Every interaction matters. Every line of marketing copy, every error message, every release note of every update is a chance to build a stronger relationship with your users. When building a personality for your company or your brand, how do you create or nurture a sense of the real people behind the product – and how do you scale it?
Over the last couple of years at Slack, Anna Pickard has been wrestling with how to solidify, sharpen and scale the brand voice: From style guides to grammar-bots, workshops to weekly office hours — to tapping into the shared characteristics and values, and the cultural channels and stories that help unlock them. So that users know they’re hearing from the same company — even if several people are typing.
Anna does words. Officially, she’s the Creative Director of Voice and Tone… and her job is to make Slack feel Slack-y.
Slack has grown a lot while Anna has been doing this – when she started there was no marketing team. There are lots of reasons she feels have made Slack successful – and feel friendly.
When you join Slack, Slackbot welcomes you. It tells it’s a bot and then asks your name and suggests you upload an avatar. While it’s a very simple script, it helps people get into the right mode: “this is a space in which you have conversations”. So from the beginning there is a humanity, a “human-ness” to Slack.
All their copy is driven by being human. They use various things like welcome messages, release notes, twitter posts and in-app error messages to reinforce the fact there are real humans making the product.
Caveat: these are not universal truths. Anna has been making it up as she goes along. All she can tell you is what happened at Slack and what did or didn’t work for them.
She worked on a game called Glitch where she had to do odd things like write dialogue for pigs. The game unfortunately died, so she ended up working on Slack.
Until Anna joined, the CEO had been doing all the writing – product, blogs, everything ‘wordsy’. To hand this over to Anna, he peppered her with things and saying “we don’t sound like this!” (example of a huge slab of text full of buzzwords). That’s a good way to start, but it doesn’t give you what you do sound like. It’s also quite negative and doesn’t scale, because people can’t follow the rules – it’s like saying “I’ve hidden three fist-sized diamonds on the planet. They’re not in your laundry cabinet…”
So you take the ‘nots’ and flip them around
Anna did a ‘this but not that’ list:
- Confident (never cocky)
- Witty (but not silly)
- Informal (but appropriate)
- Intelligent (always treat others as intelligent, too)
- Friendly (but not ingratiating)
- Helpful (never overbearing)
- Clear, concise and human.
It was thorough – they have a full guide just for writing Twitter posts. They do break their own rules occasionally too – “we do not LOL….except sometimes because it’s funny”.
But people had trouble following it and sometimes people sounded robotic rather than human. Anna had put down these guidelines, why did people sound like a pale imitation of what they were supposed to sound like?
You have to have a reason to follow rules. You can try to condense things down to a tiny set of rules (this is how we do release notes…) but it probably won’t get a consistent result. People need to know what their motivation is, what the purpose and goal is for the thing they are writing.
A great example was this error:
People tend to screenshot and share this error message. Somehow they’ve been stopped doing their work, and come out of the moment delighted. There’s empathy – the user’s annoyance is noted and the developers’ frustration is also shared. There are real people behind this who aren’t happy with what’s happening either.
How to encourage empathy – ask these questions:
- Who am I talking to?
- What emotional state are they in? – describe the state in emoji if it helps. Exactly which angry are they?
- What is the context (frequency, placement)? – if people will see a message 18 times a day, strip all jokey tone out of it; if they will see it just once, go for it
- What do I want them to take away from this?
Be courteous – say things as politely and concisely as you can, then get out of the way.
Example: “Welcome to the new and improved Posts!” with “Tell me more” and “I’ll figure it out” buttons.
Slack also coaches users to be courteous – if you’re about to use @channel, “you are about to notify 38 people in 10 time zones. Are you sure?”. From the product design point of view, is this point of friction necessary? Do we need to take the user out of their flow to tell them something?
Craftsmanship. Set aside ego! Be prepared to work with others, explain reasoning behind decisions
- Is this as good as I can make it?
- Whose work am I representing?
- Can someone help make this better?
- Does this deserve the word “deluxe”?
Why “deluxe”? The emoji picker is not an emoji picker, it’s “Emoji Deluxe™”. There was a funny conversation about choosing the word “deluxe” where someone explained the feeling in emoji.
Playfulness – it’s not just about throwing emoji everywhere. It’s about playing the game as best we can, then playing it better. Have a spirit of play, look at things with Child Mind. (Example of the user suggesting you change your name to ‘Viper’… so they all did and it was indeed confusing)
Release notes – they list things out in detail, to acknowledge in a way that they impacted users. It also subtly teaches people what they can do in the product. They write the notes with enough charm that people want to read them, perhaps even share them. Not too much charm, not over the top – just Minimum Viable Charm! They do it in solidarity with the people they work with.
They say nice things. They say things that make you feel a little better. Like a tweet “It’s all good. You’ve got this. :balloon:”
The culture turned inward makes the product. The culture turned outward makes the brand.
Having created fairy dust that could be sprinkled over any new copy, Anna discovered people were going nuts and doing too much. They needed to tone it back down. One ladybird in your house is cute, but a million of them is terrifying.
“If you work for this company, you are part of the voice of the company.” But you don’t have to throw everything at every single interaction.
(slide: diagram of modulating voice and tone to the correct level. the glowing middle box is the product. the most oomphed-up section is social media, parties and events.) They’ve had people wanting to inject lots of personality into an analyst deck that needed to be really serious.
They do “magic hour” twice a week where people can come in for a few minutes for advice on the copy they are writing. People say “thanks for your magic” but mostly they’re just fresh eyes.
Some aspects of voice and tone are subtle. When you autocomplete emoji, :th should go to thumbs down first; but they actually set thumbs up as the default because they presume people want to be positive more than they want to be negative.
- Words are powerful. You should weigh each one. You can change peoples’ experience but you can also cause harm.
- Words are hard. They’re not impossible, we all use words.
- Meet people where they are.
- Do the work. Be courteous, don’t present anything where the user needs to guess what you meant.
- Make sense. Clarity over correct grammar.
- Make room for joy.
- Have character, but never let that overwhelm the content.
- Surpass expectations. A little surprise and delight.
- Know when to stop.
Mentioned: Slack took out a full page ad in the NYT (“Sometimes we are provocative and sometimes we are serious. We also wanted to tell our big customers that we were serious and here to stay.”)
There’s a sense that anything that is not engineering is marketing. Every time you talk to a customer, by any means, it’s basically marketing.
Help the user with their story, don’t pull them into yours. Do things for them, not yourselves.