Design

Brand voice and UX: a starter guide

4 min read
Laura Busche  •  Jun 15, 2015
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Why is it that some products take a piece of our heart? What is it about their design that makes us feel connected, amused, and delighted?

The iOS and Google Play stores contain over 2 million apps. If that doesn’t make your head spin, let’s talk about the 876 million websites and 212 major social networks competing for your users’ attention.

It’s a challenging market out there for us makers. As our generation gets exposed to increasingly amusing tech products, we can’t help but wonder: how can our project break through the clutter?

Users are tired of the lifeless language that a vast majority of tech products still force upon themTwitter Logo. And they’re sick of the prosaic interfaces they’ve had to interact with for decades.

Instead, users want genuine experiences that bring comfort, ease, and a sense of Twitter Logo

users want genuine experiences that bring comfort, ease, and a sense of
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Users want genuine experiences that bring comfort, ease, and a sense of connection.

Sophisticated consumers call for effortless experiencesTwitter Logo. Effortless for them, that is. Us? We’re responsible for doing whatever it takes to provide such an experience while differentiating our brand in a meaningful way. That means putting in the extra hours to make sure that our product speaks human—not robot.

Sure, this all sounds complicated. But I’ve narrowed it down to 3 simple steps:

  1. Find a brand personality
  2. Define a brand voice
  3. Translate it into user experience

Let’s take 1 step at a time:

1. Personality: what makes your brand humane and why does it matter?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines personality as the “unique psychological qualities of an individual that influence a variety of characteristic behavior patterns (both overt and covert) across different situations and over time.”

Our personality influences the way we think, behave, and feel with regard to our surroundings. Similarly, as users interact with your product, they’re expecting a friendly language that guides them through a specific flow of events. By linking your brand with several traits that are traditionally used to describe human personalities, you can build a more relatable story that’s easy for customers to engage with.

In other words:

People relate to people, and if your brand feels like ‘people,’ they’ll relate to you too.

2. Voice: a simple template to define your tone

Defining our brand personality gives us a better idea of how we should face the userTwitter Logo. It elucidates what is the voice telling the story. Keep this idea of brand voice close to heart—it’ll help you make that crucial translation from “robot speak” to human. A well-defined voice impacts the different stages of your user’s experience with the product and becomes an essential asset for sales collateral, social channels, and even customer support.

Defining our brand personality gives us a better idea of how we should face the user.

Terms like voice, tone, and language can be confusing. Just bear in mind that voice is the overall style in which your brand expresses, while tone is a variation in that voice to reflect a particular attitude or respond to a specific situation. Language, on the other hand, refers specifically to your use of words. In a nutshell, your brand uses a specific language to address different situations with particular tones that reflect its overall voice.

Based on the personality you just found, take a few minutes to answer the following questions about your voice:

  • What would my brand say and how?
  • How would my brand speak to users during the different stages of their experience?
  • What does it hate?
  • What does it absolutely love?
  • Try some lateral thinking: what’s your brand’s favorite drink/meal? Why?

Once you’ve come up with answers to these questions, put your newly-defined brand voice on paper. Creating a set of guidelines and examples helps everyone on your team align with a common language. Take a look at Mailchimp’s Voice and Tone site for an outstanding example of such a handbook.

I’ve created a template to help you capture a language that reflects your brand’s voice. To fill it out, define a list of words that you’ll use to express excitement, encouragement, concern, regret, and gratitude. A success message, for example, would express excitement, while an alert message would display concern. Also come up with a few sample phrases that show how to use the word in context.

3. Translation: 10 ways to bring your brand voice into user experience

No matter which framework you’re using to visualize the entire user experience (journey maps, flowcharts, sitemaps, storyboards, and the like), your brand’s voice can and should be incorporated in every stage.

Here are some common places where you can start bringing in the vocabulary and tone that you just defined:

  • Sign-up flow
  • Call-to-action buttons
  • Onboarding flow
  • Partnerships landing page
  • Notifications
  • Transactional emails
  • Upgrade flow
  • Help section

Translating robot-speak can be a daunting task. You might feel like you’re crossing the line more than once. Are we being too casual? Will this scare users away? Is slang OK for a purchase button? Going back to the template above will help you stay on-brand, and regular A/B testing will allow you to experiment within reasonable risk limits.

To inspire you, I’ve collected 8 stellar examples of brand voices that have been translated into the user experience flow. Most of these focus on microcopy, those seemingly little words and phrases that mean everything to your user.

1. PicMonkey’s creative preloader text
The lesson: If your brand’s pet is a tech-savvy monkey, feel free to let him “focus a diffractor beam” to compress your user’s files.

2. Virgin America’s witty comments
The lesson: humor helps ease tension, and some industries (like air travel) could definitely use more of it. And, yes, Virgin: life isn’t a beach.

3. Hootsuite’s ultra-honest sleep mode
The lesson: The user is draining unnecessary server resources. Take a nap and let them know they’re slacking off—in the nicest way possible.

4. Pandora’s touché station intro
The lesson: If you’ve gone through the trouble of building a highly complex algorithm (Music Genome Project), you might as well start a conversation with me about why that matters.

5. Buffer’s candid notifications
The lesson: Use successful actions as an opportunity to celebrate your brand’s personality. And if that happens to be quick-witted and funny, then so be it.

6. Slack’s refreshing welcome message
The lesson: Users sometimes feel overwhelmed. Face it, embrace it, and make it a part of your mission to become the best part of their day.

7. Waze’s thoughtful advice
The lesson: Let users know you have their best interest in mind. Especially when they’re messing up and your app needs to toss out a panic alert.

8. Mailchimp’s glorious reminder
The lesson: Sometimes a line of code that reads “success” means so much more for your user. I mean, yes, your app did manage to send out an email, but what’s behind that? Take some time to celebrate your user instead of your skills. This is their moment of glory.