How Words Help Solve Digital Problems
Writing for products and experiences means taking a user-first approach.
If I asked you to name a sub-par experience you’ve had recently on a website or app, how many examples could you come up with?
Maybe you received a poorly-worded notification from your mortgage servicing company that led you to believe your mortgage payment was about to double.
Maybe you tried to log in to your retirement account to check your 401(k) balance, but got a message that said, “Your account is locked. Please contact your HR department.”
Maybe you were just trying to do your taxes, but TurboTax kept trying to upsell you.
After clicking “This does not apply to me,” I landed on this page…again.
Negative digital experiences like these have a direct impact on brand value. Since language conveys a certain message and evokes certain feelings, these emotions and value judgements color our perception of whether a brand is trustworthy, credible, and dependable.
Language can evoke negative emotions, too, like stress, anxiety, or fear. We’ve seen that negative or inconsistent use of language eventually leads to user dissatisfaction, distrust, and abandonment. As Monty Majeed writes,
“Most often people don’t see that their content (or the lack of a proper content strategy) could lead to users abandoning their product. They don’t consider words as an important element in product design or they think of it as something that can be ‘fixed later.'”
But when your users are frustrated, annoyed, or confused, content can be the thing that fixes it now.
Designing the conversation
The experience design group at Ogilvy often sees websites that seem quite business-friendly. These sites use lots of industry terms, the most important (or most expensive) products are featured prominently, and company stakeholders are happy.
But your users might not be.
Think about it: Are you more likely to ignore a billboard if it’s shouting at you, or if it’s telling you information you really need to know? That’s the difference between business goals and user needs.
To make measurable strides in improving the digital experience, we strive to balance the needs of the user with the goals of the business. Placing users at the center, we start each project by asking: What information does she need to know, and when does she need to know it? How can we explain this topic in words, phrases, and content that she will easily recognize and understand? (Hint: Recent studies show that even industry experts prefer content that’s written in clear and concise language.)
In other words, what will make for a useful, relevant, and satisfying conversation — one that will keep the user coming back?
Using language to connect with your users
Keeping the user coming back to the conversation means actually involving them in the conversation, and that means speaking their language. One of the most important ways you can do this is to develop and follow a strategic, consistent, and appropriate site voice. Tone is a variation of voice, dependent on the context of the experience – the tone of a help page is different than the tone of a news or events page, for example.
The Ritz-Carlton is a well-known example of a brand whose customer-first approach also translates into their digital presence. Ritz Carlton employees are referred to as “Gentlemen and ladies serving gentlemen and ladies.” One section of the website, titled “Let us stay with you,” is a collection of stories of how the Gentlemen and Ladies have provided exemplary service to hotel guests, whether by planning a surprise wedding proposal or diving to find a lost camera at the bottom of the ocean.
Slack is another excellent example of a company that uses its own unique sense of voice to connect with its users. By adopting a casual and direct approach, Slack demonstrates that they understand the value of time for their users, many of whom use Slack at work and need to be able to tackle many conversations at once. While adopting a serious tone where need be, there’s also plenty of whimsy and fun in Slack products, whether in a bot, message, or notification format.
Of course, not every brand is a luxury hotel or messaging app, but every brand does need to be able to communicate and connect with the people who use it most. Whether you know it or not, the words used and how they’re delivered have a huge impact on your customers’ experiences. Your brand has a voice, and as Polonius says in Act 1, Scene III of Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” We couldn’t agree more.
Using words to bring an experience to life
Words help solve digital problems by giving context clues to the user about when, why, and how they should participate in the experience. The right words in the right place delivered at the right time inspire trust, credibility, and next best actions.
Using thorough and deliberate word choices helps the user understand what the experience is about and what actions to take. All the words in an experience — from error messages, CTA buttons, and notifications, to headlines, page titles, and metadata — should be carefully chosen with the user in mind. Try to avoid words that the business uses internally, as well as any complex, unclear, or misleading terminology. Give the user the keys to understand what’s going to happen next, and why.
Words on a screen aren’t the only way to communicate with users. In the future where everything is integrated, user-centered language will be applied to AI, robots, and virtual reality. In fact, some could argue the future is already here.
As experience writers at Ogilvy, we’re acutely aware of the painful content problems users face. If you’re looking for someone who has a way with words, and who knows how to use those words to deliver compelling content for digital experiences, get in touch with us.
About the author
As an experience writer at Ogilvy, Jess combines content, language, and design to shape human-centered digital experiences. Previously she worked in Washington, D.C. as a political correspondent. Her hobbies include hip-hop, horticulture, and hummus.