How to find your voice

Guest Blogger

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Kah Chan is the head of product design at Flick Electric Co — an electricity provider based in Wellington, New Zealand. Over his many years at Flick, he's had a hand in everything from product, design, digital ads and more. Before his talk at UX New Zealand 2017, Kah shares some advice on finding a voice.

If you have to explain it, it’s not funny.

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When you reduce your bandwidth of communication to just text on a screen, the words and phrases we choose to talk to our users (our voice) can convey tone, mood and personality. While the maxim “93% of communication is nonverbal” is often misquoted, our voice goes a long way. How many times have you had someone on the other end of an e-mail miss the implied smiley face? What would happen when you have to be so concise to the point of being terse because you’re working to a 320px screen and you only get 24 characters across before that font choice becomes illegible? There’s a richness in communication that gets lost when we’re rushed, distracted, or simply having to strike a balance within design or technical limitations.

In lieu of more elegant, ideal solutions where you don’t have to explain how to progress to the next screen or fill in the form or DO THE THING — labels, signs and other pieces of micro copy (errors and loading screens are some of my favorites) are all opportunities to present a consistent character in your voice. These little pieces of text have the capacity to inform, direct, reassure, entertain or annoy, frustrate, or confuse the person on the other end of the screen or sign.

Maybe you need your copy to be authoritative (if it’s a sign saying “Keep out!”). Maybe you need it to be friendly, but authoritative (when discussing Ts and Cs). Maybe you need it to sound trustworthy and full of integrity (collecting payments, or presenting scientific facts). Sometimes it might need to be snarky and passive-aggressive (such as your “I’m so offended, but I’m going to be polite” sign you leave your colleagues in the shared office kitchen).

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A couple of other examples on the Flick Choice app that I hope you never see, but if you do, that it at least is entertaining.

Or maybe you’re just trying to let people know where your office is and that they don’t need to get into the smallest elevator in the CBD, while keeping your message on brand.

how-to-find-voice-3.png@FlickElectricCo’s sign in the lobby - leave no opportunity to show your personality untapped.

5 quick and easy steps to a more consistent voice:

  1. Read (a lot). You can’t write in a consistent voice unless you have a good base to draw from. Yes, comic books count as reading. No, scrolling your Twitter feed does not.
  2. Ask who is it for? Time to bust out those personas — thinking about  people who use your product should help you choose the right tone. How would you choose to describe a technical issue to your mum versus a colleague who is a developer?
  3. Figure out what you’re trying to say. Clarify what you intend to convey: is it important? Does it need to sound legal? Funny is good, but it’s not the only way. Would your lecturer say “Lit AF bruh”. (Actually, they might be more down with the yoof than you think). How would Lisa Simpson convey her approval?
  4. Embrace diversity. Maybe some things you find funny are actually offensive. In most cases tech-bro meme jokes are not the best way to get your point across. Run your copy past other members of the organization too — not just the design or tech team. UX is a team effort, from call center to CEO. The wider you cast this net, the more diverse perspectives you’ll capture before the product gets released. This means that you'll reduce the chances of your message getting misinterpreted by different groups of people.

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  5. Care about the words. Boilerplate (or default template) copy are missed opportunities of delighting your users in opportune moments, and form a key part of the mise-en-scene of your product. Check out the examples above from the Flick Electric Co Choice app, or the little bit of direction on our sign in our lobby.

You’ve crafted your copy, the tone is consistent across the product, now how do you get the rest of the organisation on-board? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for circulating this knowledge. Share key pieces of copy by printing them out on the wall, have templates that the team can use if they have to send stuff out consistently, and if practical, have one central person monitor important pieces of copy before they go out. 

There’s also the fun part of choosing the right typeface to complement your copy, but you know that part already.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you'd like to hear what Kah has to say about voice and language, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2017 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 11-13 October including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. 

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