April 30, 2020

The Impact of Tone of Voice on the User Experience

Language is a large part of design, whether it's a website, mobile app, informational kiosk, wayfinding signage, or any information that people (aka users) need to interact with. And just like any other part of the interface, tone of voice can affect the user's experience with your product or service.  Words can either delight or dissatisfy your users. Which would you rather do?

What is Tone of Voice?

According to Nielsen Norman Group, there are four primary tone of voice dimensions (also explained in the video embedded above). The four dimensions are:

  1. Funny vs. serious: Is the writer trying to be funny? Or is the subject approached in a serious way?
  2. Formal vs. informal: Is the writing formally? Informally?
  3. Respectful vs. cheeky: Does the writer approach the subject in a respectful way? Or does she take an irreverent approach?
  4. Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact: Is the organization excited about the service or product, or the information it conveys? Or is the writing straightforward?

Choosing the Correct Tone of Voice

How do you decide on the correct tone of voice for your product or service? As with all good UX design, you start at the beginning and get to know your users and empathize with their problems and pain points. This can be achieved by interviewing your users. After you know the basics about your users including things like geographic location, level of education, and tech-savviness.

Nicely Said bookAuthors, Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee write in their book Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose that great voice does several things:

  • It puts users (customers) first.
  • It reflects the company’s culture.
  • It is lively, human, and appropriate.
  • It doesn’t sacrifice clarity for personality.
  • It evolves over time.

The written content on your website or mobile app should be helpful and informative for your users; and reflect your brand's personality, mission, and goals. The tone of voice may change depending on the user's emotional state (are they happy, sad, neutral, angry, etc.?) The tone should change with your user's emotions so that it is appropriate for the situation otherwise the experience may feel offputting.

Think about what tone of voice would be appropriate in the following circumstances:

  • A person is at a hospital to visit a loved one. They don't know where to go and approach the digital map kiosk.
  • Your website sells very high-end jewelry, especially engagement rings.
  • Most of the visitors to your mobile app are children.

It's evident that a different tone of voice would be used in each of these circumstances. The hospital kiosk should use a tone of voice to take into consideration that the user may be sad or worried on top of their confusion of being lost in a large, unfamiliar place. On the Nielsen Norman Group tone of voice dimension scales, it would be appropriate for the hospital kiosk to take a more serious tone, that's formal, but not too formal, that is very respectful and matter-of-fact. You would want the user to feel supported, cared for, and most importantly informed.

For the website that sells expensive jewelry and engagement rings, it's most likely that a more serious, formal, respectful, and enthusiastic tone of voice would be appropriate since people are going to be spending on a lot of money. The tone of voice should make them feel important, secure, and well taken care of.

"The superlative beauty of our engagement rings is the result of the highest quality standards and an obsession with creating the most exquisite diamonds at every step." from Tiffany.com

And finally for the mobile web app intended for children. Even if the app has an educational purpose, the tone of voice may lean more towards being fun or at least light-hearted rather than completely serious. In addition, a children's app would most have a tone of voice that is more informal, a good balance between respectful and cheeky, as well as between enthusiastic and matter-of-fact. The language should be fun, educational, and engaging.

Think about your product or service. How does your current tone of voice fall on the scales above? Do you think that it's appropriate for your users or that it should be adjusted? Does your answer change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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