously.
That said, in my current work, I keep coming back to this book called Flash Fiction Forward.
When I first started writing microcopy for BrainPOP, I reread the forward by James Thomas and Robert Shapard and latched onto this bit of wisdom: “The essence of a story [...] exists not just in the amount of ink on the page–the length–but in the writer’s mind, and subsequently the reader’s.”
To me, this passage is a reminder than every small word we write could have a much larger significance in another person's experience. In UX, it's not just about what the text says, but what it enables the user to do in the context of their own life.
Q: In your role and industry, how important is collaboration? With whom do you collaborate?
A: As a UX Writer, I create a component of a larger final product, so collaboration is essential. To do UX Writing effectively, you have to have a higher goal that aligns with user needs and business objectives. In a practical sense, you also need to make sure that your writing process jives well with the project timeline and other team-members’ working styles. The only way to get the information you need is in dialogue with others: learning from real users, strategizing with product teams, collaborating with designers, and building a community with other writers in the office.
Some of my most cherished collaborators are designers because our processes are so similar. We brainstorm, draft, revise. So when we can synchronize these processes and pass a design back and forth, the end result feels truly harmonious. The visual context provides helpful parameters for my words; and the text can sometimes reveal weaknesses and opportunities in the design. Working across disciplines has made me a better writer and a better teammate because I understand everyone’s job a little better.
Q: What do you look for in assessing potential new hires?
A: I look for a balance of strategy and empathy. The creative part of UX writing is rarely the words, but the larger strategy that goes into choosing them. So it’s helpful to know that potential hires have experience writing in a goal-oriented way. How can writing help a business achieve an objective? How can you measure your success?
UX writers also need to feel a connection with the users who will ultimately see their words in real and humanizing ways. If you can demonstrate a sense of curiosity about the humans who will interact with your writing, you’re on your way.
Thank you to Thea Hogarth for sharing her professional writing journey with us.
To learn more about the MS in Professional Writing program at NYU School of Professional Studies, visit sps.nyu.edu/mspw