First things first
When everyone’s giving you tasks and they’re all urgent, where do you begin?
As UX writers, we get a lot of asks. There are far fewer of us than designers, product managers, and a slew of other stakeholders who need copy from us. That means we’re getting lots of requests at the same time, while the people asking don’t necessarily have an understanding of everything else we’re juggling. We don’t want to let anyone down or miss any deadlines, but at the same time, we can only do what we can do. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding how to prioritize and not burn yourself out trying to do it all at once.
Define an intake process for new requests. Getting random Slacks and emails and being asked for “just one string… or six” in the hallway in passing is not going to work.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, do what’s right for you. Maybe you do want emails, but the subject line must begin [COPY ASK]. Maybe you want Slacks, but in a dedicated channel for copy asks. Maybe a shared monday/Trello/Asana board were people can open tickets. Whatever you decide, communicate it and stick to it. Make it known that asks that don’t follow the intake process will be duly ignored. It’s not personal, it’s process, and it’s in place for everyone’s benefit.
If you’re part of a team, and not a lone soldier, you’ll need a step two: from intake to triage. Let task owners know which writer has been assigned so that a) they know who to follow up with and don’t bug the whole team; b) they know the task has been picked up and not fallen between the cracks.
Urgency of tasks is important, but in my opinion, impact comes first. Work with the task owner to understand the goals and potential impact of the task on the business and on the users. What problem is the task solving? Is it a must or a nice-to-have? Is it a bug in production or a general improvement? I’m not saying nice-to-haves and general improvements shouldn’t happen, of course they should, but they should not be prioritized over more impactful projects.
Every task is a use of your time and your time is a limited resource. Every minute you spend on one task comes at the expense of another. Make that tradeoff wisely.
This might be the most obvious one — prioritize according to urgency. Is the task part of a fix for a security breach? Pop that baby up to the top of the list. Is it to support a marketing campaign planned for Q-no-one-knows? It can wait.
ASAP is not a deadline. Let task owners know that specifying deadlines are a requirement in the intake process, and anything labeled ASAP boards the express train to the bottom of the list.
Sometimes, owners won’t know how to define their deadline, you can help. Ask what the task is blocking; and what dependencies the task has and the timeline for those to be resolved. I’ve had owners tell me they need something quickly and the truth was they needed it the following sprint, while others told me there was plenty of time — three whole days. Because “fast” is subjective, keep asking questions until you get a hard enough answer that you can line it up fairly against everything else you’ve got going on.
While you’re having that conversation about meaningful timeframes, you’ll also need to nail down scope. Owners often won’t know how much time goes into a copy task, and that’s OK. Just keep asking all the questions until you figure it out.
I’ve been asked for 500 words which the owner assumed would take days, when the truth was that I had so much evergreen content to lean on, that I scoped it at about an hour. I’ve also been asked for a 10-word error validation that the owner assumed was a matter of minutes, but once drilling down into the various states, segments, and entry points, realized the task would take two days.
Don’t let owners dictate scope. Only you have the tools and experience to scope accurately and when you manage expectations — including your own — everyone benefits.
When considering urgency and scope, don’t forget to factor in dependencies. If you think you only need a day, but you can’t start until Compliance and Product finalize the spec, the clock doesn’t start ticking on that day yet. You can actually leverage dependencies by scheduling other tasks into the breaks while you’re waiting for external blockers to resolve. Multitasking at its finest.
Scalability and automation
All of these tips are built on the assumption that you are human. But what if you weren’t? Or at least what if you were augmented via scalable/automation tools, for example, if you could get a plugin that would automatically correct style guide aberrations so that stakeholders were equipped to bring you better drafts and save everyone time.
Doing the research, getting the approval, installing, distributing, training, and maintaining the tool will take time away from other tasks, but will pay for itself many-fold in the currency of your time, a valuable commodity indeed. Look for ways to improve overall efficiency and do take the time away from ticking tasks off your list, to make task ticking faster and better overall.
Whatever your intake process, however you define urgency and scope, through it all, communicate, communicate, communicate. The more transparency task owners have into your process and progress, the more they will feel like partners, respect your time, and be satisfied with the deliverable. Don’t be a black box, be a fish tank. Let everyone admire your colors.