When working in a bureaucratic or government setting, formal language and tone can differ greatly from how people normally communicate. Consequently, users experience problems and frustration gaining access to these essential, everyday services.

At LB*, we understand the challenges of good communication, especially in the digital world of expert environments. However, we can’t expect our clients to drop their customs and simply use easy-to-understand lingo overnight. As content in digital products is an integral part of any design, we act as the mediator between businesses and users. We spot gaps through which we can get clarity into digital bureaucracy. So what can be done to write better, intuitive UX copy?

1. Out-of-sync voice and tone

Maintaining a consistent voice across different channels and for diverse audiences can be challenging. Content may originate from policy makers, subject matter experts, designers, marketers, developers, or business analysts. A cohesive voice and tone are essential for upholding brand credibility. Any disparity between them risks confusing and eroding trust among the audience. But what if you're unsure about defining your brand's tone?

Solution: Brand voice workshop

Imagine that your brand is a person, then write down their personality traits: how they behave around others, their sense of humour (indeed if they are supposed to have one), and so on. You can even describe their dressing style, hobbies, personal preferences, anything that will help you characterise their personality and from it – how they talk.

For instance, Microsoft’s brand voice is defined as follows:

  • Warm and relaxed – We’re natural. Less formal, more grounded in real, everyday conversations. Occasionally, we’re fun. (We know when to celebrate.)
  • Crisp and clear – We’re to the point. We write for scanning first, reading second. We make it simple above all.
  • Ready to lend a hand – We show customers we’re on their side. We anticipate their real needs and offer great information at just the right time.

Once the voice and tone guideline is tested and ready for use, distribute it to all content creators representing the brand, including content designers, writers, editors, marketers, and designers, to gather feedback.

If you're unsure about how to conduct a workshop like this, don't hesitate to message us for assistance in discovering your brand's tone.

2. Inconsistent UX copy

We often observe inconsistencies in punctuation, acronyms, jargon, or technical terms across channels and products within the same brand. This can lead to confusion and misalignment. To address this, initiate a process to standardise language rules within your company.

Solution: Content style guide

How apologetic do we want to be in our writing? Should we use words “sorry” and “please” always or only sometimes? It’s all up to the consensus in your organisation – between you, your colleagues and stakeholders.

Start by documenting current practices within your company. If you identify inconsistencies, establish rules for how you believe they should be addressed. This initiative can proceed even without a defined brand voice (point 1), though having a predetermined tone can be beneficial. When uncertain, discuss proposed rules with stakeholders, ensuring the main decision-maker is clear.

Once you agree on rules, document them. A simple list of dos and don’ts will do. Besides grammar rules and date & time formats, define which components you would like to use for conveying specific messages. For instance, avoid expressing a neutral notification through a bold, red warning message full of exclamation marks. Having such guidelines makes UX writing easier, providing a reference when uncertain.

A guide like this is a living document, it’s alright to start small even with ten rules or fewer. You can always update it and add to it later.

3. Content not tailored to the target persona

Websites are not books and people don't read every word. Websites require content that users can quickly skim for relevant information. The general rule is to follow the context and the impact of the action the user takes. Governmental or bureaucratic environments regularly give legal texts more space based on their impact. Despite the fact that short texts are pleasing to read, in some situations the user needs more in-depth confirmation and reliable information.

Solution: Usability testing

After a long week of onsite design sprint in The Hague with the European Patent Office, we conducted testing sessions to observe how legal professionals interacted with our new solution. To enhance a specific confirmation screen's accuracy in legal procedure, we rewrote a neutral blunt message into a more specific statement providing clearer actions. The confirmation screen read: “We’ve received your submission. Please wait until we reply to you back as soon as possible.”

During testing, we discovered that patent lawyers, in-house counsels, and paralegals meticulously scrutinise details. In five sessions, all our respondents paused at the confirmation screen – expecting an immediate reply. The text read ‘we would reply as soon as possible’, however, in reality it would take weeks.

This particular example demonstrates the importance of precision in writing for your target audience. Not everyone skims pages. Sometimes they are expert users (lawyers, scientists, medics…) and they might behave differently than other groups.

Needless to say, usability tests during the design process can save a lot of uncertainty and validate most hypotheses – including copy testing.

Clarity can exist (even in bureaucracy)

Sometimes, entrenched norms are hard to shift because stakeholders struggle to envision alternative approaches. However, clear language forms a cornerstone of accessible products and services. So if you sense your users and customers will benefit from it, don’t hesitate to start changing things.

Start by enhancing communication clarity with colleagues through enforced collaboration and involving diverse roles in the product design process. Remain mindful of the target persona in every use case and utilise user testing heavily. And don’t forget to document rules and stove for organisational alignment. If I’m ever to be helpful, connect with me.