Oh, a tone-of-voice guidelines for your product! How original! Yes, we know everyone else has done one, and I’ll admit I initially viewed them as a box product teams needed to tick, alongside beanbags and ‘blog posts about design systems. But we did one and it’s actually really useful. You can read the whole thing on our website, but here are a few words about how it came to be.
So, why did we make it?
Until very recently we didn’t have any writers in-house. It was pretty challenging and something we probably should have sorted sooner, but one of the many great things about our team is that people are willing to get their hands dirty. We don’t mind having a crack at things that ‘aren’t our jobs’ — poking around in some code, building an IKEA desk, writing a bit of content. The downside of this hands-on approach is that — in our haste to ship things over the last couple of years — we’d occasionally let standards slip and maybe didn’t give the craft of language it’s due care. We’d expeditiously write some ‘placeholder’ text that’d end up being used in an information pop up. We’d draft some words for a booking confirmation screen that we’d “definitely revisit next sprint” but ended up leaving for a year. It seemed like everything we made was carefully considered except the language we used, which was often a bit of an afterthought.
We definitely didn’t want people to stop writing things themselves, or start policing what they wrote. We just wanted it to sound a bit… nicer. Product types often take a very methodical approach to their work, which is great when they’re designing a button, crafting some code, or writing acceptance criteria. The downside is that if we’re asked to write the language we use can sound a bit wooden. This always struck me as odd — especially when you peruse the team Slack channel, colleagues social media posts, or just chat with people round the office. We’re quite an articulate and witty bunch, and I often wondered why we couldn’t just write like that.
So we decided to create some tone principles.
This was a self-initiated exercise and was something we wanted to create with as little impact on the day-to-day running of the rest of the company as possible. We managed to get volunteers from all of the different business areas to donate a bit of time, but it was limited and we wanted to make the most of it. We planned to have one workshop, agree on a direction, and create the guidelines. Possibly a bit ambitious, but we were starting with nothing so figured that any outputs, no matter how minor, would be helpful.
That said, we really wanted the session to be as effective as possible, so spent a good chunk of time researching ways of running it. Here’s how we ended up breaking it down.
Part one — Intro
What do we mean by Tone of Voice? You probably think that’s pretty obvious, but we didn’t think that was necessarily the case in the context of digital products. We defined it thus…
In literature, the tone of voice refers to the author’s feelings towards the subject, as expressed through the writing itself.
Within a digital product, Tone of voice is the way we tell our users how we feel about the message we’re sending, which will influence how they’ll feel about it too.
Part two — The problem
What’s wrong with our Tone of Voice currently? Well, we didn’t have a very good one, and certainly didn’t have anything formalised. The state of our transactional communications summed up the issue quite nicely — we didn’t have a consistent way of greeting people, we’d often sound too formal (using ‘Dear’ as a greeting), we’d often be verbose or repeat ourselves. We also rarely thought about context — that email’s subject line looks fine in Jira, but what will it look like in a users inbox on a phone?
Part three — How do we want to sound?
We had a think about our users, and what would be a more appropriate tone for them. We also set a bit of homework, and got all of our participants to bring along an example of a brand that they thought got it right. This included a lot of the usual suspects — Monzo, MailChimp, Perkbox. Brands who manage to sound very natural.
Part four — Exercises
We came across this really useful article on the Nielsen Norman Group website about the “Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice”. Yep, I probably thought the same thing you’re thinking right now, but I promise you it isn’t. It ended up informing a fairly lightweight but amazingly effective exercise that helped us work out exactly what we wanted to sound like.
We printed a pile of the Tone of Voice dimensions diagrams — essentially 4 sliding scales — and got our participants to plot whereabouts they thought we sit currently, and whereabouts they think we should sit.
- Funny → Serious
- Formal → Casual
- Respectful → Irreverent
- Enthusiastic → Matter-of-fact
We could almost immediately see patterns emerging. We were all in fairly broad agreement about where we needed to get to.
Part five — Lets write some stuff!
We thought a really simple (and fun) way to get people to describe how we should sound was to get them to actually write some things. We picked an alert that users received when their profile is incomplete, and got them to rewrite it. They were provided with a blank error modal with space for header, body and button text, as well as a sheet of emoji, and had 5 minutes to complete as many as they could.
Part six — Distilling it down
In the spirit of keeping the process as lean as possible, we decided that the next step was to present back the findings as a draft version of the Tone of Voice guidelines. And it was surprisingly easy to do. The average positions plotted on the Tone Dimensions scale and the general feeling we got from the error messages exercise helped us to quickly form three Tone Principles…
…and the rest just flowed from there. We made a few tweaks, uploaded it, and that was pretty much that. It’s very much an organic thing, and we’re tweaking it whenever we feel it needs tweaking. In a sector like ours, it’s almost impossible to make something exhaustive, but we think it’s a great starting point for anything we write now.
TL:DR — we were sceptical so only asked for 90 mins of everyone’s time, then only invested a couple of days putting the guidelines together. Quickly realised it was an extremely valuable exercise and we have a really handy resource to show for it.