Think you need a web designer? Think again.

November 2, 2017 •
UX/UI designer vs copywriter feature image

This post answers a question that’s never asked. It discusses job titles most people have never heard of. And it details a service no-one ever Googles.

But it may well be the most important post I’ve ever written.

Let me start with the question:

Who should plan the layout, functionality, navigation and structure of your website?

A web designer?

Most businesses get a web designer to do it. They choose the cheapest designer they can find, or the one with the most impressive design portfolio (or, worse, they run a 99designs competition), and wait to be wowed. Sometimes they email a list of required pages, sometimes they expect the designer to tell them what’s required. And while all that’s happening, they write the copy themselves or find a cheap copywriter to write it for them.

This is the wrong way to go about it. I’ll explain why in a minute.

A UX designer?

Some businesses get a specialist user experience (UX) designer to do it. Someone who’ll do some user research and testing, create personas and storyboards, then design some wireframes, build a prototype and specify the site structure, before handing everything over to a user interface (UI) designer to make it look good, to a copywriter to write the words, and, ultimately, to a developer to do the build.

This is the wrong way to go about it too. Usually, anyway.

It should be a copywriter.

Both of the above approaches are wrong. Why? Because the heart and soul of any website is the information it provides. The message it conveys. The story it tells.

And that’s all the domain of your copywriter. So it makes sense that your copywriter is involved in planning from the very beginning.

Indeed, they need to be more than just ‘involved’. Any copywriter will tell you the story evolves as it’s being written. So the design plans / wireframe need to evolve with it. Not a month later when the UI/UX designer finally sees the copy. Not a week later, either. Not even an hour later. It needs to evolve instantly. Because when the UI changes to match the story, the story will probably change again, and so on. It’s a direct feedback loop, until a perfect solution emerges.

So your copywriter needs to work hand-in-hand with your UI/UX designer on layout, functionality, navigation and structure. Or better yet, lead that process. In fact, ideally they should do it themselves.

But they have to know more than copy

If your copywriter is to take the lead on layout, functionality, navigation and structure, they have to have the required UX chops. In addition to their copywriting skills, they must:

  • Know how to create wireframes and navigation systems;
  • Have a good understanding of usability and information architecture (IA);
  • Be familiar with search engine optimisation (SEO) and SEO copywriting;
  • Be a creative problem-solver;
  • Have an affinity for users, their context, habits, needs, motivations, influences, social systems and psychology;
  • Be able to make sense of analytics data and user testing results;
  • Be familiar with current web design and functionality trends, and know what’s feasible and what’s not;
  • Have a good understanding of the web design and development processes and their challenges; and, of course
  • Be a good project and people manager.

In other words, your copywriter actually needs to be something of an Information Experience Designer (IXD).

Here’s an example of why

I have a client who’s selling smart mirrors (mirrors that also function as touchscreen Android tablets). I’m wireframing his site, writing the copy, managing the design and build process, and providing ad-hoc marketing advice.

First step: home page wireframe. I was planning to have a rotating masthead carousel, with each slide dedicated to a different use-case. E.g. One talking about having the smart mirror in the bathroom, one talking about having it in the kitchen, etc. And once built, I was planning to split-test it – load slide 1 of the carousel first for some visitors, slide 2 for some, slide 3 for some, etc., and see which one prompted the most engagement and conversions. My client agreed with this approach, and I got started.

But something kept niggling at me. These smart mirrors are very cool, but I have a suspicion that most prospective buyers wouldn’t be able to imagine a use for them. Just as I couldn’t imagine a use for a smartphone when the iPhone first came out. Me to my wife in 2008:

“Why would I want the internet on my phone? I have a computer!”

(Oh, how she wishes I was right!)

In fact, I think that even if we were to detail the use-cases, one per slide, as I’d started doing, most visitors still wouldn’t be able to imagine why they’d want to use a mirror that way. Selling a product to satisfy a need customers don’t know they have is tough.

So I decided to take a different approach. I had to think beyond selling the product itself, and think bigger, higher level. I turned to neuroscience.

I’d long been a fan of Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (if you haven’t read it, you should). He’s all about neuroscience and how most of our buying decisions are made unconsciously, without reason or logic. Then I took on a year-long engagement as Information Experience Manager for Appliances Online, and my appreciation for neuroscience increased dramatically. I was working closely with a neuro-marketer (yes, that’s a thing!), who expanded on Ariely’s theories, and illustrated the importance of creating brand messages that resonate with target customers’ limbic systems – the part of the brain that’s responsible for habits, emotions, insight, creativity, and sexual and social behaviour. The ‘lizard brain’.

This is where I turned when I realised I couldn’t focus on the product itself. In particular, I remembered a TED video the neuro-marketer recommended to me: How great leaders inspire action by Simon Sinek (it’s had more than 35 million views – check it out). Most of the video is pretty high level and, in my opinion, a little over-simplified. But one line really stuck with me:

“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”

I decided that this was where I needed to go with the smart mirror home page wireframe. Instead of a headline about Facetiming with sister while doing your makeup, I went with one that conveyed the company’s belief in choices. Instead of a headline about following a recipe while you cook, I went with one that conveyed the company’s belief in inspiration. Instead of high-tech, product-focussed placeholder images, I went with minimalist, lifestyle-focussed images that specifically supported my chosen value keyword for each slide (e.g. “choices”, “inspiration”).

And because the imagery changed from high-tech to minimalist, the volume and style of copy had to change too.

And because the volume and style of copy changed, so too did my recommendations re typography and animations.

Plus, the new focus on the company’s values meant the home page required a below-the-fold section dedicated to the founder.

And so on…

The key point here is that the client had already agreed on the use-case approach. And I’d already started wireframing it. Had a web or UX designer been wireframing it, they’d have been well down the approved path before I’d have been able to get the client to tell them to change tack. Indeed, without a wireframe to illustrate my point, I might not have been able to convince the client we needed to change tack.

And even if I was working hand-in-hand with the wireframe designer, I’d still have had to spend time explaining myself (probably badly) and persuading him/her – and the client – that the deviation was worthwhile.

Then s/he would have to try to translate my inadequate explanation into a wireframe.

Then I’d have had to wait and see what the wireframe looked like before finalising the new style of copy, and deciding exactly how to write the headline for the founder’s bio, and the bio itself, based on how it fitted within the wireframe.


All that to-ing and fro-ing and waiting and explaining would have made everything torrrrrrrrrrrturously slow. It would have delayed the project, undermined everyone’s creativity and probably blown the client’s budget, all for an inferior result. I’ve seen this scenario played out time after time.

Definitely the most effective and efficient way to do all of this was they way I actually did it: I just did it. I illustrated my idea directly within the wireframe, without needing to find a way to articulate it verbally or in writing, and without any delays.

And my client thanked me for it.

What do you think?

What’s your experience? Who should plan the layout, functionality, navigation and structure of a website?

(Oh… and an apology)

Sorry this post lacks visuals. I’m flat-chat with work, and it took me 6 hours of writing just to get it to this point. I’d like to have made it a little more visual, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Also, I’m not yet able to share any of the copy or wireframes I’ve created for the smart mirror job.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Nadia Barlow wrote on November 2nd, 2017

I so agree! As a copywriter I find end up doing most of this stuff for my clients because they really need help, and I can't do my job without it. On the other hand, I do find starting of with some design work can be helpful for me. Ideally it would be an organic process where one informs the other. But the reality is that almost NEVER happens.

comment avatar
Sandy Taylor wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Brilliant post! I agree wholeheartedly with your take on this. The sites I create are for sole traders rather than multinationals, but even so, we're selling the sizzle not the sausage. An endearing narrative capturing the gentleness of the pig's formative years, get the job done a lot better than than a scientific study into the quality of the sausage casings.

comment avatar
Gemma wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Great article and I can't help agree. A copywriter organises, structures and expresses the ideas a website needs to convey - the visual design then supports what the content is trying to do. Having said that, I do think some (very talented) designers can pull it off when they've done some serious homework about what the website needs to achieve.

comment avatar
Lyndall Talbot wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Totally agree! I'm at the front end of this very process and have the luxury of a client who's working with me on strategy and asking that I write a very specific brief to the web designer, who I'll also be having a close working relationship with (hopefully :-)). Great article.

comment avatar
Marie-Pier Rochon wrote on November 2nd, 2017

You've just put into words something that I noticed in the last few years, especially when working with tech companies that need their copywriters to be much more than just writers. In one of my last projects, where thinking about the functionality of the project was mostly left with me (on top of copy), it even had me researching UX design courses because I thought adding this degree to my copy skills would help the project a lot. At the same time, I also knew I already understood or at least knew how to discover how the client would experience the product enough to make smart decisions not just about the copy but also on design, functionality, usability and so on. Thanks for the article.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Yeah, all sounds very familiar. :-)

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Thanks Sandy. Very kind of you. And yeah, the size of the business doesn't change what works.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Thanks Gemma! Yeah, I'm sure there are some talented designers out there who can do it, just as there are some talented UX peeps.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Thanks Lyndall. I do the same, all the time. I work with Ian, my designer, on every project. But he's more than happy for me to wireframe everything for him. Makes his job a lot easier, because he can focus on what he's really good at: award-winning design!

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on November 2nd, 2017

Thanks Marie-Pier. I always fantasise about doing another degree. But the truth is, I just don't think I'd be able to find the time. I definitely think it'd be valuable, but I'm not convinced it'd be valuable *enough*. Maybe when the kids move out... ;-)

comment avatar
Paul wrote on April 4th, 2018

What you have described in your But they have to know more than copy section is a content strategist role. It's a mix of writing, UX, IA and editorial planning. Senior web writers or UX people who are strong writers often take on this role. I do agree that a very experienced web writer is the best person for this role as they bring that writing experience that is often lacking around the table early on in web projects.

comment avatar
Sally wrote on April 6th, 2018

Yes, a content strategist often has those skills. Whether they would lead the whole thing really depends on the scale and set up of the project. The past few projects I've worked on as a content strategist have been in Agile teams so we've had a product owner, scrum master etc. It's also been a long, long time since I've actually written any copy.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on April 6th, 2018

Hey Paul. (How'd you ever get that gmail addy?!) Yeah, I thought about that title, but I wasn't entirely sure content strategists do UX?

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on April 6th, 2018

Interesting. So you do UX too, Sally?

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