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Brand can often be overused as a content term, but it can be overlooked as a content strategy. Plenty of folks rave about building their brand, promoting their company brand, creating brand recognition, and so on. But how many of those people actually consider the vast array of content channels that should be on-brand?
Yes, blog posts and other marketing collateral should reflect your brand, but you might be overlooking something else: your product’s user interface (UI). I’m not specifically referring to the colors, logos, and icons (although those brand elements are extremely important). I’m referring to the words in the UI. These words are usually called "microcopy" or "UX copy," and the act of creating them is called "UX writing."
UX writing is more than a "nice-to-have." Microcopy shouldn’t be tossed in real quick at the end of the design process, and it definitely shouldn’t be ambiguous, too formal, or overly technical. On-screen copy like
Error code 1234567 occurred—terminate application immediately is...not ideal. Leave those jargon-filled messages in the past. The microcopy of today needs to sound human. It needs to sound conversational. Above all, it needs to reflect your brand.
Easier said than done, right? That’s probably why UX writing has been called a unicorn skill. Many companies have entire teams of UX writers who are focused on writing microcopy, but if you’re not there yet, that’s OK. You can still create an amazing on-brand user experience with your words—and a touch of creative thinking. To get started, you need to learn about the importance of brand, the role of microcopy, and the influence of user research. Then it’s time for you to dive in and practice.
Your users need microcopy
Before you can consider your brand in your microcopy, you must first have a firm grasp on what microcopy is meant to do. It’s not technical documentation, and it’s not marketing copywriting. It can, however, draw inspiration from both of those areas.
Microcopy is meant to create a human interaction between people and products, ultimately making products easy to use and enjoyable. It serves a variety of purposes, like:
Helping users understand the product.
Helping make the product experience intuitive and seamless.
Guiding users through the product.
Informing users when something went wrong (or when something went right).
Introducing users to new tools and product areas.
Motivating users, reassuring users, and sometimes making them smile.
Microcopy can also help you have a nice return on investment, such as increased engagement, conversions, click-through rates, and user retention. Quite a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of a tiny number of words.
The importance of on-brand microcopy
While all (good) microcopy has the potential to achieve those lofty goals, not all microcopy looks or sounds the same. It largely depends on what company it’s for, but in general, microcopy should be clear, concise, and accessible while also conversational, friendly, and simple.
Then comes your brand.
Brand consistency is important. Imagine someone getting to know your brand voice through all the marketing content you put out there, but then they find cold and robotic microcopy on every screen of your product. That would be disappointing for both your company and your customers. So don’t just inject your brand voice into marketing content and then ignore it throughout your product’s microcopy.
UX writing style guide: Our main resource for staying on-brand
At Red Hat, we get a little creative with our microcopy efforts— we approach content with an open source mindset. Everyone on the User Experience Design (UXD) team gets to contribute.
With so many talented folks involved, we work together to make sure our content resources and guidelines are up to date and accurate. Everyone’s voice is heard in our team’s content strategy. As a result of this teamwork and group learning, we have our very own little content community, right on the UXD team. This sense of community helps us align behind the same content goals, including creating on-brand microcopy.
Style guides are a great way to help create consistency across content, especially when multiple people are writing it. We have an open source UX writing style guide that lives on the PatternFly site (PatternFly is Red Hat’s open source design system). Any UX professionals can use this style guide, in and outside of Red Hat. It covers information ranging from UX writing best practices and accessibility to the nitty-gritty like capitalization and punctuation.
Creating the brand voice section
One of the most important sections of the style guide is the brand voice section, which helps the team keep Red Hat’s brand voice in mind across products. It defines what Red Hat’s brand voice should sound like when applied to the user experience, and it gives advice to non-Red Hatters on crafting a brand voice of their own.
To create this section, I combed through Red Hat’s writing resources to learn more about our personas (aka, target users), our products, and our brand voice. Then I created voice traits as extensions of the Red Hat voice:
The Red Hat voice is helpful but humble (not arrogant), so our microcopy should be friendly.
The Red Hat voice is authentic but adaptable (not stubborn), so our microcopy should be approachable.
The Red Hat voice is open but ordered (not chaotic), so our microcopy should be collaborative.
The Red Hat voice is brave but balanced (not reckless), so our microcopy should be inventive.
Next I created "Voice Do and Don’t" charts to define what these voice traits mean and how they should be used in the UI:
Friendly: Our #1 focus is the user. We make them feel welcome and create a sense of belonging and understanding.
Approachable: People are comfortable engaging with us. We’re open to listening and changing our ways when better ideas come along.
Collaborative: We embody Red Hat’s open source mission with our collaborative working style and our sense of community.
Inventive: We have a fearless edge, challenging the assumption that UX is for a niche group of techies. We’re also not afraid to share our ideas and welcome new ones.
I then conducted multiple UXD team trainings to introduce these traits and show some before and after wording so that my teammates could see the difference between off-brand and on-brand microcopy.
But the learning didn’t end there. I manage a content request system, where UXD team members can submit a request for microcopy collaboration on any project they’re working on. We also have a #content-help Slack channel, where we all chatter about content advice and ideas. Team resources and regular collaboration help reinforce the importance of microcopy and empower all UXD team members to write.
How you can get started
If you never considered brand voice in your product UI before (or if you don’t have a brand voice yet), now is a great time to get started.
Some of you might have some good corporate brand resources to use for creating your voice traits, charts, and style guide. But if you’re starting from scratch without any corporate brand voice, first consider your users. Work with your research and marketing teams to learn about your users/prospects and then craft your personas. Who are the people using your products every day? What do they care about, struggle with, and aspire to do? In addition to this new research, be sure to also look through existing user interviews, customer support cases, and other forms of user interactions.
Once you have the data and insights you need, craft your personas and share them with everyone in your company. Customers should be everyone’s top priority, so it’s important that everyone has access to this information
Your research isn’t over yet! You now need to learn more about these people:
Dig into your personas’ industries, especially industry-specific content. What seems to resonate with them?
Look through your own company’s social media interactions, support cases, blog comments, and other forms of user content. How do your users sound, and what words do they use?
Review past content that performs well. Identify trends to see what made people like it so much.
Review your organization’s corporate values. What’s important to your company?
Analyze those insights to identify what words reflect your company and connect with your users. Use that information to craft your voice traits and Voice Do and Don’t charts. You can then build off of this information to create a style guide. Over time, you should regularly conduct user testing with your microcopy and fine-tune your style guide as needed. Microcopy guidelines are never a one-and-done deal.
Unity, consistency, and authenticity
The next time you think of your brand, try to envision all your content touchpoints, even those outside of marketing. Chances are, your users spend an awful lot of time with your products, and—depending on your business model—they pay for them, too. So don’t make your users read convoluted blocks of technical jargon in the UI. Focus on creating a unified, authentic, and consistent experience with all aspects of your brand: the colors, the images, the icons, and especially the words. Your users expect nothing less.
Learn more about on-brand microcopy in PatternFly’s brand voice and tone guidelines.
About the author
Abigael Donahue strives to make software more human, approachable, and accessible. As a content strategist, she combines her creative side with her technical and analytical skills to create growth strategies, content community, and seamless user experiences—while writing and editing along the way.