As a writer for user experiences, I’m faced with many challenges: How do I get my customers to actually read? How can I help them understand what to do next? How do I connect with them on an emotional level?
But the biggest challenge comes in striking a balance between the needs of the customer and the needs of the business, a marriage of customer empathy and brand character. I often have highly defined brand guidelines to follow, which are designed to create a connection with the customer. But I’ve found that strict adherence to those can sometimes have the opposite affect: forcing customers into a box where they have nothing to relate to.
To mitigate this, I might use language that’s friendly and engaging. Sometimes it’s as simple as a cleverly placed “woohoo” or “awesome!” At the right moments, it might even be a bit of humor. It’s part of a content strategy that’s built around keeping customers from leaving the product.
Respect the Customer, Respect the Brand
This is where things get tricky.
“That’s great,” I hear customers say, when they find a bit of humor on a screen, perhaps while having to wait for something to load. “That makes me feel good.”
“But that’s not our brand,” is the common refrain of marketing managers, who, despite what customers say, are vigilant in their protection of brand character. “We need to stay on brand.”
This seemingly indifferent position comes from a good place. A consistent tone of voice makes a brand’s character believable and trustworthy. Without it, customers might have a contradictory impression of the brand.
As UX professionals, we’re all faced with this challenge. We need to “stay on brand,” but we also need to foster empathy in our customers. This type of design thinking can push on the boundaries we set for ourselves. Creating successful products is not only about delivering believable brand character, but also an experience that our customers think is awesome enough to tell others about.
Voice and Tone and Context, Oh My
I asked some fellow user-centered writers to add their thoughts on how we use language and tone to deliver a strong sense of brand and remarkable experiences. Most advised that you start by knowing the difference between your product’s voice and tone.
“The voice might be more conservative, but the tone can be delightful,” says Shelly Bowen, a content strategist who helps small businesses develop their brands. “The voice is your brand, but tone is your mood.”
Indeed. And the context is key in exploring mood. It’s in those moments of truth that we can connect with the customer emotionally without necessarily jeopardizing the brand. A “woohoo” at the beginning of a task might cause disdain. But at the end, when the customer is feeling relief, it could bring delight.
“You don’t want to be humorous when you’re in the third paragraph of a tax law article,” says Anne McColl, a UI writer who works on consumer-facing software and websites. “But after they’ve pushed the submit button and they’re waiting 20 seconds, that’s a great time to say ‘Hey! How are you going to spend your money?’”
If it’s a choice between delight and usability, bow to usability, McColl adds. Save the tone for the spaces in between. “It’s what you’re saying on the side, what you’re saying in between the action,” she says. “Sometimes you can have a little more fun in a subhead. If you’re covering your point, what’s the harm?”
Bowen agrees, and she also encourages UI writers to help marketers see the broader context. “When you read a book you know there’s a certain voice established,” she says. “It might start slow and then speed up, and then it might crash, but the author never loses the voice.”
Collecting the Right Words
When marketers push back against a word or phrase, despite its proven ability to connect emotionally with customers, we should make sure they understand the context. If that doesn’t work, we can ask ourselves: Is there another way of saying this that’s still gets to the mood, but isn't as far outside of the brand?
Which brings us to another big challenge for UI writers: there are only so many words in any language. Just ask a food writer for an alternate to the word “crispy” or car industry journalist what he or she could say instead of “punchy.” UI writers have lightened countless “404 page not found” screens with the word “Oops!”—unable to find a word that works better.
“It doesn't hurt to start collecting a library of things that work,” McColl says, noting that she has her own library, which not only helps her stay creative, but also resolve conflicts with marketers over the right language or tone to use.
And don’t give up trying to find new ways to be creative, says Allison Ashton, a UI writer who works on websites for healthcare and wellness industries. If you’ve tried writing it out a hundred different ways to no avail, inspire yourself by writing things that have nothing to do with your brand. “I launched a blog so I could give myself a place [to] write anyway I wanted to,” she says. “I think it’s good for writers to have a place where they can do that … It helps you break out.”
Own Your Work
We can all agree it’s our job to be creative in our writing, but we also must demand ownership of the words. We are the writers, after all, and that means we carry the mantle of experience and expertise. We can take direction from marketers, who are there to tell us when we’re not on point, “but for them to wordsmith us, that’s going too far,” Bowen says. “I tell them: ‘Don’t red line. You’re not a writer.’”
And as the experts, we should sometimes take direction from our gut. “Just do it,” McColl says. “The worst they can do is take it out. You have to respect [the brand], but this may just be a little bit of tone.”
Things to Remember
When it comes to UI writing for customers in the confines of a highly defined brand, set yourself up for success. Here are some things to consider:
- Start with the context: Make sure both you and your marketing manager understand the context for any language with edgier tone. Consider both the mood of the customer at key moments of truth and in the broader context of the journey a customer takes from one end of the experience to the other. Where are the highs and lows? How should it evolve?
- Get involved with the brand team: Work together to come up with a set of principles that not only fit the brand character, but also keep the customer in mind. This will give marketers the opportunity to understand that a set of principles that don’t align to the way you work and think about design will just be words on a page that won’t be followed.
- Make sure customers understand your principles: Help the brand team discover how customers feel about the brand character principles they have developed. Don’t leave it to guessing and assumptions. If it’s important, take the time to involve the customer. Set up an experiment in which you test an idea with language that strictly adheres to the principles. It could just be a simple wireframe. Look for emotion in the customer’s reaction. Then ask: Why did they react the way they did?
- Take cues from your competitors: How are other companies striking the right balance between brand and delight? You may want to push your case for edgier language if it helps differentiate your product from your competitors. Or you may want to re-think your brand character guidelines if others are already pushing the boundaries of tone well beyond yours.
Don’t get discouraged when it seems impossible to convince a marketing team that the tone you’re taking is actually good for the brand. Help them see the bigger picture, and remind them that you’re the expert when it comes to finding the words that will connect with the customer without eroding the brand. Develop your own library and look for inspiration outside of your product. Coming up with delightful language is hard work, but the payoff is big. Sometimes, you’ll even get a “whoohoo!”
Image of woohooing woman courtesy Shutterstock