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.
We most often hear people talk about brand voice in the marketing department. It’s the concern of those selling our product – the people writing ads, social posts or website headlines.
In fact, if you read any article about UX writing, it will make a point to separate UX copy from marketing copy. UX copywriting is about helping users accomplish their goal, they say. Marketing copy is about persuading someone to use your product in the first place. The chief concern of UX copy, these articles point out, is being useful, clear and concise. Based on this sentiment, you might assume your product copy isn’t the place to “be creative” with your writing and exercise your brand’s voice.
In truth, your microcopy is one of the most important places to cement your voice. It’s how people experience your brand, step by step, button by button and screen by screen. If someone is interacting with your product every day, as one might hope, they will see your UX copy again and again. Your product copy is the taste your brand leaves in their mouth.
If marketing copy sells your product, UX copy continues selling it. So at the risk of contradicting every piece of expert advice currently out there: UX copy should not only be useful, clear and concise. It should be compelling, emotional, funny, motivating or whatever your brand voice strives to be.
Before we can write great UX copy, then, we need to know our brand voice and how to write in it. Let’s first look at how this works in practice.
Two products can look exactly alike, but their brand voice makes them different and allows them reach completely different audiences.
Take an app our company built years ago called Authentic Weather. Hundreds of weather apps exist on the market. They all essentially do the same thing: tell you the weather. Sure, some may offer a more detailed forecast or a fancier map. But when it comes down to it, the average person could get by day to day with any of these apps. The difference with Authentic Weather, and the reason it reached 1 million downloads its first month after launch, is entirely its voice.
Authentic Weather’s voice is decidedly irreverent. It throws the “F” word around like confetti. Its outlook, even on the sunniest day, is bleak. The Authentic Weather voice is funny (at least our target audience thinks it is – others might describe it as offensive). That’s what sets Authentic Weather apart from every other weather app that does exactly what it does. People don’t use Authentic Weather because it’s the most useful or accurate weather app. They use it because its voice makes it fun.
Or consider a brand people love for its voice: Mailchimp. Here, voice is executed in both writing and design throughout the product experience. You encounter Mailchimp’s voice every time you use the product, whether you’re adding emails to your list or sending off a newsletter.
Here’s how Mailchimp describes their voice: “Using offbeat humor and a conversational voice, we play with language to bring joy to [our users'] work. We prefer the subtle over the noisy, the wry over the farcical. We don't take ourselves too seriously.”
In the image above, notice how Mailchimp addresses its users personally as “you.” See how it empathizes with how the user is feeling while completing a specific action. Notice how motivating the headlines and help text are, how conversational. These are all the decisions the company made when creating its brand voice. And you feel that voice throughout the product experience because of the microcopy.
Ideally, you will work with a copywriter or content strategist to define your voice before you start building your product. Your voice will influence not only the copy, but the design and product experience itself. But you can refine your voice no matter what phase you're in or who you have on your team.
Here’s how to create a brand voice that sets you apart from every other Uber-meets-cat food app out there.
To connect with your audience, you need to first understand who they are. What do they like? Where are they from? What’s important to them? What is their level of education? What kind of conversations are they having? What type of words are they using?
If your target audience is middle-class mothers in Iowa, you will likely use different language than you would for millennial men in New York.
Seek to understand where your readers are coming from. Then you can get on their level and write copy that means something to them. That might require doing a survey, researching online or simply observing the people already engaging with you. Or it might require all of the above. You don't necessarily need to pay someone to create an extensive user research report, but you should spend time getting to know the people who use your product – and those you want to use it.
Whether content already exists for your brand or not, there are hints of your voice already out there. You’ll find it these places:
These hints may not reflect the voice you want for your product, but they’re a good starting point as you decide what you do or don’t want it to be. As you observe these little hints, start making a list of adjectives that come to mind and see if a theme emerges.
“Honest” and “irreverent” are two adjectives I used before to describe Authentic Weather’s voice. Two of Mailchimp’s words are “plainspoken” and “genuine." What are your words? Be as specific as possible and avoid generic adjectives like “inspiring.” The more pointed your words, the easier it will be to write consistent content later.
Maybe you imagine your brand to be a bit quirky. Write it down. Maybe your whole product pitch is about motivating people to change their lives. “Hopeful” could be a fitting adjective, in that case. Some adjectives that may or may not come to mind: Approachable, sincere, sentimental, playful, confident, straightforward, optimistic, sarcastic, intellectual. Write them all down.
Now decide which ring most true and feel right for the voice you want to achieve. Narrow it down to a list of five or so adjectives that seem spot on. These adjectives will guide you when writing for your brand. You should filter all your work through these words.
If your brand was an existing person, dead or alive, who would they be? This may seem like a silly exercise, but it can be helpful when you’re actually sitting down to write.
This is not the time for “31-year-old Jesse from London with a high power career, interested in health.” User personas are too broad for our purposes right now. This is also not meant to be someone who you personally admire. This is about your product. Find a person who evokes the qualities you have or want for your brand voice. That person may be James Dean, Michelle Obama, Huck Finn or Lady Gaga. It could be a character from a movie or a book. It could be an actress or a historical figure.
Choose your person and write down what you like about their voice. What type of language do they use? What’s their outlook on life? What sort of “air” do they have about them? What is the public opinion of them?
This person internally represents your brand voice, at least until your voice takes its own shape and can stand confidently on its own. Nobody may ever know you are writing that sentence as though David Letterman was saying it, but it will help you write consistently through that filter.
Now that you’ve defined your audience, found your adjectives and chosen your person, try it on for size. With your notes in front of you (this is your voice guideline now – always keep it nearby), try writing about your product in your new voice. Take a slide from your pitch deck and rewrite it. Pull a line from social media and filter it through your adjectives. Find some copy on your website or in your product experience and write it fresh, like your “person” might say it.
Don’t worry about perfection yet – think about consistency. Try to make your writing sound like the same person is saying it. See if it represents your brand in the way you want it to. Tweak your voice if it doesn’t, until it does your product justice.
Defining and mastering your brand voice is the beginning. Applying it to your UX copy is the next step, and one that requires thought and care.
It is true that we should be mindful about how and where we exercise our voice in our UX copy. You shouldn’t crack a joke at the expense of clarity, leaving your user lost and unamused. Context is also important. If someone sees your same clever message in your app every time they use it, it will quickly lose its charm and just get annoying.
But setting out from the start with your voice in mind will help you infuse it throughout the entire product experience.
In a coming article, we’ll talk about where and when it makes sense to exercise your brand voice within your product, and how tone and context come into play. Until then, practice your voice. It will make your product better the whole way around.