In my time building and devising products – apps, websites, and graphics makers – I have come across two types of people in general: those that prefer qualitative narratives and those that prefer data and analytics.
The first group is comfortable framing product development in the context of more subjective user feedback and perspectives. The second group, wary of this approach, wants to apply “excel models” to work backwards from numbers.
For ease of categorization, let’s call the first group “storytellers” and the second group “quants”.
Both groups want to construct meaningful product visions, understand users, and build tools at scale. Both groups are well intended but have a different approach to leveraging insights to make decisions.
Yet the way they go about collecting, analyzing, and deploying these insights varies.
It is likely useful to pause for a moment and ask yourself which camp do you more readily side with? Are you more of a storyteller or a quant?
Regardless of the answer, there is a unifying approach that I believe can bring these two personas together and help them find common ground in the pursuit of building better, more well thought out products.
And that approach is through writing.
Why writing is critical to product design
Writing is defined as the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text. Learning to write starts with foundational principles: you must learn an alphabet and how to organize letters to make words.
These words, in turn, are then placed together to make sentences.
Sentences, when taken together, can start to convey deeper meaning.
Writing is a forcing mechanism. It makes us think deeply about what we want to communicate and why.
Writing helps us focus on what is most important.
And writing – when done well – mitigates obfuscation.
How many times have you seen a product presentation and been convinced about its merits due to the quality (both good or bad) of the presenter? A charismatic argument, for example, can mask what really matters to users and sway judgements.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once wrote:
“Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
Writing forces us to see what really matters: the strength and coherence of an argument and how that argument is supported or substantiated by evidence.
Product development is inherently messy because oftentimes products, even if they appear simple, are inherently complex.
This is true for both hardware and software. Massive complexity exists in common items we take for granted.
Lufthansa claimed that it took 6 million parts for Boeing to build the 747-8.
A simple drive-off-the-lot car might have 30,000 parts.
By some estimates the Android operating system runs on 12-15 million lines of code.
The Large Hadron Collider uses 50 million lines.
Not including backend code, Facebook (the front end and various landing pages) runs on 70 million lines of code.
Well-structured narrative text (as opposed to bullet points or plain text) can help the writer or product designer explain the “why” behind an argument.
Strong and active writing forces more reflective thought and a better understanding of what’s most important and how things – parts, people, plans, budgets, product – are related.
Lastly, writing helps create an even playing field.
All too often ideas (and how or who explains them) can lead to bias. Imagine being given a memo advocating for a product feature or Go To Market plan and you knew nothing of the author, including their background, role, or team.
And all you were allowed to do was evaluate the quality, durability, and clarity of the author’s words. This might lead to better business outcomes and product design decisions.
How to get better at writing
Writing is a skill that can be improved through practice. I remember in 5th grade my mother sitting down with me and using a red ink pen to edit and correct an essay I had written for homework.
Editing words is not easy. It wasn’t fun then and more than two decades later it's still not always fun. But by chipping away at it, we can embrace writing and get better at it.
The old expression “practice makes perfect” certainly didn’t apply in my case. Nevertheless, by forcing myself to write frequently, I was able to improve.
If you are building products and want to use written words to share your vision, win over internal stakeholders, and help communicate more effectively, there are a few things that you can start doing today.
Create an outline
Firstly, you can take out a piece of paper or open an online document, and start building an outline of what you want to communicate. Lead with they why.
You can use an outline to sharpen your thoughts and sketch out your product vision.
Try different types of writing
Secondly, you can play around with fun and different ways of writing to communicate about your product.
For example, you can write a press release. What would the New York Times say about your product if you were a journalist writing for the technology section?
Writing a futuristic press clipping is fun, gets the creative juices flowing, and is an enjoyable way to think through how others might see what you are building.
Jot down some FAQ
Thirdly, you can improve your product writing skills by drafting and completing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). What do people not understand about your product and why? Try to think through the questions users have and answer these questions.
The benefits of writing out FAQs are two-fold: you can improve your writing while also more deeply understanding those aspects of your product that users might struggle with. And as a result of this insight you can preemptively solve these problems.
Bringing It All Together: Writing and Product Design
At the beginning of this article I described “storytellers” and “quants”. These two groups represent different approaches to using inputs (data, numbers, feedback, credentials, and so on) to draw conclusions and make inferences.
Writing can bring “storytellers” and “quants” together and provides a level playing field for the expression of ideas.
Writing helps us avoid premature optimization.
If you don’t write about the future state of your products, you should start. It will help sharpen your thinking and enable you to build for better outcomes.
In the end of the day that should be the North Star for all builders.