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Notes: Week 2: Voice and tone

Thanks to Nour for taking notes this week!


The exercise demonstrates what tone does. These invitations all come from you, and they sound like you (they’re in your voice), but the tone is what makes it appropriate to the context.

Readings discussion

Nicely Said Ch 4: Writing Basics

Tyler: ch. 4 form nice words is v applicable to what we’re doing, come from a science background where you’re almost criticized for being too accessible. I like that this is the opposite, encourages us to focus on the user by being simpler and clearer.

N: At school we’re taught to prove our intelligence over making the point.

T: realize that no one cares how smart you are, just say what you are going to say.

Liberal White Designers (Jennifer Daniel)

Writes a lot of personal and work related stuff, very openly, which makes for a good read.

George Saunders, What Writers Do When They Write

In sensitive situations, more context is usually better. E.g. is Facebook’s bullying flow for taking an embarrassing photo down, they found that more words were better. Fiction writers talk about this too, “slowing down where it hurts” (see This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond).

Exercise 2

Think about the emotion conveyed by writing about a situation like this. In Kinjal’s example, the sentences are short, which makes it feel like her heart is racing as she’s writing (and mine is as I’m reading).

Voice and tone basics

Cheryl emphasizes that to be a better writer, you have to read a lot, study what you’re reading.

Your voice is your personality. It doesn’t really change much from day to day.

Your tone changes to fit the situation and the reader’s mood. It’s how you show empathy. (It comes down to the words you choose and your inflection on the page)

N: When I’m writing, I think about someone sitting next to me, and what I might say about them in person. Helps imagine what their mindset is as they’re going through the flows on a site.

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions: reminder that people might be in any mindset or emotional state when they encounter your writing

Types of content: common misconception is that you have to be super consistent across everything, but in fact that’s a way to be super boring. Marketing copy should sound different from help documents which should be different from error and alert messages, etc…

Cover letters

  • Think about “what does this person need to know” and “how do I communicate it to them”
  • Introduce yourself to them in a kind way
  • Tell them why you want to be in the team you’re applying for
  • You’re giving them an amuse-bouche, not an entire menu—don’t try to go over your entire resume.

Guest speaker: Robyn Kanner

(Robyn is friends with Victor!) @robynkanner

“I’m a bad writer”


  • Was not into writing, was really bad at it, was more into visual design
  • Got into band design (making record covers for bands)
  • Really interesting way of talking about synaesthesia between music and design
  • Watching movies - learned about how they tell stories
  • Translated into writing songs and story in song through melody and sounds
  • All these different elements of storytelling lead back to writing

I love feelings: talking about them, listening other people talk about them. And I don’t love perfect grammar

I talk on tumblr, a lot

Making and launching MyTransHealth

1.4 million trans in America, but access to the right healthcare is rare → led to mytranshealth

Connects trans patients with providers that we’ve spoken to

Video: I want you to focus on this being a designed moment, a manipulative moment, a story I’m telling, something I designed. That’s moment is really interesting thing, we filmed it off the cuff but it connected to a larger group of people.

Led to #transhealthfail hashtag on twitter -- telling the story of a macro problem through stories from people’s lives, showing the hundreds of problems with healthcare for trans people through twitter. The $20,000 tweet → the tweet that launched it

Working as a camgirl to make ends meet and raise money for this project, but also accessed a whole community of people like me who i could share the prototype with. Number one feedback: this takes too much time to fill out

Story refined to:

  • This is hard / it doesn’t need to be
  • How do you identify (affirmation)
  • Where do you live (affirmation)
  • What time of help do you need (affirmation)
  • Results

Write around that, by the time you get to design, it becomes super easy.

Flow takes 15 seconds long. Comes from research, knowing the community you’re serving and working with them

Beyond MyTransHealth

  • Being able to tell a story through ux has helped me with my writing a lot
  • Wrote for bustle about how a simple act can be dangerous
  • Being able to influence companies i don’t work for through writing (like article on mic about uber)
  • Put it in my portfolio!

A few years ago i didn’t even want to write, and now writing is part of every bit of my flow


How long working on MTH?

Idea cam in sep 2015, shipped the first round in may 2016, second round this month

What’s the process for identifying providers?

People started to reach out to us, we got a bunch of interested doctors who wanted to be on the site, but because our community is small, we decided we wanted to be in one location, we talked to one trans person who know the complex ins and outs, and we built out the network from there, got a huge excel sheet of all of them, called them all, walked through a questionnaire

Talk a little bit about how you think about getting the word out on Twitter?

I use twitter really badly (joke), I think there is a different type of designer on the internet that talks about ui and pixels and vectors, but i talk about my life really openly on twitter, i tweet about an idea i’m working on, or a weird moment in a restroom, it’s as human as possible, to make conversations about gender easier.

How do you get over the fear of posting about process and not the finished product?

The more you do work, the less you’re attached to it, when i was younger i romanticized design and felt attached to the work, personal ownership over it… i now realize every designer has a process, they’re all different, they’re just human beings, so i just got over it and started posting things that are not perfect, vector series for a year… just this idea of letting things go and not holding on to those moments, letting people have my process and letting them have those moments. We’re all human beings, and the goal is that you make a really great product. Send your stuff out, if people judge you they’re a dick.

Can you talk about how you get collaborative feedback from the public?

The best way is that you ask something in a way that they’ll want to give it to you. Camgirling is great because they don’t give a shit about design. Talk to people who don’t care about design because that’s going to be the majority of people who use your design. I like to put a prototype on my phone and stand by the bathroom, and put it in front of people.

They’re going to pee and don’t give a shit about your design, so it’s great for feedback. Another thing, I think designers will make a thing and just share it with their friends, who are exactly like them, so you’re really only getting one piece of feedback. So find somebody who doesn’t look like you or doesn’t have the same tech and make sure you’re meeting all their needs.

Does your process vary at all between MTH and Amazon?

Totally. MTH is so small, it’s 3 of us, so if I want to make a design decision i just go with it. At Amazon it’s much bigger, but i still write a lot, start with a PR/FAQ, to decide if it’s something we want to make at all, to make sure it’s something customers will want

Scale is huge, which influences how you design, you have to think about translating to different language, etc.

What are you moving towards and what are you excited about with MTH?

I’m excited for it to be out in public and let go of it. I like up front process but not the production work. With the CMS, people will be able to edit documents, there won’t be much UX to do, I’ll let that run and I’ll let that work. I’m now thinking about how short-sighted discussion is about trans issues, like public is obsessed with trans people peeing while trans women are being murdered. Figuring out how those narratives are told and how they can influence the larger global community, something in that realm, maybe an app that talks about safety.

At school, how i told stories, they were super stiff, didn’t have voice… repeating the same story in a different way many different times will shift the narrative and eventually one of them is going to hit.

(Nicole talks about George Saunders metaphor in What Writers Do What They Write)

I feel like one of the things you do is riff and play in public, willing to try things out in public, what we’re trying to encourage our students to do

I love guitar because I am so bad at it, but that makes it so fun, I think there's this whole thing with being very bad is kind of cool, I’ve been doing design for over a decade, a lot of times i was very embarrassed and didn’t want to show people, with guitar the majority of my friends were in successful bands so anything i do is hilarious, i’m supposed to be bad at it, so i can keep trying at it.

Being online and being accessible: i love using twitch, late at night there are a ton of gamers who like to talk about being queer, and i like to talk about being queer, which is cool because I want to hear about those moments because i have those moments.

Best way to contact you?

Site has all my contact info, but twitter is probably the best way (@robynkanner)


Writing is a first draft, editing is the rest of the work I think of the line between writing and editing as being pretty blurry

Biggest tip for editing if you can’t show your work to somebody: read your work aloud.

  • Helps catch sentences that are clumsy or too long
  • Immediately makes it more conversational

Main takeaway from this class: if you’re not sure how to write it, say it out loud and record it, and write that.

Write things like you would say them in conversation.

When reading aloud, think about:

  • Is it clear?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it useful?
  • Does it sound like a nice person said it? (vs a robot)


Important thing: see each other as a resource. You don’t have to be a writer to know if something is confusing. You don’t have to be a designer to know that a design is bad. You don’t need to think of yourself as an editor to edit people’s work.

  • Read each other’s stuff
  • Talk talk talk — you’re going to say something more interesting than when you sit in front of a blank page and try to say something artful
  • Very easy (even for nicole!) to get lost in what you want to say vs what’s actually coming out

Exercise time!

  • Find a partner and swap pieces with them.
  • Read their piece, and then read it again slowly.
  • Don’t start fixing typos or editing while you’re reading. Read the whole thing once through, slowly, then read again and edit. Start high-level, make sure the piece is doing what it is trying to do, then get into the spelling, grammar, etc.

Ask yourself:

  • Does it make sense? Does it flow?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Are there any gaps or places where you could use an example?

I encourage you to use your peers in this way as much as you can! Builds trust, makes both your work stronger.


  1. Spend an hour thinking and writing about your goals. (Go to your quiet happy place! Use tea, wine, whatever else sets you up for good reflection time. Probably not a laptop exercise.)
  • What do you want to do (and not do)?
  • What are you good at?
  • What are your favorite parts of the process?
  • What do you need to do your best work?
  • What do you want to work on in this class to help you get there?
  • If you were to graduate tomorrow, what dream job would you walk into?
  • What do you want to do in this class that might be an input into your thesis?

Think 6 months to 3 years into the future (5–10 years is too far away!)

  1. Choose a final project for this class to help you get there. Some examples:
  • Presentation or essay (what do you want to speak about at a conference?)
  • Mission, process, or internship statement
  • Thesis outline (get a head start! 😱) or project brief (for a project you’ve already done that isn’t getting the writing love it deserves maybe)
  • About page and professional bio (good for portfolio)

Work on something you’re excited about, and could be useful to get you to where you want to go.

  1. Readings:
  • Corn Maze, Pam Houston ← definitely read this, we’re going to do exercise form this in class next week
  • Guidelines for an Adaptive Technology Working Group, Sara Hendren ← a manifesto but this one doesn’t suck (read this too!)
  • Her latest talk at eyeo
  • Resistance, Paul Soulellis (come on, you know you want to read this… or you could watch the talk)