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Feb / 2020

Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast featuring Tamara Hilmes

New York City, U.S.A
Writers of Silicon Valley Podcast featuring Tamara Hilmes

Writers of Silicon Valley is a podcast hosted by UX writer Patrick Stafford, featuring interviews with UX writers, content strategists, and anyone who designs with words. Guests include writers from Uber, Square, Microsoft, Dropbox, and more.

Tamara Hilmes talked all things UX Writing at Spotify Design on the November edition.

Tamara is a UX Writing person in NYC, where she’s lived for the past decade and worked within design and product teams at Foursquare, Vimeo, and now Spotify. When she’s not growing a UXW team, she’s likely writing fiction. Her top artist is currently Angel Olsen and always Robyn.

If you're a reader rather than a listener, check out the transcript below:

Patrick: I don't know how many, but several of the people who I've interviewed for this podcast have had a stint in journalism, and that's true of you as well. I think you spent a year or so as a journalist? Is that right?

Tamara: Yeah, I mean, I would say it was more six months as a journalist, right when I graduated from school, I worked as a reporter at a small Vermont newspaper called the Addison Independent. So I think growing up, I had always really liked writing and knew I wanted to do it as a career in some form. And back then, it seemed like the only route would be to become a journalist, and I was interested in journalism and telling stories.

Patrick: And so you didn't end up liking it, or you wanted to change?

Tamara: Yeah, I mean, I think when I thought of myself as a journalist, I pictured myself working at—this is really lame—but Martha Stewart Living. But don't tell Martha I said that was lame.

Tamara: As a kid growing up in Kansas, I would just look at those magazines and think like, "Oh, these are beautiful." They make so many of my different interests, and I wanted to write feature stories. But the reality of the job I had in Vermont at the small newspaper was writing articles on anything and everything. But a lot of it was rewriting press releases or attending town select board meetings, which is what you have when you're not big enough to have a city council. And at these meetings, it was just going in hearing citizens complain about things like, "Oh my new driveway hasn't been installed because XYZ permit hasn't been granted and things like that."

Tamara: So it was super interesting work, and I really liked those like quirky nuances of it and even the boring stuff. But what I found was that I am scared of talking to people on the phone, and that was a huge component of being a reporter.

Patrick: I would probably say that's the main component of being a reporter.

Tamara: That and like bothering people and not like having a thick skin about it and when they got mad at you, and I couldn't handle that. Even when I was a waitress in college, if people got mad at me because I didn't bring the ketchup, like I said I was going to, I would just think about it for like a month about how I messed up. So journalism just wasn't the right field for me.

Patrick: I've spoken to a lot of people who find that it's confronting having to call people straight up on the phone and ask them often some pretty confronting questions if you're showing up to those city council meetings...If you're showing up to those meetings, you're having to see those people face to face? And so you have to be very careful about pissing them off. But what's interesting is that you went to Foursquare around 2012, and I would probably say around 2012 is like the height of this startup bubble culture.

Patrick: And it's also in New York though. So you've experienced all these tech companies, but in an area where you don't have to deal with the bubble like nature of everything that was happening in tech culture at the time, which is pretty lucky. To be honest, I feel like a lot of people would be envious of that position.

Tamara: Yeah, absolutely. And it was by accident. And so I was really lucky because I was working at 20x200, this small art eCommerce company and I was actually laid off after three months because they laid off all of their recent hires. I just signed a lease like the day before I got the news, and I didn't have any money so I wasn't going to be able to pay my rent.

Tamara: So I was sort of flailing at that point. But then luckily the founder of that art eCommerce company felt bad and she recommended me for this job at Foursquare. Like, said she would reach out to one of the co-founders, Naveen, and recommend me, which was great. And then he ended up putting me in touch with the head of their community support team at the time. And so then I ended up interviewing for a contractor role there. And so it was really by accident and I hadn't been like intentionally applying for community support roles at tech companies in New York. But I knew I wanted to stay in the tech space because I really liked working with designers and engineers specifically. I mean there weren't all of the other roles that I now work with now at the time. And so that led me to Foursquare and that was such a great experience that I feel like I just sort of stayed in this lane of New York tech companies.

Patrick: I think there are some companies that are really open and advancing the way we think about UX writing and words in design. And I would count Spotify among them. Dropbox is another where you're very open about your design process. You talk about it very openly. You actually have quite a big UX writing team there. So clearly there's a lot of money being put into the usability of the software from a language perspective. How did you come to the company and how'd you get to the role you're in now?

Tamara: I'm very happy that you see Spotify in that light. That's great. But I first came to Spotify almost three years ago now, more like two and three quarters. So basically I was at Vimeo, I was working in the messaging space, but across both marketing and product. And I really loved the product side of things. I found the marketing side very interesting and strategic, but it was just so much more focused on selling things to people then really understanding what people wanted and needed and building for that and guiding them towards their goals.

Tamara: So that's why I felt more drawn to the product side. But at Vimeo was never going to be possible to just focus on that because I was in a creative director role and I was leading teams of writers across both. So this thing called UX writing had started to be talked about on the Internet and I had done a lot of research and realized like, "Oh, that's the thing I'm doing. Awesome."

Tamara: And then I looked at companies that were hiring UX writers, and it wasn't very many. It was like Google, and Amazon, and Dropbox, and maybe a few others at the time. But Spotify wasn't hiring UX writers. But I had found an old job description that they had put up and then taken down at some point. But I couldn't find any UX writers on LinkedIn. So I was very curious about what Spotify was doing. So I emailed a random product manager and because I found their email address online and just said like, "Hey, if you're ever hiring UX writers, let me know."

Tamara: And a month later I got an email from Beverly Maeda who was hired to start the UX writing team at Spotify. And she said that she was just getting the team started. She'd only hired one other UX writer, which was Marina Posniak, who used to be at Dropbox and also Facebook.

Tamara: And she was like, "Hey, yeah, we're starting a team, but we're starting the team in Stockholm, so if you want to move to Stockholm, great." I was like, "Well, I really love New York. I don't really want to move to Stockholm." But the more she told me about the role and the team and how she viewed UX writing and how she wanted to build the practice at Spotify, all just sounded like the perfect opportunity. And that coupled with it being at Spotify, just a music company, a streaming service that I used every day, one of the only services I use every day. That just felt too good to be true. So I decided to apply and ended up getting an offer and had to make that decision like, "Do I want to move to Stockholm for this role or not?" And ultimately I realized it was worth it.

Tamara: And also it seemed like a safe enough decision because I knew Spotify had an office in New York and eventually we would grow to the point where we needed more UX writers in New York. So I took the leap and that's how I ended up at Spotify, and a big part of that was that it hadn't existed yet, but we were getting the chance to build the team from scratch. So there were the three of us, Bev, Marina, and I, and we got to set up all of the practices for UX writing at Spotify. Like how we wanted to work with different disciplines. We were part of the design team, which was also a huge win to just be considered a designer from the get-go and not have to fight our way in, and then also to work super closely with tech and product and research, data science, as well as all the people in product marketing, and marketing, and localization. Just like every discipline. We had our foot in the door, which was really great.

Tamara: We got to build our style guides from scratch, which is the other thing that I really nerd out about like a lot of UX writers, but we got to create our voice and tone guide, our style guide, our glossary, and then think about how we bake content guidelines into our design system. Which is also just getting started and it's still a work in progress, but we're getting there.

Tamara: And it was just really exciting to determine like how did we want to run things and then make it happen. And now we're at around 15 UX writers globally. We have UX writers in the New York office as well as Stockholm, London, Boston, and Gothenburg. And we work across all the different business units or missions as we call the R&D practices within them. And it's really cool to see this team go from just like three people trying to figure it out to a team that has all of these practices in place and the respect of the other people at the company as well.

Patrick: To a lot of UX writers, it seems like you have the dream job because not only are you at, as you said, a service that you use every day, millions of people use every day. It's an integral part of their lives. Everyone listens to music and this is the main way they do it. The fact that you've got to create these style guides for instance. That's huge. Like so many writers are scrambling to get their companies to recognize them. Yes, of course, they give them authority to do things. But as you would know, like internal pressures are often very different from official mandates, so they're constantly coming up against barriers. Yeah. I just listen to you talk about it. It seems like a dream.

Tamara: Yeah. I mean, it's great. And we're also hiring, so anyone listening to this podcast can reach me and we can talk more. But it's not without its challenges, that's for sure.

Patrick: Sure, well, talk about those. What are some of the challenges you face?

Tamara: So when we were first starting out, I think a lot of it was just education because even though the head of design had wanted to start a UX writing practice and had hired Bev specifically for that purpose and knew what she wanted us to do, generally the specifics were still very muddy. And like not everyone on the team had worked with the UX writer before, nor did they understand why they should be working with the UX writer.

Tamara: So the first year was a lot of just education and advocacy for UX writing. Doing good work and writing case studies and showing off those case studies so that people could see like we're not just copywriters like glorified copywriters who come in at the end of your process and fill in the blanks. And we're also not just like bossy people who are trying to correct your grammar.

Tamara: We are actually thinking about user experience design in the same way that designers are. And in the same way that researchers and product managers and everyone else is. And we're also thinking about the implementation, and what's the best implementation. So all UX writers know this story, but we had to preach the word of like include us early and often, but then also back that up with the results because yeah, that's great. Everyone wants to be included, but why should they actually bother? And that was the piece that was hard to tell until we had some good projects under our belts where we were able to show whether through qualitative or quantitative testing like, "Hey, this is actually having an impact on our users and the product and therefore on the business. And that's why you should invest more in UX writing." And that's how we got more headcount to grow the team to where it is today.

Patrick: It's something that I think a lot of UX writers leave out, the results part, which is unfortunate because I think, and not just in their own work, but in portfolios and so on. Like I'll read a portfolio and they'll say, "I did this," but then my next question is, "Well what was the result? What did you see?" Even if that result is negative. What was the learning from that based on the results? And so I'm heartened to hear you say that that was a key part of your advocacy.

Tamara: Yeah, I mean I think it's necessary at a company like Spotify that cares so much about data and likes to iterate and test on everything, and that's many tech companies obviously. But it was super important to just be able to speak the language of other people at the company. Like I can't go into a room and insist that a product manager include me in a project unless I can explain to them on their own terms why they should include me. So I think it's also just that inherent writing for your audience and knowing what information and supporting evidence will really speak to that particular person or group of people.

Patrick: So I'm interested to hear you talk about what are the skills you've personally had to develop as a UX writer to succeed in a role like yours at Spotify? Because you've just mentioned a few different things. So, for instance, like data science or working with data scientists, which means you're working with analytics and I don't necessarily mean even like things like, "Oh, I had to learn how to use like SQL or whatever because that's more something that people can take a course about that and pick it up fairly quickly." What are the types of, for lack of a better term, soft skills you've had to develop at a place like Spotify in order to succeed?

Tamara: Yeah, it's a very good question. I think ironically enough, one of them has been almost that like cold calling skill that I was so afraid of in journalism.

Patrick: Came back to haunt you!

Tamara: Yeah, came back to haunt me, but without telephones, now it's Slack, which somehow seems better, but it's a lot of just like reaching out to people proactively and bugging them and trying not to bug them, but also being a little pushy and saying like, "Hey, what's that meeting? Can you invite me to that meeting tomorrow? I think I should be there." Or like, "Hey, can you include me in that workshop? Like, I would like to be a stakeholder on this project." Or like, "Hey, why did you make that decision? I know you're about to ship that thing that doesn't seem like a great user experience. Maybe you could have included us earlier." And it's that sort of pushy thing that journalists have to do to get the story, we have to do to get included in the right way or to have the influence on the product that we want to have.

Tamara: So that's one thing that's definitely been a challenge for me because, like I said, I just don't like bugging people or bothering them or making them annoyed at me. So I feel like that was a struggle. But the thing that has made it possible is that Spotify is full of a lot of really wonderful collaborative people who once you tap them on the shoulder and say like, "Hey, could I be included in that?" They're usually more than happy to include you in the thing. So that's been good. Another thing that I've really had to work on is workshop facilitation. That was never a thing that I was formally trained in. When I first started at Spotify, I was like, "Wait, everyone's using post-its? What are they doing with all these post-its?" And designers were doing it, and agile coaches were doing it. And I realized like, "Oh, this is a thing that I need to get better at or at least understand how to do it and why people do it, and when they make the decision to run a workshop like this so that I can add these tools to my toolbox."

Tamara: So that was hard and it continues to be hard because again, there's no training session that I've been to. I didn't learn this in design school, so I'm just learning by picking it up along the way, and then asking others for advice like, "Hey, I remember you did this, like stop, start, continue. Like what is that good for? Versus another type of posted exercise and like what's the best way to run a Kanban board? And like how do you do that in Trello versus in real life?" So like the sort of tools and things that designers and PMs and agile coaches have developed, and engineers have developed for managing their work, and how they collaborate with one another and share ideas. I think that's something that I've really had to learn over time at Spotify. It's nothing I learned outside of this company.

Patrick: I think it's also crucial for writers to lead those types of workshops because it shows people in the organization that you're not just someone who comes at the end and pretties up the language. Like you're an active member of the design team who leads, and you can include people in this process and you have a lot more to offer than just tightening up some grammar.

Tamara: Yeah, definitely. And I think creating that awareness is super important because otherwise I feel like UX writers tend to be thought of as designers, sidekicks, like the copy kid who helps them figure it out. But we want to be seen as leaders just as you put it. And so I think even though it feels very unnatural for me to put myself in that spotlight or to raise my hand and say like, "Hey, I want to get up and up in front of a group of people and like tell them what to do and talk at them." Like that's not something that I want to do, but I need to do it.

Tamara: And over time I've realized like, "Oh, it can be really fun and rewarding." And so the more I've gotten to practice, the better I feel about it. Now I look forward to those moments because it's when you get to do the most creative work. And if you can do that with not only designers but also with researchers and PMs and engineers. At Spotify, we work in these cross-disciplinary squad. So we're always working in this way. But getting them in at those brainstorming moments and the discovery think at moments, that's when it feels like, "Oh, I'm actually doing design work. This is great."

Patrick: Now, I know you're not able to talk about maybe a lot of specifics, but I would be really interested to hear you talk about what are the design challenges regarding copy that keep you up at night at Spotify? Because this is a product that's used by, I can't remember the number, but tens of millions of people, right? It's huge. And when you're working on something at that scale, it's a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you're able to, I would imagine, get insights really quickly. It wouldn't be hard I think to find out what users are thinking or even how they're behaving. Because when you do a test, for instance, you're going to get significance pretty quickly. So that's great.

Patrick: But at the same time, that scale provides some challenges. And I'd be interested to hear you talk about what are the types of word-based challenges or language-based challenges that you're dealing with at the moment?

Tamara: Yeah, sure. So Spotify is available on so many different platforms. I wish I had the exact number, but it's a crazy number because it's phones and computers, and all the different types of phones and computers, but it's also Apple watches, and TVs, and cars, and your smart refrigerator, and whatever else...your Alexa speaker, your Google home...We're just everywhere because we're not Apple and we're not Google. So we can be on all the things instead of just some of the things. And what that leads to is just like all of these different code bases with all of these different string files. So it's been really hard to reign things into where we can have just standards across the board and also have a good sense of just like what is the content that exists generally. And there are hundreds of thousands of strings in our code base now.

Tamara: So I would never hope to know all the content that we have, but even just knowing like "What is our CTA on the signup screen for every single platform?" Like that's really hard to find out because of the squad model, because every team is owning their own slice. And so we're getting better at this as a team, as a whole, which is awesome. Like we're really building out our design systems and we're also working closely with engineering as we're doing that. Like they're part of the design system team so that we can try to standardize just the way we build products so that this is a more sustainable way to keep track of all of our content. Well, both from a design and a copy standpoint. And so I feel like I just am haunted by how much is out there that we don't know about. Or even if we updated some things in some places we wouldn't have updated them everywhere.

Tamara: So that's what we're working on. And on the design side, they're using tokens to do this, which is great. So if they decide to make a color change, like let's say a change the Spotify green again because it did change once, they could just roll that out like pretty quickly to all the different platforms because they've done the infrastructure work to make that possible.

Tamara: And where we want to get to from a language standpoint is creating copy tokens. So that we can do the same thing for our most common pieces of reusable copy. So let's say for the most common, like five most common CTAs, we could just have those codified and then put them in place in the same way to where if we wanted to change one of our most frequently used CTAs, which has got it or learn more to something else, then we could very quickly make that update and have it update on every single surface for every single platform where Spotify exists.

Tamara: I think that's the future of content management from a UX writing perspective, but we're definitely not there yet. And I think that would also help power things like localization, which is another thing that I think about a lot and know that we're not doing enough for right now just because... I mean we have an amazing localization team and we're definitely localized into many, many languages around the world. And we are a global company and we always try to do our research in the market and really cater to the market. I think our marketing team does an amazing job of that, but we just haven't localized every piece of the product yet.

Tamara: And we don't have a good, a really solid way for UX writers and the localization managers to collaborate and to keep an eye on the copy and to update it when we need to update it. We're still very reliant on SmartLink and also on front end developers to make those changes for us. And I think we would like to get to a place where we can always have an eye on what content exists in our products all the time.

Patrick: As you're speaking, I'm hearing this implicit expectation in what you're saying, that you need to have a lot of technical knowledge as a UX writer at Spotify. You're talking about using tokens, you're talking about the interaction with front end developers. Now obviously, ideally most UX writers would have that sort of knowledge, but also, I find uncommon, is that the type of expectation you have for writers at Spotify?

Tamara: I think it's super helpful. I think we're still, in many ways, an engineering-led company and so it's good to have a handle on "how are things built? How are things put together?" because that's always going to be the source where you need to go to make a change. So I think it's necessary to be curious and to want to learn.

Tamara: There's a writer on my team named Will and he often says he loves working at Spotify because it feels like school and I feel the same way because we're just both learning all the time and learning new skills and I think that's the right attitude to have. So I wouldn't expect UX writers to come in the door at Spotify having all this knowledge, but if they weren't curious about it, that would be probably a bad sign. A good example is when we do audits of error messages for instance, and we say like, "Hey, can you help me pull the copy for all the error messages within premium checkout?" which is a project I worked on when I first joined Spotify. And I was able to sit with the engineer and go through like, "Okay, how do we want to format this content?"

Tamara: Like before even pull it like, "What's the format of the spreadsheet that we want to use for the output? What's the structure data that we want to get?" We wanted to get the trigger, we wanted to get the message itself. We wanted to understand where the CTA, if there was a CTA was leading, any edge cases, audience segmentation around those things, so it's good to have that vocabulary to be able to have that level of an interaction with an engineer rather than just like, "Hey, can you tell what words exist? Cool."

Patrick: It's interesting. I like the idea of that token-based content management system. That sounds really cool. I would love to have something like that. But unfortunately, my process at work is more manual than I would like it. But we'll get there one day. So you've already mentioned a couple of things that you want to start working towards in the future, but are there any projects you're working on right now or are you laying the groundwork for how UX writing operates in Spotify, say for the next few years?

Tamara: Yeah, I think right now, because we're expanding into things like podcasts and other forms of audio storytelling that aren't music, we are now hyper-aware that we need to be expanding to different audiences and we need to change the way that we talk about things. And every new message or string that we introduced to the product needs to take into account all of these different content types that are living together within our product.

Tamara: And also all of these different creators, the makers of the things, and what products we might build for them, and how they all work together outside of Spotify too. Because there's a whole world outside of Spotify and we're just one small slice where people come to listen and we're trying to expand the role that we play in people's lives, but we still want to put ourselves in the context of humans and culture that exists in the world.

Tamara: So I think now as UX writers who are always thinking like, "Okay, but is this a scalable solution?" I don't know where we'll be in five years exactly or what we'll be introducing to the product. But could we easily adapt this string to encompass more types of content or maybe work with more types of platforms? Because that's the other thing that we're expanding into already. It's all of these different surfaces or even non-surfaces with voice interaction.

Tamara: And I think voice interaction is a big example of a skill that UX writers will need to develop that not many have developed thus far. We actually have a UX writer named Adam who is a conversational UX designer and he writes all of our TTS, or text to speech, strings for our voice speaker integrations, and he has this whole set of skills that I do not have. And so I'm constantly bugging him like, "Hey, you need to run a workshop breath, you need to teach me these skills" because I realized that's the future that we're going to get to. We won't even be able to get a job as UX writer unless you also have experience writing for voice speakers or voice interactions with phones, and watches, and all sorts of things.

Patrick: It's hard though because, for a lot of companies, the UX writers don't have the opportunity to work on those projects in a professional capacity. So it's incumbent on us to make something up. If you don't have the opportunity to do that, you just have to go out and sort of do it anyway. And just like someone in a portfolio might make like a fake UX writing project for an Apple or something. You just have to go and do it because otherwise you're just not going to get a seat at the table.

Tamara: Yeah, totally. And I mean that's my way with all of UX writing in general. No one ever taught me the basics of UX writing. I learned different skills from different people along the way, but a lot of it was just going out and doing it and trying to write human and natural language that made sense and helped people accomplish what they needed to accomplish.

Tamara: And then over time you start to pick up things like, "Oh, different platforms have different patterns and different components, and I know what those words mean patterns and components." And I know how to tie that to product and business strategy and how to tell a story about how this is impacting the business. So I feel like it's all kind of that way. So I'm not super scared. We will be forced to it at some point and that's when we'll learn and that's fine. But if we could get ahead of it, that would be even better.

Patrick: Absolutely. Now we're coming up on our time, and I don't want to keep you for too long, but there's one question I want to ask you which is something that I ask everyone. What's something that you think UX writers should read that would help their skills? It could be an article, could be a book, it could be a podcast on Spotify, it could be anything that they should read or listen to that you think will provide them some value.

Tamara: Does it have to be just one thing?

Patrick: No, it could be more than one thing.

Tamara: Okay, cool. One thing that was super helpful for me when I was trying to learn more about UX writing, and also just develop my skills to get a job as a UX writer at Spotify for example, was I took a Coursera course on human-computer interaction. And I want to say that I was run through Stanford, but it's on Coursera and a class like $40 or something. Maybe the price has gone up due to inflation, but it was very accessible and I just enrolled and I only did part one. You can do like eight different parts and then get a certificate but I did the first module and I can't remember how many weeks it lasted but it was a good chunk of work, like 25 hours of work for four weeks or something, and I was doing that at night but it was so helpful to have that basic vocabulary and understanding of the user research and UX design process that I hadn't had before.

Tamara: I feel like there's certain parts of my job, like that workshop facilitation and knowing how to use post-its, that comes from going to design school, but I do think you can get that stuff online now and this one Coursera course on HCI, human-computer interaction, is something I would recommend to everyone, especially if you haven't had a lot of experience with user research, because I think that helps a lot when working at a big company like Spotify, where you are involved in that stage of the process.

Tamara: And then I would also recommend A Book Apart, like all of their books, particularly their one about accessibility, as many people have said, accessible design is good design for everyone. So I think if you're looking for some simple ways to design better as a writer, that's a good resource. And then I just read a tonne of blog posts, a ton of medium posts. I think Dropbox and Shopify both have really strong design and UX writing our content strategy blogs. And so I often will recommend that, people who are still in school and want to learn more about UX writing, that they should check those out because I think their advice is always spot on.

Patrick: Excellent. Well look, I could sit here and talk to you all day about this, but neither you nor I have all day, so we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate it, and I'd love to catch up sometime in the future as well once you've worked on these other projects that you've talked about and we'll check in and see how it's going then.

Tamara: Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks so much for having me on your podcast.