What is voice and tone?
Voice and tone work together to set the relationship between you (i.e., your brand and product) and your users by way of language. It communicates to users how you feel about them and can determine how they feel about you. Voice reflects your brand’s personality, so it should be consistent across platforms. Tone conveys mood and can fluctuate depending on context and the user’s emotional state.
Why is voice and tone so important in UX writing?
Your voice and tone is the extension of your brand personality, setting how you communicate your message and connect with your target audience. It defines the strategy and roadmap for your writing—your overall vision for how you express yourself in words. Your voice and tone also play a role in differentiation—it makes you unique and helps you stand out from your competition, even if (shh…) ultimately you offer the exact same thing.
״Your voice and tone is the extension of your brand personality, setting how you communicate your message and connect with your target audience.״
Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s “7-38-55 rule” is often cited in the context of public speaking or communicating with people verbally. While the exact numbers are disputed, the premise is that tone of voice, facial expressions, and non-verbal communication account for 93% of a speaker’s impact on their audience. The same is true in UX writing and design. The words you use are part of a complete package that also includes layout, organization of information, colors, fonts, and images you use.
The way you talk to your customers can make them feel welcome, reassure them if they’re having difficulty, and bring them back to your company again and again.
Types of Voice and Tone
There’s a lot that goes into a brand’s tone of voice, but most companies consider aspects like these:
- Formality (casual or formal)
- Enthusiasm (enthusiastic or matter-of-fact)
- Respectfulness (irreverent or respectful)
- Humor (funny or serious)
- Professionalism (professional or personal)
- Establishment (traditional or innovative/cutting-edge)
- Accessibility (luxury/exclusive or accessible to all)
In each category, your brand is likely to lean more to one side of the spectrum or the other. How you show up in your writing will depend on your product, business goals, and audience, so it’s essential to be clear on all these before deciding on your voice and tone.
Many brands and products these days choose to make humor (or even a little irreverence) part of their brand voice and UX copy. For some brands, it’s really effective and relatable for users. Slack and MailChimp, for example, are known for being playful in their copy.
Mailchimp voice and tone example:
But humor isn’t a good fit for all brands and scenarios. Generational, cultural, and language barriers can prevent people from understanding the jokes. If users don't get the humor, it could turn them off, lower engagement and retention, and reduce sales. That’s why it’s important to understand your audience and define your voice and tone accordingly.
Differences between voice and tone
As mentioned before, your voice represents your brand’s personality and should remain constant across your website, digital products, and marketing materials. It speaks to your company’s worldview. On the other hand, tone can fluctuate depending on the user’s mood and what they are trying to accomplish.
Think of it this way: You have a particular way of speaking that others would usually recognize. Are you going to ask your boss for a raise in the same manner you’d ask a friend to go out for drinks? Probably not. Similarly, in an app, you won’t speak the same way when your user is concerned about entering their health details as you would when you congratulate them on making a purchase.
Take Starbucks, for example. Their voice is generally friendly and helpful. They use clear, functional language to guide customers through ordering, but they’re not afraid to insert a little personality elsewhere with the intent of evoking emotion and making users smile. (They even describe it as Functional and Expressive. See the difference between “Join today” and “Awww yes.”)
Likewise, Slack is known for conversational copy.
But when it comes to privacy, they understand it’s a little more sensitive, so while it’s still friendly and informal, the language is a little more matter-of-fact and buttoned-up.
How to set your voice and tone
- Define your brand’s voice based on a clear understanding of your brand identity and your target audience:
- What are your vision, mission, and values?
- What do you stand for?
- What are the key messages you and your product are trying to get across?
- How do you want users and customers to feel when they encounter your brand
- Map out the different scenarios in which you encounter (or expect to encounter) your users and their corresponding state of mind:
- Are they excited about what your app does? Is your app exactly what they’ve been looking for all this time?
- Alternatively, is your product something they are being told to use, maybe by their workplace or their doctor, rather than choosing it themselves?
- What are their pain points—both related to your product and to the general space in which you’re operating?
- Are they skeptical?
- Are they likely to be or get frustrated?
- Put it together: Draw a link between what you stand for and what your users are feeling and looking for (whether they know it or not).
Let’s say your mission is to help parents find babysitters and your values are trust, safety, care, and professionalism. And let’s say your target audience is new parents who are worried about leaving their little one with someone else, but are also very tired and need a break.
Your voice is: trustworthy, caring, professional
Your tone is: warm, reassuring, patient, aware, and informative
Defining your product’s voice and tone can elevate the user experience
Before they venture into product design and development, brands need to put a lot of thought into who they are, who their users are, and the messages they want to get across.
Planning ahead is essential if you want to evoke certain emotions, keep people inside your products longer, and serve them effectively. First, you need to understand the problems users face and the solutions they need. Then, when you get to know your audience’s culture, behaviors, interests, and the language they use, you can develop a tone of voice that will build trust, confidence, and loyalty.
Once you’ve decided how you want to sound and tailored it to different scenarios throughout your user journey, establish guidelines and mechanics (outlining, for example, terminology; how you’ll use contractions, pronouns, and industry jargon; and creating standardized copy for different components) to help writers understand your tone and use it consistently.
When you meet your users where they are and include the right empathy, information, and entertainment, they’re more likely to become satisfied, repeat users and recommend your products to others.
Looking to manage your UX copy from design to production, with full context and while maintaining a consistent voice and clear documentation? Try Frontitude for free or book a demo to learn more about what Frontitude can do for your team.
Merav Levkowitz is an expert copy and UX writer, speaker, and consultant. On any given day, you can find her writing copy for health apps, fintech platforms, and everything in between. She’s fluent in 6 languages (and counting!).