The struggle between Writing and Design, or Why everyone should write

Thinking about writing at Melissa's Food Shop, Cape Town.

How good I am at my job as a software Product Manager depends on my ability to do two things: Understand the needs that real people have when they go online (whether they can articulate it or not), and building products that satisfy those needs as well as meet business goals. It occurred to me this morning that in many ways writing is about doing the exact opposite. To a large extent, writing is about being selfish.

Virtually any book or article you read about writing gives the same advice: Write what you know and what you’re passionate about. Write what’s in you, not what you think people want to read. Just last week James Shelley reminded us that people cannot help but notice an individual with passion. In another post he says:

Although passion may at times appear dangerous, the planet does not need less human passion right now, it needs more passion than ever before “” passion that refuses to be immunized by the lulling caress of consumption and the crippling inundation of knowledge.

But it is this apparent struggle between Design and Writing (with a big D and W) that makes it so damn difficult to write sometimes. As user experience designers we’re trained to get out of our own shoes and into those of others. It’s about their needs, not our likes and dislikes. “You are not the user,” we often say.

But I have a feeling that the best writers (and designers, for that matter) are those who are able to balance this apparent conflict between user needs and internal passion effortlessly. Writers and designers who truly astound us with their work are those whose understanding of what people need are so ingrained in their beings, so much part of them, that they’re able to express their passion in a way that meets those needs “without fuss or bother,” as the NN Group definition of User Experience states.

It is for this reason that I think if you’re in software, you should write. Anil Dash got me thinking about this when he said:

Some ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.

If nothing else, the practice of writing down your thoughts (yes, about the things you are passionate about) will teach you how to create words in a way that resonates with those who read it. And just go ahead and try to convince me that won’t make you a better designer.

The biggest problem is, of course, that we all hate our own work, especially in the beginning. As Ira Glass so eloquently puts it:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

He goes on to give this advice:

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

If you’re noticing a change in this blog over the past few weeks, you’d be right. I’ve redesigned to put the focus on the content, and I hope to write just a bit more – even if that means fewer long-form posts. I have to test this theory that writing better words will help blur the lines between what I’m good at and what people need from software. We’ll see how it goes.

And you – yes, YOU. Go write something, ok?