The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice in UX Writing

The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice in UX Writing

Setting the suitable tone for your application or website.

The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice in UX Writing

In literature, the tone of voice refers to the author’s feelings towards the subject, as expressed through the writing itself. In UX, every scrap of writing on a page (from body copy to button labels) contributes to the tone of voice that we’re using to speak to our users. Despite the importance of tone, advice about it tends to be vague: “Be consistent. Be authentic. Be unique.” So we decided to create a manageable UX-specific tool that content strategies could use for simple tone profiles.

We identified four primary tone-of-voice dimensions.

First: Is the writer trying to be funny? Or is the subject approached in a serious way? (Note that we’re just talking about an attempt at humor. Just because you want to be funny, doesn’t mean you’ll always land your jokes.)

Second: Is the writing formal? Informal? Casual?

Third: Does the writer approach the subject in a respectful way? Or an irreverent way? With digital products, an irreverent tone is often not intended to be offensive to the reader, but it is used to set a brand apart from competitors.

Fourth: Is the writer enthusiastic about the subject? Excited about the service or product? Or is the writing dry and matter-of-fact?

To see how we could use those four dimensions to create very different effects, let’s look at a single, simple message: “An error has occurred.”

First, let’s try a serious, formal, respectful, and matter-of-fact error message. “We apologize, but we are experiencing a problem.” We’re not trying to make users laugh, or using any strong emotion. It’s a fairly traditional, straightforward error message. Let’s tweak one of the dimensions by making this a little more casual. We’ll change “we are” to “we’re” and “apologize” to “sorry”.

We’ll also add the expression “on our end.” The message is still serious and matter-of-fact. So let’s add a little enthusiasm. In this case, “enthusiasm” means emotion more than excitement, since the subject is a negative one for both the product and the user. So we could say “Oops! we’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end.” This change takes our message to more casual, and definitely more enthusiastic.

Finally, we could add an attempt at humor and a little playful irreverence. “What did you do!? You broke it!” Which of these versions of the same message would work best? That depends on your brand personality, but also on your users and the context. If your users are frustrated when they arrive at this error message, or if they see it frequently, a humorous tone might be irritating.

The best way to know which ones will work with your users is to test.

“The way we communicate with our users is just as important as what we’re communicating. “

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