Job titles and indexicality in UX writing
Last updated: Oct 28, 2021
Metalinguistic struggles over the “right” title
My PhD research investigates the language work of user experience (“UX”) writers. UX writers are contemporary language workers typically employed in web and software design, where they are responsible for designing the words that we see when we use websites, apps, and other software, and one thing that intrigues me about this profession is the question of job titles and labelling.1 Take for instance this section from a recently published blog post by the UX writing team of the US-based ride-sharing app Lyft:
[W]e’re enthusiastically changing our team name from UX Writing to Content Design … We’re the first to admit that no one is as excited about the title change as we are, but hear us out — it better represents the work we do and helps others understand how to collaborate with us. What could be better!? … We’ve called ourselves Product Writers, Content Strategists, UX Writers, and even Word Gurus (yikes). None of these are “wrong” titles, they’re just imprecise explanations of what we’re doing in the trenches.
What interests me about this extract is how invested these UX writers – or now content designers – are in finding the “right” title for their profession. And they are not the only ones: similar discussions and decisions are taking place at big tech companies such as Facebook or Uber, and are regularly deliberated by UX writers in podcasts or social media posts. In light of this, I am interested in the metalinguistic practices – or struggles – that emerge around these job titles and in how UX writers themselves navigate different labels for the work that they do.
I am looking at this through the lens of critical sociolinguistic research on language work (e.g. Duchêne & Heller, 2012), and I’m particularly interested in how and why some kinds of language work are (at least relatively speaking) more elite – i.e. have more prestige but usually also higher pay – than others (think: the work of a call center agent vs. that of a UX writer; see Thurlow, 2020, on elite language work). I also orient to sociolinguistic research on the metapragmatics of naming, where scholars point out that names and naming practices can function as indexes and hence play a significant role in the construction of social reality (e.g. Landqvist, 2019). And in this sense, the question of who gets to name what is of course not just a question of labelling but also a question of politics and power.
In my research interviews with UX writers, I’ve encountered people who have experienced no less than eight changes of job title over the course of roughly 10-15 years, all while being employed by the same company and while doing (in their opinion) the same kind of work. Eight different titles in ten years may be an extreme case, but that overall experience is by no means singular. And as the statement by the UX writing/content design team from Lyft (see above) shows, in recent years, these issues have come to be negotiated publicly and on an institutional level, with software companies (or teams at software companies) making statements about which professional label is (supposedly) best. Lyft’s statement of course also includes a relatively long succession of different job titles (five in this case), but they also give us their reasoning of why this is happening, or why this matters to them: “it better represents the work we do and helps others understand how to collaborate with us” – it is about representation on the one hand, and about more concrete, interactional practices on the other, such as collaboration with co-workers.
When discussing the matter of job titles with my interviewees, many of them oriented to these different labels as a strategic tool for indexing particular professional identities. For instance, one person explained that upon joining a company as the first UX writer, it was important for them to call the position UX writer because that job title had the word “writing” in it. This of course creates an indexical link to the broader field of “writing” as a professional activity, perhaps indicating that this is more easily understood by colleagues and can be more easily deployed for practical understanding in everyday collaboration with others. Similarly, many of the people that I interviewed emphasised their preference for the label content designer, explaining that using the title “content designer” mattered to them because it had the word “design” in it, which would allow them to be seen as part of a company’s design team, which in turn could give them access and influence that they otherwise would not have.
The politics and power of job titles
What we begin to see here then is that these job titles are not just about describing the person that does the work, they also encapsulate how that person relates to other actors and activities, and how they are in turn perceived by other people. In other words, there is not just a direct or first-order indexicality to job titles, whereby a job title describes a person that does a particular kind of work, there is also a higher-order indexicality, whereby job titles index particular professional identities, practices, and activities (see Silverstein, 2003, on indexical order). In this way, practices of naming and struggles over names – or, in this case, struggles over job titles – play a significant role in the construction of social reality and the question of who gets to name what is also a question of politics, power and, I want to suggest, one of status and prestige.
In the case of UX writers, job titles function on two levels. On the one hand, people chose specific labels as much (if not more so) for how they are perceived by others. As one of my interviewees summarised: it’s best to pick the job title that will make it easier for people around you to understand what you do. In this sense, job titles seem to function as situated identities that people deploy in relation to their audience (cf. Bucholtz & Hall, 2005; Myers, 2006). On the other hand, and especially when institutions like software companies define job titles, these labels also serve as macro-level “identity badges” (Grant, Berg & Cable, 2014) that represent a particular profession and that make that profession recognisable (that make it “a thing”, so to speak). As such, a specific job title can ultimately function as symbolic capital that brings prestige but also access to certain places.
This, then, is how job titles become a matter of politics and status, whereby language work (in this case the language work of UX writing) is being legitimised and professionalised. In this way, these public discussions of job titles in UX writing might also be understood as a rhetoric of professionalisation, that is ultimately contributing to the prestige of UX writing as (at least relatively speaking) elite language work.
- Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4–5), 585–614.
- Duchêne, A., & Heller, M. (Eds.). (2012). Language in late capitalism: Pride and profit. New York: Routledge.
- Grant, A. M., Berg, J. M., & Cable, D. M. (2014). Job titles as identity badges: How self-reflective titles can reduce emotional exhaustion. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1201–1225.
- Landqvist, M. (2019). Semiotic spaces in antidiscriminatory political discourse: Naming practices as indexes. Language in Society, 48(5), 721–743.
- Myers, G. (2006). ‘Where are you from?’: Identifying place. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 10(3), 320–343.
- Silverstein, M. (2003). Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication, 23(3–4), 193–229.
- Thurlow, C. (Ed.). (2020). The business of words: Wordsmiths, linguists, and other language workers. London and New York: Routledge.
Needless to say, the work of UX writers is more complex than that, but this is, I have found, the simplest way of explaining what UX writing is and what kind of work UX writers do to people outside of the UX/tech industry. ↩︎