The Microsoft Voice, Part 1: You Had Me at Human
How our UX writing principles keep us from sounding like robots
This is how we write
Last year, we shared our philosophy on why better words make better products. In her article, Ashley Walls describes the systems that we use at Microsoft to ensure our writing is aligned not only to one cohesive style but also to one voice, reminding us that we’re all people and should “talk to each other that way.” I enjoy the controversy of the Oxford comma as much as any writer, but I’m more passionate about this idea of humanness.
The writers at Microsoft focus our writing on humanness through constant interpretation of what we call our Microsoft Voice principles. These principles guide us to build a cohesive voice that is:
- Warm and relaxed
- Crisp and clear
- Ready to lend a hand
These principles are very high-level, but that’s intentional. They need to accommodate tone. Where voice expresses the company’s personality or values in a more singular sense, the tone adjusts based on context. To work across our vast range of products and experiences, our principles need to allow for adaptation. This flexibility is necessary for alignment across the writing discipline, for everything from conversational UX to developer documentation to marketing copy. Most importantly, these voice principles allow each of us to serve our customers where they are, responding to each person in any given moment according to their needs and feelings while maintaining one cohesive voice as a company.
And, yes, we mean human
Last year, I shared perspective on designing personality in both digital agents and in more general UX. Research shows that when people engage with machines, their emotions are in play. This greatly influences the UX design choices we make. Funny thing about us humans: we can’t escape our emotions. In some ways, simply being our emotional selves is what it means to be human. And empathy for that is very human as well.
This same research inspired our voice principles at Microsoft. Emotions are in play as people interact with what we make. So as writers whose use of language touches millions of people every day, we need to remember that what we do is about more than great products and experiences; it’s about being there for people.
It can’t stop with last year
It’s crucial to continue reminding ourselves of this human context. We can’t rest on our laurels, because there are no laurels to be had. I can no more assume I’ve achieved sufficient humanness in my writing than I can rest assured that I’m the best writer I can be. I, and all of us, need to keep pressing on this idea of how we can approach our work in more empathetic ways through reviewing, having open discussions, taking risks, and creating a safe space for our imaginations.
A handful of us on the writing and brand teams at Microsoft are responsible for internal advocacy and articulation of our voice principles. We look for opportunities to spread the word, iterate on their meaning, seek out and share good (and bad) examples, and find ways to keep reminding ourselves that humanness is essential. To help with these efforts, we recently finished a series of short videos to work alongside our written guidance. We created them for our home team but thought it might be interesting to share them more broadly. We hope we can open the door to a larger conversation.
Look for more over the next few months, and let us know how you push yourself to keep humanness and empathy in what you create in the comments below.