Design & Product

Shaping Brand Personality through UX Writing

Manaal Oomerbhoy shares how UX writing shapes the personality of an upcoming digital newsroom platform

NinetyOne is a collaborative platform and workflow management tool for editors, journalists and content creators. It is the back-end that will support FiftyTwo, an online publication for long-form journalism that will tell Indian stories to the world, one in-depth article a week. 3 Sided Coin is building both products ground-up.

The Challenge

Our goal was to go beyond generic, functional language and give the product a distinctive personality using words and illustrations.

How could we use the words in the interface as opportunities to delight or amuse users without sacrificing clarity or usefulness? Could we bypass a forgettable, plain-Jane tonality and instead, adopt the allure of a captivating, charming-Chitra?

The Process

We started by creating a set of voice and tone guidelines to define the personality of the product. The chapter on voice and tone design from UX writer Kinneret Yifrah’s book Microcopy was very useful, as was Scott Kubie’s excellent Writing for Designers.

Exhibit A: Excerpt from brand guidelines

This ensured that we were all on the same page when it came to brand personality and there would be no unexpected surprises later down the line. Or if there were, we would have some agreed-upon guiding principles with which to resolve issues, instead of personal preferences or dislikes.

Inhabiting the mind of the character defined by the brand personality was not an easy task, despite the fact that I occasionally freelance as a journalist and therefore have some first-hand experience of editors.

Here’s what I did to think like a cerebral, friendly and occasionally dark-humoured editor:

  1. I constantly referred back to the voice and tone document. I kept it open in front of me at all times instead of adding to my cognitive load by trying to remember it.
  2. I searched for online forums to see what kind of language and tonality journalists and editors use when speaking to each other.
  3. I created a word bank of “journalism-y” words, (trawling Reddit forums and journalistic best practices pages, buried in the footers of media organisations)

My first round of writing was far from perfect. However, the screen below stood out as having achieved the right tonality –  conversational, friendly and matter of fact.

Exhibit B: The screen, showing empty state for the discussion tab within a story workspace, hit the right tonality

Based on feedback from the rest of the team and inspired by this one particular screen, I went back to the drawing board to write, edit and re-write.

The Illustrations

The illustrations for NinetyOne were done after the voice and tone of the product were defined and the microcopy written.

Without a clear and shared definition of the identity of a product, a visual designer works in a vacuum which may lead to inconsistencies and not match with the personality of a brand.

With the creation of the voice and tone guidelines and the resultant messaging, our designer was able to confidently conceptualise the illustrations. We made a conscious decision to portray both men and women and have our illustrated people be dark-skinned (even though dark grey is pretty much no one’s colour in real life).

Exhibit C: Example of a loading message that brings out the ‘dark humour’ of the brand personality (written pre-Covid but especially relevant today)

The Learnings

  1. Consistency is key for establishing trust. I had not originally included rules on formatting, grammar and capitalisation in the voice and tone document.  As I started writing, I realised the need for this. For example, guidelines about using sentence case on buttons and in headings. 
  2. Do a brain dump to go beyond basic. Writing something is better than writing nothing at all – in fact, it is often a necessary first step. It also helped me move past early ideas that can be too basic and even clichéd.
  3. Getting feedback early and often from team members was crucial. I had to overcome my uncertainty at showing early attempts of imperfect work and recognise that feedback helped me refine my efforts efficiently and in time.
  4. Personality can and should vary, depending upon context. Every interaction does not need to be clever. In the majority of cases, being matter-of-fact and friendly was prioritised over being witty or humorous, although all of these values are part of the brand personality.

Going Live

Testing microcopy is an important part of the UX writing process. As this project is still work-in-progress, we have not yet been able to measure any metrics. Once the product is live, we will look at metrics such as drop-offs during the on-boarding process, ease of navigating through the product and others.

We’ve had a lot of fun working on this project and are excited for it to be put to use in the near future.

Illustration and motion design by Kasturi Singh

One Comment

  1. excellent article — thank you! I am UX writer for a national financial planning firm and am trying to find ways to add a touch of personality to our UI — which is packed with detailed info about accounts and assets and other very serious meaty stuff. You’ve given me some good ideas…

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