By Tobias van Schneider Published September 17, 2020
This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here.
Humor has been used to sell products since the early days of advertising. But rarely do you see it used effectively within the product itself. And it’s a missed opportunity.
When done right, humor can change your entire product experience. When done really well, your user will screenshot and share your UX copy, meaning your product markets itself.
But being funny, assuming you don't have a natural gift for it, is a challenge. A key ingredient to a laugh is the appearance of effortlessness. Ironically, effortlessness can take effort.
Looking at the golden age of advertising in the 60s compared to now, it seems humor has changed. Before, it was nuanced. A good joke in a print ad made you feel smarter, like an insider, further cementing your alignment with the brand. These ads still hold up and are referenced and revered by copywriters everywhere. It’s called the golden age for a reason.
Ads have evolved since then (with some exceptions, like The Economist's sharp print and billboard campaigns). What was once a full-length print ad is now a two-sentence Instagram caption. What was once a paragraph is now a pun. What was once subtle is now on the nose.
But it’s not humor that has changed. The context has. And that’s the first important lesson to writing funny copy.
It’s all about context.
Context is the time we live in.
It’s the language we speak.
It’s our culture, the current state of the world, our politics, our age.
For your product, it’s also the type of tool you’re writing for, what your user just did, what they’re doing now, what’s coming next and how they feel at that specific moment.
Humor must be designed. A funny confirmation message might be delightful the first time someone sees it, but if they’re seeing it every time they complete an action, it gets old fast. What may seem funny in isolation, while writing your microcopy, will not be funny if it confuses your user or hits them at a point in the process when they don’t want to laugh – they just want to accomplish the task at hand.
Finding opportunities for humor in your product UX
You don’t have to crack a joke on every screen of your product, and you shouldn’t. It’d be exhausting for you and everyone using it. But you can infuse humor throughout your product in the right places. These are good places to do so:
Let’s look at a few brands that do this well.
Not for the first time in this series, we arrive at Mailchimp.
The Mailchimp monkey character is instantly recognized by marketers everywhere, because they use humorous copy and imagery to relate to their audience.
Consider the image above. This is the screen you see when you’re about to hit send on an email campaign, blasting your email out to hundreds or thousands of subscribers. Mailchimp recognizes the equal parts terror and pride that comes with launching. Those drips of sweat rolling off the monkey’s hand as it hovers above the GO button says everything. And right below the “Send Now” button is a tiny caption: “This is your moment of glory.”
Mailchimp recognizes your fear and simultaneously celebrates your accomplishment. The image has been screenshotted and shared countless times, because it resonates. On this screen, you can see designers and copywriters working together as a team.
Note that Mailchimp isn’t laugh-out-loud, roll-on the-floor hilarious. You’re not going to tell your wife about that Mailchimp joke when she arrives home from work. What Mailchimp succeeds to do is use humor to make their product fun to use. And that’s saying a lot, considering Mailchimp is an email platform.
I will once again point to my own product, Semplice.com, as an example. One of the biggest challenges people face when building their online portfolio is getting started in the first place. It’s a daunting task, one designers notoriously put on the back burner. So after you’ve first set up Semplice (a portfolio-building tool) and the hype is still high, we want to give you that little push you need to move forward. And your dashboard is empty, awaiting your creations, so why not?
We could have left this page empty or wrote “You have no projects to show” – and we did, for a time. But after we added this playful little jab, our users started screen-shotting and sharing this page on Twitter. It spoke to them in their moment of hesitancy and hopefully motivated them to move forward. As a bonus for us, their screenshots gave Semplice some free advertising.
Here's another example from a weather app I made called Authentic Weather. Authentic Weather was like any other weather app, with one distinction: its sense of humor. We took every opportunity in the app UX to make people smile, down to the button text.
Authentic Weather gained a cult following not for its superior weather service, but for its sense of humor.
Comedians are funny because they meet us where we are. They take an everyday moment and make us see it differently. At their most funny, it feels as though they have reached into our brain and named something we’ve felt before. They get us. At their least funny, they read the room wrong and make an ill-timed joke that falls flat. Crickets.
It’s that buzzy word “empathy” we love to throw around as designers, actually being applied. Recognizing how a person may be feeling while using your product allows you to meet them there.
Are they trying to access important account information? Then don’t get in their way with a useless joke – they just want their user ID.
Is this a point in the process where people typically give up and drop off? Then it may be the perfect place to drop a lighthearted word of encouragement.
Are a significant portion of your users speaking another language? Make sure your joke translates to that language, or it will be lost on them. Many of our users at Semplice.com speak English as a second language, and it’s forced us to sharpen our writing and crystallize our humor to its most simple and clear form. Which is to say, it’s made our writing better.
Think about where we are and how we feel at this specific screen. How can you meet us there?
2. Lean into a misconception, stereotype, challenge, fear or negative aspect of your product experience.
Which is to say, know your product.
It’s the same approach those beautiful ads from the 60s took: Self awareness. Making yourself the butt end of your own joke. Acknowledging what we're all thinking and flipping the script. Making us feel like we're all on the inside.
Look for those little moments where you can show self awareness. It begins with using your own tool, understanding how others use it and how it – or the task they are using it for – is perceived.
3. Don’t try too hard.
If you feel like you’re forcing it, don’t. Forced humor is never funny. It’s perplexing, distancing and worse: annoying. And an annoying product is a dead man walking.
Which brings us to our next point.
4. Don’t be clever at the expense of clarity.
Read anything about writing UX copy and you will find this advice, repeated again and again. If your message is lost in your joke, re-write your joke. If it’s still unclear, kill the joke entirely. It’s always better to be clear than funny, especially when it comes to UX copy.
5. Strive for consistency
If you make a punny dad joke on one screen and use deadpan sarcasm on the next, your users are going to be confused at best and offended at worst.
Start by knowing your brand voice. Is your brand the type to make lighthearted jokes or use dark humor? Are you offbeat and clever or silly and charming? Whatever it is, be that consistently. Once we learn your language, your jokes have a place to land.