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 strategists 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 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.” That changes 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 to this error message, or if they see it frequently, a humorous
tone might be irritating. The best way to know which tones will work
with your users is to test.

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