What Does a Service Sound Like?

The advantages and best practices for infusing services with human personalities

By Mathieu Ranger

Note: The following contains some examples taken from an excellent workshop presented by Kevin Heubusch and Allyce Husband from Fjord at the 2016 Service Experience Chicago conference.

What makes a service attractive? Why does it feel better to do business with one bank over another? What keeps someone coming back to the same app-based cab service? Above all, functionality, reliability and usability play primary roles in determining quality. But the best services, the ones that manage to maintain a stable user base, have a special quality to them; they are human.

Great services are designed with human personalities. They are engineered from top to bottom to exhibit human-like traits and viewpoints, much like author does when constructing a fictional character.

These service personalities are primarily defined by two elements: voice and tone. The voice is how the service speaks. A streaming comedy website speaks using a snarky informal voice. A funeral home pamphlet communicates in a respectful and formal manner.

Tone is the modulation of the voice that occurs when a service responds to different situations. The tone of a service’s sign-up page is not the same as the tone of an apology email sent by that same service. The service’s voice, however, remains consistent.

When a personality is well executed, users stop thinking about the service as an intangible concept and start to ascribe human qualities to it. In other words, the service is anthropomorphized. Accomplishing this is no easy task, and requires effort on the part of its creators. How, then, does a service benefit from its designers spending time and energy to humanize their creation?

The features of a service personality

Among humankind’s many interesting quirks is the need to attribute human qualities to things that are clearly not human. Creating emotional connections is our biological default. When a service is imbued with personality, it takes take advantage of this human peculiarity. Someone who is ‘getting to know’ a service personality will start to develop feelings such as trust, comfort, and even friendship. These elements encourage users to continue using the service, help distinguish a service from its competition and stimulate users’ long-term memory to keep them thinking about the service when not in use.

A well-designed service personality can also attract the right audience. Its personality can be used to communicate shared values, interests and goals to users. The Cards Against Humanity website is a good example of this. This controversial game has a sense of humour that is not for everyone. This is clearly communicated on their FAQ page, titled ‘Your Dumb Questions’, which features questions such as “I don’t live in the United States, the best country in the entire world by any metric except literacy or life expectancy. Can I still buy Cards Against Humanity?” Those that find this funny will become advocates for the company, sharing the page with their friends. Those who don’t share this sense of humour will walk away.

The services that have the best designed personality characteristics are the ones that are going to benefit the most from these advantages. So, what are the characteristics of a good service personality?

1. A consistent voice, a changing tone

The worst-case service scenario occurs when a service suffers an identity crisis and communicates with users in a different voice. Many social media and marketing fiascos can be attributed to a sudden change in personality. For example, the U.S. State Department engaged its followers in a surprising session of ‘hot or not’ when it tweeted the following:

This was a sudden departure from what a serious government entity should sound like. This inconsistency disrupted users’ expectations of the service they were using, leading to confusion and even a sense of betrayal. A good service keeps its voice consistent in all interactions, making it feel like someone that can be counted on.

A service’s tone, however, can and should change in response to different situations. A self-deprecating dog walking service that has its data hacked might be tempted to offer its users a humourless, out of character apology. Instead, the service can maintain its voice by softening its tone and offering a serious apology headlined by a self-deprecating title.

2. Balance

Balance is a key component of a strong service personality. A service must convey just enough emotion and human attributes without going over the top. It can be an easy line to cross, going from a service that is snarky or joyful or sophisticated, to one that is simply annoying. Often the services that best strike this balance and achieve subtlety are the ones whose personality traits have been carefully defined. When creating MailChimp’s personality, its designers specified each of the service’s personality traits, making distinctions between what might appear like minor trait differences. MailChimp is fun, but not childish, trustworthy, but not stodgy, etc.

3. Surprise and delight

Subtlety does not preclude a service from providing its users with unique and unexpected touches. Incorporating elements such as hidden easter eggs or heartfelt stories of user experiences go a long way to make a service memorable. Microcopy, the little pieces of text that are used to provide users with useful info and instructions (e.g. error messages), are also often used to get a service’s personality across. Trello does this by cleverly pre-generating its user email fields with addresses that belong to fictional characters. It’s a small touch that adds some fun to what could be an otherwise dull sign-up experience.

4. Reading the room

If a service is to behave like a person, it is important for it to exhibit decent human common sense. A service needs to consider context in its user interactions. At minimum, this involves getting basic information right. At the time of writing, asking Microsoft’s Cortana, one of the most literal embodiments of a service personality, ‘what’s the weather?’ results in her providing the user with the noun definition of the word ‘weather’. When a situation like this arises, the illusion of humanity that a service’s designers have worked hard to create is immediately broken.

A smart service also learns from its users’ behaviours. Every day, GO Train commuters across Toronto embark on the same commute, tapping on and off as they enter and leave the train. Unbeknownst to many of these individuals, they have the option of setting a default trip which would prevent them from having to tap off at their destination. If the GO service took note of this behaviour, they could use this data to provide these individuals with a friendly reminder of this useful feature.

5. Genuine personality

Above all, a good service needs to be genuine. It’s cringe-worthy when a service attempts to be something it‘s not. Subaru made this mistake when it attempted to capitalize on the commercial success of grunge in the early 90s. In 1992, Subaru created a television commercial featuring a grunge youth extolling the virtues of their new modest-looking Impreza, declaring the car to be “like punk rock.” Viewers considered this change in personality to be disingenuous.

The Universal Patient Language (UPL), however, shows how a service personality can be an embodiment of the people involved in its creation, implementation and use. Designed as a set of standards to help healthcare organizations better communicate with patients, UPL serves in part as a service conscience. Healthcare services designed using UPL come across as friendly and empathetic. In this case, these personality traits come off as genuine because the people linked to these services are genuinely friendly and empathetic.

When used properly, the personality elements defined here work together to lift services up to an entirely new level of accessibility, memorability and quality. With a consistent voice and varying tone, a good personality is genuine, adaptable, full of surprises and well-balanced. It personifies the service, representing an idealized version of its creators and their viewpoints. In a way, these fabricated humans can even be admired, demonstrating honesty, simplicity and a motivation to make people happy.

Illustration by Bonnie Tang

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