UX Writing: How Voice and Tone Can Transform the User Experience
“I’m not clever like you. I can’t make fancy rissoles of each word. Blue kingfishers won’t suddenly fly out of my mouth. If you want my story, you’ll have to put up with how I tell it.”
Such is the explanation given by a destitute, disabled Indian boy who calls himself Animal, the protagonist/narrator of Indra Sinha’s prizewinningnovel Animal’s People. He’s cynical, funny, a little bitter (maybe a lot bitter), foul-mouthed, yet sympathetic and deeply likeable. You can pretty much get all of that from these mere couple of lines of text. How? Because Sinha is a master of voice and tone.
That’s nice, you might be thinking, but what’s that got to do with marketing and user experience? I’m not writing a novel, I’m trying to connect with potential customers. Maybe, but there’s actually a surprising amount of cross-over because, in both cases, you have to craft and communicate a personality through the words that you choose. The lines above are a great example of how that can work because Sinha manages to do it in such a short space. It shows how a writer’s particular choice of words communicates more than just the surface meaning of the text’s content.
Shall we look closer? Consider this: despite being a powerless, penniless orphan, Animal asserts that he’s in control of this story — that’s pretty confident. He makes some sarcastic remarks about his rough use of language (there’s plenty of swear words in the novel), yet he does it in an ironically poetic way. And he tells us he’s not clever — but he so very clearly is. Overall, it comes together to flesh out a character who has a strong, complex, and compelling personality that the reader will be interested in learning more about. In spelling all this out, I’ve used about three times as many words than Animal (and fairly dry, explanatory ones at that). I can describe the character, but when Animal speaks, you get to know him in a way that feels like an experience.
Are you starting to see what I mean about voice and tone and why it is important to marketing and the overall user experience? Each and every word you use in your communication strategies empowers you with a unique opportunity to connect with the user who is interacting with the words and design he or she sees on their screen. As your current or future customer reads from you, you have the opportunity to give them an experience by showcasing your brand personality. You can’t tell them “our brand is funny, trendy, and light-hearted,” or “authoritative, knowledgeable, and caring” for example, you have to show them that in the way that you communicate, both visually and textually. If you can successfully show it through your voice and tone it will be convincing. This is the central fact of UX Writing. It’s the secret sauce.
Voice and Tone in UX Writing
As we explained in our blog post “What the f*ck is UX Writing,” language is an integral part of the UX Design process. UX Writing, therefore, is all of the language that is crafted around User context and personal preferences, in order to consistently deliver a customized brand experience across all user-facing touchpoints, such as website wording, blog articles, onboarding emails, social media, push notifications, CTAs, microcopy, or even conversational spaces. UX Design, comprised of both visual elements and language, creates the personality of the brand in the mind of the User.
Quite a lot of User Research data goes into UX Writing, but the vital finishing touch is contextually personalized voice and tone. Think of voice as a representation of personality and tone as a mood the personality takes on in a particular context. Personality remains constant, but mood will fluctuate based on context. Voice and tone are important for two reasons. First, all communication with users and customers must come across as authentic, personalized, and from a human being — not a robot! — so a natural but consistent way of speaking is required. Second and most importantly, it’s through voice and tone that you can convey the personality of your brand. This is how your user gets to know you, so that you can develop a relationship that’s reciprocal. How you “speak” reveals everything about your brand DNA: corporate culture and philosophy, attitude, image, purpose, goals, you name it. It should all come together to present a coherent and relatable personality.
Voice: “Who am I?”
Every company needs to establish a very clear outline of the character attributes of their brand. Dzuy Linh, writing for Fast Company’s blog Co.Design, talks about how presenting a consistent brand persona can actually piggy-back on the psychological propensity to anthropomorphize (or see human characteristics in) everything. He explains that a User’s natural tendencies will meet the UX Writer in the middle in “fleshing out” the personality communicated through the various points of contact, as long as that persona adheres to a set of qualities presented in a context-appropriate, authentic way. He emphasizes consistency (“Like an actor playing a role, the persona must never break character”) and recommends “creat[ing] a persona style guide that starts with a backstory and factors in attributes like age, gender, and speaking style.” If your company hasn’t done it before, it can be a really good idea to sit down as a team to have a brainstorming session to help crystallize and clarify exactly who your brand is, as it’s really important that it remains stable and evident across all points of contact with the public.
Tone: Or, “Know when to …”
Tone is use case specific and will change from point-of-contact to point-of-contact. In any medium, language is contextual, so a UX Writer is consistently asking herself, what is the desired outcome of this particular communication? A couple of goals remain constant: to communicate clearly and move the relationship with the User forward. Customer-Brand relationships are developed on the same principles as any other relationship: the primary currency is positive emotion and regular investment is required in order to establish trust over time. You don’t want your contact to be construed as an invasion or a waste of the recipient’s time, so you need to give them something in return, whether it’s as weighty as a sense of security or a solution, or as light (but powerful!) as a giggle, a smile, or even a guffaw.
What we’re saying is, brands have to meet the User where they’re at in terms of needs AND emotions.
Know when to be serious, authoritative, and instructive…
Service comes first. There are many situations in which clarity is the primary concern, such as when you are dealing with legal copy, requesting information, providing instructions, etc. As always, be mindful of the User’s emotional state. If your product or service is helping them at a moment when they are stressed, in a hurry, or under pressure, then they will be looking for fast and easy to understand solutions. Also consider situations that may involve User skepticism or caution, like with privacy issues, or other times when the User may feel annoyed or impatient. Generally, these are circumstances that require clear and reassuring language.
Take, for example, Canadian company Intact Insurance. Their customers’ sense of security is primary to their brand, so they have taken extra care with their instructions for redressing customer satisfaction: not only does their site include a detailed explanation of the steps, but they also offer a shortened visual version in a chart:
People who take solace in having all the details will find what they need as the expectations are clearly defined. Plus, people who are looking for answers FAST will appreciate the clarity.
Know when to have fun…
What’s trending more and more these days is a backing away from the formalism that brands used to use to convey their authority in an industry. Today, brands are more willing to dump this stuffy traditionalism and experiment with a variety other approaches, whether that’s to be surprising, subversive, funny, or downright silly. This is probably in response to the fact that today’s public is more skeptical and less trusting of authority, meaning that brands must seek a different strategy in order to catch a potential customer’s attention, build trust, sound relatable, and showcase the value in their service or product offering.
Any point of contact with the User is an opportunity to introduce an unexpected but welcome break from the mundane. This could be in newsletters, general contact emails, “thanks for waiting” microcopy, and even in error messages. We’ve combed the internet for some great examples where Brands have gone for a lighter, more playful tone. Let us know if you think they’re a home run!
Over’s changelogs are refreshingly casual and send the message that they refuse to take themselves too seriously.
In keeping with their funny and deliberately cheesy voice, JibJab’s push notifications like to crack some groaners.
Here, Canva’s message is clear and informative to prompt a User into action. Emojis are used to make the message more casual and friendly.
This permission screen takes a simple “Yes / No” option and infuses it with a big dose of character and raised stakes.
Dating site Kiss.com took particular effort to inject humour into their 404 page. We have a feeling this lack-luster dater is intended to embody the disappointment one feels in running into an internet dead-end (like a date dead-end … get it? 😉)
This coffee shop even saw an opportunity for humour on their cup sleeve — talk about not missing a single customer point of contact!
Know when to stand out…
Standing out for standing out’s sake is not a great idea on its own (ever hear about people who try to get the “wrong” kind of attention?) Any deviation from the kind of tone and language that is common and unsurprising (i.e. — boring) is going take on a certain amount of risk. For example, choosing one demographic in particular to appeal to usually means you’re guaranteed to appeal less to a different demographic. This is often a worthwhile risk, however, because it gives you a chance to build stronger relationships with the target. That said, it’s very important to have a clear vision of what your strategy is and why. Again, it’s about knowing how to strike the right tone and then committing to the personality you’re trying to create.
They make excellent use of infusing voice and tone into their content strategy. They’ve even created their own lifestyle magazine, Five O’Clock, which, in addition to giving advice on shaving, features interesting interviews, thought-pieces, and even streamable music.
Vice Mag is an example of a brand with a very strong voice, perspective, and distinct sense of humour. Originating in Montreal and proudly representing street culture, Vice has never been afraid of: A) swearing in print B) ruffling feathers or, C) covering everything from serious politics and public issues to pondering the absurd. Consider: “What It’s Like to Have a Pathological Fear of Vomiting” right next to “Meet the Young European Activists Fighting Against the EU’s Housing Crisis”). Through their range of content, however, the publication maintains a consistent writing style and a devoted readership.
Another honourable mention is FreakerUSA, a company that makes knit drink-cosies and (matching) socks, in a nutshell. But one could argue that what they really sell is personality. Making the perfect accessories for a college frat party, they proudly explain how they “quickly grew to be the global leader of preventing moist handshakes and sweaty beverages” — crisis averted! World peace is surely next.
You see, voice and tone can totally transform the user experience. It helps brands communicate trust and build lasting relationships in meaningful context. It’s important to have UX Writers at kickoff meetings so that they can help lay the groundwork with the design and product teams. With a clear brand personality and a solid content strategy that’s steeped in communicative competence and unselfish anticipatory design, you can craft a personalized experience that really speaks to the user.
That’s all for today! Thanks a lot for reading our latest UX Writing article. Please feel free to give it a share, leave a comment below, or tell us about your favourite example of stand-out brand personalities. We’d love to read them! You can also send us your questions or comments via Twitter, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more UX Writing and Content Strategy articles. Thanks again! Have a great day! ☺️
*Originally posted on Flip Script Media's Medium account.