How UX Can Help Us Humanize Products in the COVID-19 Era (and Beyond)

How do we talk about the products we work with as designers, writers, strategists, and creative thinkers? As a UX Writer, I am often hired to help companies and brands “humanize” their voice, making sure that different aspects of the product experience are clear and easy to follow from a language lens. I have become known for my ability to transform complex subjects into digestible, human messages.

Many writers are known to do this, and what I’m asking is: instead of backtracking to use language as a means of humanizing products, what does it look like if the products themselves are more human friendly? As we move forward as a society and continue to build for humanity during and eventually post COVID-19, we must pay attention to the shifts that happen—in the ways we understand what humanization means for ourselves, how we relate to each other with community and care in mind, and how we relate to products.

This session will help attendees think creatively about what it might look like to live in a world where the products that make their way into our lives are actually given substantial thought, where brand loyalty is no longer just about great branding, where we evolve to build and create products that work to help us be better humans to ourselves and to each other.

How UX Can Help Us Humanize Products in the COVID-19 Era (and Beyond)

Ashley Hefnawy – Creative + UX Writer

Keywords: Human Experience, User Experience, human-centered copy, product experience, branding, umami theory, 2020 reckoning, Covid insights, HX vs UX.

TL;DR: Ashley invites us to join her in using some of the insights gleaned during 2020 and its associated reckonings to re-imagine and reframe how we conceive of and write about user experience. By replacing the phrase ‘user experience’ (UX) with the more spacious and encompassing phrase: ‘human experience’ (HX) we can better communicate about, write about, and respond to the lived experience of the humans using our products and evolve the way we work and the way we understand and translate our work. HX allows our conception of products to move from existing in siloed worlds created for ‘ideal’ users to instead existing within realtime narratives and landscapes.

Ashley is going to talk about UX specifically through the lens of writing and how she has reimagined it as the human experience rather than user experience.

Snapshot: This presentation will cover 6 areas of focus:

  1. Intro – who Ashley is, why she’s here, what is she known for and how does she spend her time.
  2. What is UX writing – defining the term, what’s changed during Covid and what does UX need to look like in the future?
  3. UX vs HX – The difference between user experience and human experience, how the latter can help us think more holistically.
  4. The Umami Theory – everything is cancelled and it’s the beginning of the end of the experience economy as we’ve come to know it.
  5. 2020’s Reckoning – how we can reckon with the truth and what does it mean for our products?
  6. Beyond Branding – Writing for the human experience means writing the truth, and using branding for good, allowing HX writing to be part of that.

Ashley is a creative, writer, artist, community events organizer, cat enthusiast. She’s been writing professionally for a decade for a range of clients in the area of communications: copywriting, marketing, and web, with a recent pivot to UX writing. She is often hired by brands/companies to humanize their voice and ensure clarity. During the pandemic, she’s been dissecting what it means to write UX copy and grappling with a certain disparity she’s noticed especially within the tech space.

What is UX Writing? Many people outside the tech space don’t know what UX writing is. Ashley finds this odd because she sees UX writing as embedded in everything we do. It’s the name that throws people off, but when the purpose of UX writing is explained, people tend to understand. UX writing is:

  • The communications that help us get from point A to point B.
  • Extremely meta. – It often feels like talking about the box within the box. Often, those experiencing UX and UX writing are not necessarily cognizant of what they’re engaging with. Why?
  • The vibe, the atmosphere, how we’re feeling inside the actual product.
  • The fastest and easiest way to make us feel smart of dumb. When it’s bad, it can make us feel dumb, frustrated, or Luddite.

Ashley tries to explain UX as simply as possible, and this has led her to reframe the way she talks about it by speaking about the humans using the products rather than using the term UX writing which can be obfuscating.

Why are we talking about it today? Like many of us, Ashley has spent a lot of time this year evaluating the work she’s doing and evaluating the landscape in which UX writing and her own writing exist.

  1. Covid-19 has drastically changed everything about UX.
  2. Humanity turns to products and systems for help in times of distress.
  3. Good products that help humanity require UX that doesn’t get in the way- if you are in a positive product experience, you are likely not thinking about UX
  4. Good UX writing relies on a product that cares about its people! Can’t have good UX if the product doesn’t care about its user. This is key. You can’t use UX writing to cover up a product that doesn’t care.

The Future: We’re framing UX writing within a 2020/Covid perspective and Ashley is thinking about the future and how her work will evolve. There is no returning back to normal. Everything is different and evolving. Everything is getting the magnifying glass treatment. Cancel culture lacks depth (this is a broader topic for another day!), and accountability is in. We are trying to hold ourselves and our communities accountable, as well as the products we engage with. How does this affect UX writing and products?

User Experience vs Human Experience. Ashley loves naming things and much of her job involves rebranding. If she’d been involved in the naming process for ‘User Experience’ she would have called it: Human Experience (or HX). This may not be particularly groundbreaking, but it’s an important distinction to make in how we conceive users vs humans. Human feels more natural and less generic. Let’s talk about why this name feels more in line with how she works as a UX writer.

UX vs HX. Let’s compare UX (or simply user) with HX (or simply human).

  • UX feels general/generic while HX feels less ‘jargon-y’ and more specific.
  • UX lacks emotion vs HX feels more holistic.
  • For those unfamiliar with UX it can be confusing, but saying ‘human experience’ it feels more relatable, public facing and philosophical.
  • HX leaves room for natural curiosity and also opens doors to conversations about the actual work and helps ground the focus of UX writing in how the products help humans.
  • HX is more of a values-based approach. UX: Could be anything? A dog? Something with thumbs? vs HX: Immediately feel connected, empathy.

The bigger picture/frame of this is that Ashley uses a values first approach in her work. She performs a values-based assessment before taking on any new project – Does the product/project align with my personal values, and reciprocally: Is the value I am bringing needed or worthwhile? Greater clarity around these questions comes when thinking of UX as HX. HX allows the conception of products to move from existing in siloed worlds created for ‘ideal’ users to instead existing within realtime narratives and landscapes. Products are too often slow to evolve with the reality of the world they exist within. UX feels like a child of the tech space, which is fine. But given that 2020 is lending itself to widespread re-evaluation and particularly re-evaluation of how we want to evolve the nature of our work, why not also re-evaluate the word that describes what we do?

This boils down to striving to write human experience copy, copy which is cognizant of the world and the environment in which it is situated.

Framing this through real world realtime examples: Ex: In response to the pandemic seriously restricting travel, Airbnb’s messaging pivoted from Belong anywhere to: Get away without going far. You are regularly reminded throughout your app experience that travel is currently challenging. These reminders aren’t done in an alarmist way but in a reassuring and we’re-being-responsible-and-acknowledging-reality way. Safety and hygiene protocol info is prominent throughout app experience. This approach is somewhat pragmatic in that Airbnb’s platform depends on their ability to create systems that centre human comfort, but had they failed to convey this heightened safety messaging, not only would they lose market value in the short term but risk longer term damage to their reputation.

By contrast, another example from hospitality. This industry should be a leader in communication in 2020 as they are at the forefront of humans wanting to experience a reality other than the one grounded in staying home/not socializing. There is both rich potential as well as inherent social responsibility in promoting safe, healthy travel and socializing in accordance with what is currently viable during the pandemic. Ex: App One Night which offers discounted, last minute hotel bookings. Centrally located guide within the app features a 24 hour guide to events and activities happening in and around the hotel. Ad copy for the guide currently reads: 8pm: Wine O Clock. 10pm: Cut a Rug. 11pm: Laugh out Loud. This does not align with the reality of what the current experience will be and completely misses the opportunity to acknowledge the pandemic and show users that they are cared for. It may also lead to confusion around safety protocols. This is a communication fail. The current reality may be grim, but if products are going to evolve, they need to acknowledge and respond to the current situation. We need to collectively move away from a reactive state toward a planning and responding state.

The Umami Theory. This concept comes from a recent memo from Nemesis, a consulting firm founded by Emily Segal and Martti Kalliala. The essence of the memo is that we’ve been coasting on this experience economy which lacks depth and is centered around surface desire rather than actual desire. This is a core part of social media’s success – apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sell the promise that you control and curate your online persona or brand, when actually they are selling you. This matters because surface desire and the lack of depth feels connected to the way Ashley feels when discussing bad user experience. The user/human needs to be considered across the whole product journey. If a product’s problem is that it’s not human enough, you can’t solve that if the product was not created for a UX/HX to begin with.

2020’s Reckoning. Ashley wants to ground us back into 2020 and meditate on what this year is forcing us to reckon with. This year has shown us how fragile and broken our existing systems are. This applies to both the products that we rely on and the ways in which we engage with each other. This is almost like a process of therapy; our society, brands, and products are being tested and those willing to receive help and to change are the ones ready for the truth.The ones founded on lies may not survive.

We can’t keep pretending that our products are used by humans in an ideal state. Ex: Iphone users. Those who use iphones are not living in an ideal world, but iphone has tended to be responsive in adapting to changing UX/HX needs. If we want to create products for people who are living in reality, we have to acknowledge that our products are embedded into the human experience. Additionally, the writing that helps get us from point A to point B within a product needs to acknowledge that. It is no longer possible nor sustainable to talk to people as if they are robots or treat them as children.

Products that are beyond branding. As we move forward to a world beyond Covid-19, we need to envision the future, and we need to imagine that we will see shifts in the ways that we understand what humanization means, in products and in the ways we relate to one another. (Ex: the way we wear masks to show others that we care about their health. Ashley is located in NYC and is seeing systems of care emerging that we aren’t necessarily used to in the west due to relentless individualism.) Ashley envisions a future where products are designed around humans not because of empty branding associations but because the products need to actually work. Some features of such products might be:

  • Mindful of the human experience.
  • Challenge capitalist desires for wealth, power.
  • Centre the human and their relationship to the product.
  • Don’t rely on brand associations.
  • Don’t develop codependent relationships with the humans that use them (see: smartphones).
  • Help us be better humans to ourselves and to each other. [And not in regard to the health and wellness market segment, but in regard to these values being relevant across all product fields

Concluding Thoughts! When thinking about the difference between UX writing and HX writing in the future, Ashley is thinking of HX writing as acknowledging the human using a given product as opposed to UX writing which tends to use generic terminology and jargon that maintains distance. The language of empathy, emotion, and compassion is not absent from UX conversations and spaces but it needs to be leveled up to acknowledge the societal narrative that a product is a part of. This is extremely important. Products do not exist in bubbles, they are used by people across all walks of life. As a writer, Ashley is particularly going to be thinking around the intention behind communication – what does it serve and how it can be more meaningful and impactful.

Thanks! This topic is near and dear to Ashley’s heart and she hopes this talk helped you learn more about products, writing and meaningful communication. Subscribe to her newsletter here: here. Or feel free to check out her website or Soundcloud page. Credit to Slidesgo for the templates used in this presentation, including icons from Flaticon, infographics and images by Freepic and illustrations by Stories.