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Don’t Take That Tone With Me

by Brian Dunn
6 min read
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Taking user emotion into account makes your writing more nuanced and empathetic–and the user experience admirably human.

Content that employs a clear, consistent voice throughout an entire experience engages users and builds trust. After all, users want to be talked to by one person, not blabbed at by a gaggle of them. And as a content creator, if you’ve gone the extra mile to hone a voice that’s both distinctive and resonates with its audience, your content will provide a competitive advantage.

But user emotions fluctuate. Sometimes they run high. Euphoria upon finding the perfect Precious Moments porcelain figurine gives way to irritation when nineteen pieces of information are required to buy it.

If you ignore user mood when writing content, you risk alienating users at a time when snap decisions are made–like taking business elsewhere because your cheeky message felt like an actual slap on the cheek.

You can avoid this ugliness by anticipating what I call “emotional overrides”—situations charged with user emotion that call for a temporary deviation from your standard, consistent messaging tone. Take user emotion into account when writing, and your content becomes more nuanced and empathetic. You can then provide a user experience that’s admirably human.

Consistency kills

I experienced an emotional override recently when attempting to order pizza from a national chain’s website. Their casual, light-hearted content helped me navigate a dizzying array of crusts, toppings choices, and even crass upsells before I entered my billing, delivery, and payment information. Then I clicked Complete Order, waiting for a message promising the speedy delivery of my pies.

Users will know every time if you’ve taken the lazy route or exercised vigilance

Unfortunately, I’d transposed the last two digits of my credit card number. In quick succession my transaction failed and, through some bit of code quirkiness, my order had also been purged from the system, forcing me to start over. The message they served up was written in the same perky manner as those that had come before, but I was suddenly in no mood for it. A tone perceived previously as friendly now seemed to mock my incompetence.

What I wanted was a no-frills acknowledgment that things had gone horribly wrong, followed by an upbeat confirmation that the pizza people were still in my corner and together we’d get through this. Instead, I got a flippant “oops!” message that suddenly made me hungry for Chinese.

The messaging problem, both above and in general, is one of consistency. Although consistency serves a noble purpose and slavish obedience to it is many times worn as a badge of honor by us writers, consistency should never trump context. What my pizza ordering debacle shows is that while users may want to feel the same person is by their side throughout, they also want the tone of the conversation to adapt to how they feel–the same way a human-to-human conversation does.

Repeat offenders

The most common places to look for emotional overrides in your website or app are where action occurs–this transaction goes through, that profile gets deleted, an error brings all proceedings to a halt. For example, someone executing their first transaction on your stock day-trading app has taken a significant step in their customer journey and deserves a success message with some punch, even if doing so breaks with your typical time-is-money messaging voice.

A good rule of thumb is that whenever your user’s cause lurches forward (think email campaign sent) or stumbles backward (their online store couldn’t launch), high emotion can creep in. Ironically, these are the same places where writers are tempted to think in terms of highly generalized messages (“an error occurred”) or simply use what they’ve written before, regardless of its suitability for the situation at hand. Users will know every time if you’ve taken the lazy route or exercised vigilance. It might be the hundredth onboarding flow you’ve written for, but it’s the user’s first and only time they’ll go through it with you.

Also consider the cumulative effect of a particular interaction on users. If you write for a domain name registrar, your take on a “domain is not available” message has to resonate not just the first time a user sees it, but also possibly the third, seventh or twelfth time in quick succession, during which someone’s emotional state might jump from mildly frustrated to downright livid. If your website’s code base isn’t savvy enough to juggle multiple messages and swap them on the fly, you have to make sure yours works under all conditions.

Bathwater? Gone. Baby? Still here.

Writing for a user interaction with the potential for high emotion doesn’t mean jumping out of your standard voice and into something jarring–the writing equivalent of mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni channeling her inner Janis Joplin in the middle of Bizet’s Carmen. No, you can accomplish your aims with subtlety.

For example, one of the products I write for as part of my day job is an app for top-shelf freelance web developers and designers. This app’s voice is strictly business, per user testing that told us these freelancers have been there and done that and don’t have a second to read one word more than necessary.

When we recently implemented a feature letting these freelancers fill a shopping cart with our products and send it to their client for purchase, I put myself in the emotional state of a freelancer doing this for the first time. What I felt was trepidation at the thought of putting my name behind a product that wasn’t my own, no matter how appropriate for the client. Freelancers live and die by their reputation, and asking them to vouch for us felt like a huge deal.

I stared at the field for the email address of the client receiving the shopping cart. I could’ve been forgiven for adhering to our application’s content best practices and written above the field:

“Tell us which client gets this shopping cart.”

Instead, I wrote:

“Tell us which lucky client gets this shopping cart.”

Does this fly in the face of Strunk and White’s “omit needless words” edict? Absolutely. Does it also require the user to expend one more precious second of her time to read and process my modifier? Yes, but in this case that extra second is put to good use by explicitly addressing a potential fear that might otherwise have given a freelancer pause. In this case, putting the user at ease was accomplished with a single word while staying within the spirit (if not the letter) of the app’s content guidelines.

Mood leaders

MailChimp is one company that puts a ton of thought into how its content is created, so it’s no surprise they take the emotional state of their users into account from the start. This is the advice they offer up in the Voice and Tone section of the MailChimp style guide:

“When you’re writing, consider the reader’s state of mind….Once you have an idea of their emotional state, you can adjust your tone accordingly.”

Amen, sister. The funny thing about emotional states, though, is they can be complex. MailChimp elaborates on this in their Voice & Tone website where they subscribe multiple user feelings to each content type they’ve identified. The “create account form” entry lists both anticipation and determination as potential feelings experienced by users engaged in that task.

The lesson is: users are complex. Don’t stop at the first emotion you uncover when analyzing a particular situation. Where one user personality type feels an adrenaline surge, another might experience unbridled fear. The tone you employ has to take both possibilities into account.

Marching orders

Failing to take emotional state into account results in content that’s tone deaf to users’ in-the-moment needs. You risk offending instead of entertaining, coming off flippant when you should communicate empathy. When this happens, you miss opportunities to connect with users in a meaningful way.

Avoid this ugliness. Grab your content style guide and add the hopes, thoughts, and fears of your users. Don’t stop at the first one you think of; dig deep into your audience’s psyche. With this information at the ready, you’ll be able to modify your messaging to take their mood into account. When you do, your content will resonate for all the right reasons.

Image of homeless artist courtesy of Shutterstock.

post authorBrian Dunn

Brian Dunn, Brian Dunn is a Phoenix, Arizona-based author, humorist, and lead UX writer for GoDaddy where he drives content strategy for a staggering array of products and contributes to their small business advice website, GoDaddy Garage. Brian's humor writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Splitsider. His short stories have appeared in various literary journals. Brian co-hosts Spillers--Phoenix's premier short fiction storytelling event--and the Spillers After Show podcast.


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