The Riddle of UX Writing

Lessons from fortune cookies, fairy tales, and neuroscience

Ben Hersh
Modus
Published in
15 min readSep 10, 2018

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Lead Photo: Ben Hersh; all other photos and screenshots, unless otherwise noted: also Ben Hersh

TThe fortune cookie is no ordinary cookie. It eschews the gooey chunks, decorative frosting, and other cheap thrills typical of the confectionary genre. It carries a certain dignity and grace. A gentle arch and intimate fold tell you how to hold it and how to snap it in two. It has a story to tell. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a designed experience. In fact, fortune cookies were invented by a designer — Makoto Hagiwara, the landscape architect and patron behind San Francisco’s iconic Japanese Tea Garden.

Bland as the cookies may be, something special happens when you eat them among friends. You can’t help but share your fortunes. Just a few words are enough to transform the cookies into a shared experience, a ritual that gives closure to a communal meal and tells you something about yourself. Fortune cookies also have something to teach us about design: Words matter.

WWords matter because words are how we think. Words are how we make sense of the world and relate to each other; they’re a uniquely useful design element. Believe it or not, writing itself was invented for the sake of design.

Envelope from Susa, Iran, ca. 3300 BC, Courtesy Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Paris.

Above, you can see a clay envelope used by our distant ancestors in the Middle East. It’s something like a piggy bank. It holds tokens, and you’d need to smash it open to see what’s inside. Once upon a time, a clever neolithic UX designer put markings on the outside so you can know what’s in there without breaking it.

Six thousand years later, Google is the most popular website in the world. The results page is built on the same interaction pattern as the clay vessel. A piece of writing tells you what’s on the other side.

I’I’m a product designer at Medium, where I get to work with some of the best writers and editors on the web. These connections opened my eyes to a curious idea: Every product has a voice.

You may think this sounds like a metaphor, but it’s far from it. Apps and websites are littered with text, and when most of us read, we hear the words as if spoken…

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Ben Hersh
Modus
Writer for

I make tools for everyday life. Currently at Google. Previously at Dropbox, Medium.