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In this chapter, We're gonna learn about what voice and tone actually are and why they matter so much for our product teams. Plus, we'll talk about how we can keep the voice and tone going when we localize for different languages and cultures.

Human connections and brand personalities

We all know that people tend to hit it off with others who are similar to them. This shared connection leads to stronger relationships. On the flip side, when we meet someone who's really different, our natural response is to be cautious and keep our distance until we get to know them better. The same thing goes for brands and their personalities.

When a brand has a personality we can relate to, we feel good around it and are more likely to stick around. But if a brand's personality feels alien to us, it's going to have a tough time winning us over. Brands don't have much time to make an impression, so being seen as 'different' can be seen as a major downside.

It's about staying consistent, too

Inconsistency in a brand's personality can be a trust killer, and a lot of times, it happens on a subconscious level. If a brand seems to change its personality all the time, people might think it's sketchy or unreliable, and they'll probably choose something else instead. So, it's important for brands to have a solid and consistent voice and personality.

In the next sections, we'll dig deeper into voice and tone, see how brands create their brand voice, and tackle the challenges and strategies for keeping that voice and tone on point during localization.

Learning with Friends

As we've said, brand personalities are pretty similar to people's personalities. To make it fun, Let's take a look at an example of a well-known character: Ross Geller from the TV show "Friends."

Note: If you're not familiar with the character, there's a short video to help you in the lesson recording.

So, what do we know about Ross?

Ross is definitely the bookish, scholarly type. He loves learning and showing off his smarts to others. That means he might throw around some fancy words and complex ideas to impress people.

He's also super into facts and hard evidence, not so much the spiritual stuff. So when he talks, he's always backing up what he says with facts.

On top of that, Ross is pretty opinionated. He's not afraid to speak his mind, even if his views aren't popular. He stands by his beliefs and won't budge on his principles.

And let's not forget, Ross is a sensitive guy. He's open about his feelings and emotions, whether he's been hurt or he's over the moon.

All these traits make up the Ross Geller package, shaping how he sounds when he talks.

If Ross were a real person, you'd totally pick up on these vibes when chatting with him. You'd just know he's bookish, fact-driven, opinionated, and sensitive, even if he doesn't say it outright.

We used a TV character for this exercise, but the same idea applies to anyone you know. Think about your friends, family, or even other TV or book characters. You'll notice their personalities come through when they speak. Pick someone you know or a character you like and analyze how their personality shows up in their voice. It's pretty fascinating.

Creating a brand personality

Alright, so we've seen that both people and brands have their own personalities that shine through their voices. But here's the catch: unlike us humans, brands can actually pick their personalities.

For us, our personality is shaped by our life experiences, the places we've been, and the people we've met. But when it comes to brands, their personality is totally made up from scratch.

Usually, the brand voice is a result of a brand's positioning strategy.

Look at this example, by Robert Kaminski on LinkedIn:

He shows three apps that have very similar capabilities: Slack, Discord, and Teams. All of them are instant messaging apps, but there's a significant difference in positioning. Slack is meant for companies aiming for flexible, fast growth. Discord is meant for individuals who want to chat to their friends and social network. And Teams is for large-scale enterprises looking for a stable communciation channel for their team members. Those same positioning choices impact the voice of the brand, too.

This is where the magic of branding agencies or voice experts comes in. They dive deep into research to create the perfect brand personality and voice. They'll check out stuff like:

  • The market where the brand is trying to make a mark

  • The potential users or customers the brand wants to vibe with

  • The brand's vision and what they want to achieve

  • And other factors that might play a role in shaping the brand's personality

Based on all this research, they'll pick the personality traits that work best for the brand's goals and really click with the target audience. The goal is to make users feel connected to the brand, so they keep coming back and even recommend it to others.

Different brands have different voices because they're aiming to connect with other kinds of audiences or send out unique messages. So, it's super important to create a brand personality that hits the right notes with the right people and helps the brand reach its goals.

Comparing brands: Nike vs. University of Leeds

Let's look at some examples from a branding perspective (we'll get to UX later). We've got two very different brands here: Nike and the University of Leeds.

Nike is all about making you feel strong and capable. Their voice is super inspirational and impactful. Their mission statement has phrases like "championing continual progress," "helping athletes reach their potential," and "leaving an enduring impact."

You can see this in their ads, like "Twice the guts, double the glory," "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything," and "Find your greatness." These messages are powerful and motivating. They use short, punchy sentences to make a strong impact. And let's not forget their iconic slogan: "Just do it."

Now, let's contrast that with the University of Leeds. They want to be seen as friendly, imaginative, straightforward, and confident. Their goal is to provoke "a collaborative approach to knowledge, making a positive impact on individuals and society."

They've put a lot of effort into their brand voice, more than most educational institutions. Let's check out some examples from their copy:

You can see it's friendly, confident, and straightforward.

Then, a cookie banner that reads,

Again, it's friendly, straightforward, and confident.

And finally, a more imaginative example:

You can feel the optimistic, imaginative vibe, while still being friendly, straightforward, and confident.

Both Nike and the University of Leeds have unique brand personalities that resonate with their target audiences. They've made sure to keep their voices consistent across all their communications, creating a strong brand identity that their audience can relate to.

Understanding voice in UX: The Duolingo example

We've seen that for brands like Nike and the University of Leeds, their voice is consistent across ads, marketing campaigns, customer communications, social media, emails, and newsletters.

But when it comes to digital products, brand voices have an even bigger role to play: shaping the user experience.

A brand voice can make or break the user experience. It's crucial to match the voice with the users' expectations, depending on the context. For instance, Duolingo users expect a light and fun voice, while users signing up for a master's degree at an Ivy League university might expect a serious and educational tone.

Now, let's dive deeper into Duolingo's brand voice and see how it plays out in their app.

We've seen that their voice is defined by four characteristics: expressive, playful, embracing, and worldly. They've explained these characteristics in detail in their brand voice guidebook.

Let's break down these examples and see how Duolingo's brand voice shines through. Remember, their voice is expressive, playful, embracing, and worldly.

First up, the copy for starting a streak:

In this case, I see the expressive and embracing characteristics. They're excited for you, using an exclamation point to show it. They encourage you to keep going and form a healthy habit. It's like they're cheerleading for your success.

Next, when you reach your daily goal:

Here, we see playful and embracing. They're celebrating your achievements and making it fun by awarding points, like in a game. Duolingo does a fantastic job of "gamifying" the learning experience, creatively encouraging users to come back for more.

Finally, during onboarding:

In this example, I think they're showcasing their expressive and worldly traits. They're guiding users like a knowledgeable tour guide, using simple language to direct them towards the next step. They know what's important, and they're helping you get there.

As you can see, Duolingo's brand voice adapts to different situations, but their core characteristics remain consistent. It's all about understanding the context and tweaking the tone accordingly, while staying true to the brand's unique voice.

Also, notice that these brand voice characteristics can be subjective. The same trait, like "worldly" or "expressive," can mean different things for different brands. That's why brand voice guidelines need to be detailed and specific, explaining each trait and providing examples of how to convey it in writing.

Airbnb: Another great example

Now let's check out how another famous brand, Airbnb, nails their voice and tone in their digital product.

Airbnb's voice is defined by four characteristics: straightforward, inclusive, thoughtful, and spirited. Their brand book also emphasizes writing passionately about the sharing economy, being warm and inviting, avoiding cliches, getting straight to the point, and not being judgmental.

We'll analyze a couple of Airbnb screens to see how these traits show up in their content.

First, let's look at the hero content on Airbnb's homepage. Remember, the hero content is the first thing users see when they land on a web page.

In my opinion, "Let your curiosity do the booking" is a fantastic example of being straightforward and spirited. It's short, to the point, and yet still passionate, just as Airbnb intended.

Next, let's check out the search controls users see when trying to find a place to stay on Airbnb.

So, which of Airbnb's voice traits do you think are most prominent here?

I believe the search controls showcase the thoughtful and straightforward aspects of Airbnb's voice. By giving users the freedom to choose and customize their search options, Airbnb demonstrates thoughtfulness and puts users in control. At the same time, the controls are simple, clear, and easy to understand, staying true to the straightforward aspect of their voice. It's important to keep the text short and clear, especially when dealing with a lot of content, like in this case.

Why understanding brand voice matters to localizers

Alright, so now you know what brand voices are and how they work. But you might be wondering, "Why should I know this?" After all, you won't be the one creating the brand voice or tone. You'll be handed copy that's already been written. So why bother?

We've explored the power of brand voice in the user experience for digital products like Duolingo and Airbnb. These brands use voice characteristics like being expressive, playful, embracing, worldly, straightforward, inclusive, thoughtful, and spirited to engage their users and create a memorable experience.

To make your digital product stand out and resonate with users, it's crucial to define your brand's voice traits and consistently apply them throughout your content. By doing so, you'll be well on your way to crafting a captivating user experience.

But people from different cultures might perceive the same piece of copy differently. localizing UX copy is all about getting the brand voice right in your language. Cultural differences can make this a real challenge. Sometimes, you'll need to rewrite lines completely to maintain the brand voice in another language. And sometimes, you can nail the brand voice, but it might not go down well in your country. In that case, sticking to the original brand voice might not be the best move.

To create a successful localized user experience, it's crucial to consider the cultural context, language nuances, and users' expectations. This may involve adjusting the brand voice or even redefining some of its characteristics to make sure they resonate with the target audience. Remember, a brand voice is carefully crafted based on an in-depth understanding on the market, users, and competition. If you want to create copy that sounds like the brand in your language, you need to know the brand voice. It's also important so you can spot any content that might not be a good fit for your market.

That's why understanding and using brand voice effectively is key to creating engaging and relatable user experiences worldwide. By carefully crafting a brand voice that resonates with your target audience and adapting it through localization, you can ensure that your digital product delivers a consistent, relevant, and enjoyable experience for users worldwide.

Getting the brand voice: Two approaches

When it comes to understanding a brand's voice, you've got two options:

  • The team sends you the brand voice guidelines.

  • You figure it out yourself.

If the team sends you the guidelines, great! You'll get organized info that's exactly what the client wants. It might come in the form of a document, slideshow, or even a meeting to discuss the brand voice. This is the best-case scenario.

By the way, if you don't get a brand voice document, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Try and ask for it directly or through the project manager, if you're working with an agency. Sometimes, the brand voice is part of a larger brand book, so you can request that too.

Brand voice guidelines can take many forms: long, short, boring, creative, with or without examples. They might be PDFs, web pages, or even handwritten notes. But they'll always give you some insight into the brand's personality and voice characteristics.

Examples of brand voice guidelines include Starbucks' functional vs. expressive dimensions:

Shopify's clear, actionable instructions

Skype's freeform paragraph:

And Boston University's detailed table:

But sometimes, you just won't get those guidelines. Maybe the team doesn't have a written document, or they're unwilling to share it with external providers. In that case, you'll have to figure out the brand voice on your own.

To do this, look at key points of information like the company's goals and vision, current branding and content, and user information (if available). Google the company to learn about its objectives and direction. Examine their website, social media, and app copy. If you have access to user info, use that too. And don't forget to study the copy you've been given for localization.

By understanding and localizing brand voice, you'll create a UX copy that not only reflects the brand's identity but also resonates with users in your language. This will help you provide a memorable and engaging user experience, ensuring your client's success in a new market.

And that's where the real fun begins. It's time to put on your creative hat and start crafting copy that captures the essence of the brand voice in your language.

Extracting a brand voice: The Headspace example

Let's imagine we're localizing Headspace for different markets.

Headspace's vision is all about creating "A world where everyone is kind to their mind."

And their mission is "To transform mental healthcare, to improve the health and happiness of the world."

Their main app focuses on meditation and mindfulness, described as: "Everyday meditation and mindfulness content for stress, sleep, focus, movement, and more."

So, considering what we know about Headspace, how do you think their voice should come across?

Being an app centered around meditation, the copy should feel calming and warm. It should also come across as human and empowering. But it's not just about the word choice – the messaging matters, too.

Take their onboarding flow, for example – the first thing users see when they join the app.

Notice how soothing it is? They even anticipate that you might stress over picking "the right" option. So they're already reassuring you to choose one option FOR NOW and that you can explore others later.

And this calming vibe is consistent throughout the app. Check out this update message:

See how they avoid jargon, even in a legal message? Just by looking at it, you can tell the UX writing team put their hearts into this one.

They keep it relaxed and casual, too. "For your peace of mind, we made it super simple to review."

Then they give you the choice – they're basically saying, "You're in control. Want to take a look?"

Here's another example:

"Need a gentle nudge? Enable notifications to receive reminders to help you on your Headspace journey."

Here's what they're communicating:

These notifications are FOR YOU to help you. That's empathetic and human.

They'll be super gentle. That's calming and relaxing. And C - You're on a journey! You can do it. That's empowering.

So through their language and messaging, they convey that unmistakable Headspace vibe. And once you break down the brand like this, you can create localized copy that aligns with the brand voice.

Extracting a brand voice: The Lemonade example

Lemonade is an insurance startup aimed at a younger crowd. 63% of their users are between 25 and 34 years old, and all their users are 44 or younger.

On their about page, they say:

"We're a full-stack insurance carrier built to provide the best, most delightful, and most transparent insurance experience in the world.״

Lemonade's goal is to make insurance more approachable and easy, while also being fast and efficient.

Notice how they call themselves a "full stack" insurance carrier? "Full stack" is a tech term, meaning they handle the entire process. They're not just an agency selling insurance from another provider – they take care of it all.

In their About copy, they mention three objectives: best, most delightful, and most transparent.

"Best" is pretty generic, so it's hard to pinpoint what they mean. However, delightful and transparent are specific.

Based on these goals and the copy we see, we can tell they're all about being straightforward – no fluff or hidden agendas. Everything's out in the open.

At the same time, they keep things casual, human, and light. They ditch the confusing insurance jargon for simple, clear language. Let's dive deeper.

This screen is from their onboarding flow – the process users go through when they first visit or join. It says:

First off, it's very conversational and human. Not only the question but also the introduction – "hey" and putting a face and name to the interface.

Additionally, the answers aren't just a plain "yes" and "no"; users can choose between "yes" and "nope." The casual "nope" makes the interaction feel easygoing and non-intimidating.

This approach is consistent throughout the entire experience. For instance, in the text bubble:

Notice the contractions "isn't" and "They'll," as well as casual words like "stuff." No traditional insurance agent would ever say "stuff." This friendly, human tone makes them sound more like a helpful friend than a stuffy insurance agent – and that's the vibe they're aiming for.

Here's another example:

This is great. They start with a plain language version – "Your participation if something bad happens" – and only then add the technical term, "deductible."

It's super clear and easy to understand. Plus, it's transparent – they never hide behind jargon, always striving to make things simpler for users.

But what about the "delightful" aspect?

Sure, a lingo-free insurance company is delightful in itself, but they've claimed delightful as one of their core goals. So they need to up the delight factor.

We'll discuss when delighting users is beneficial versus when it becomes a burden in a moment.

However, social media is definitely a place where delight is welcome. Lemonade created an Instagram hashtag: #CoveredByLemonade. It's a play on words, referring to insurance coverage for belongings.

On their page, they say, "We cover your stuff," and post videos like this, where they literally cover items in Lemonade's signature pink paint.

it was a brilliant campaign that worked great to highlight that light, young tone of voice they were using throughout their communication.

Brand voices in localization

There are two main ways for companies to enter new markets: globalization and localization. And while many companies claim to do localization, they're actually doing globalization.

With globalization, a company uses the same brand voice in all markets. They translate their product into multiple languages, giving you some flexibility to tweak the copy for fluency. They might also adjust their UI based on local practices, leaving more space for longer languages or accommodating right-to-left languages like Arabic or Farsi.

These adjustments ensure the product technically works in other languages, but they don't go beyond that. There aren't significant changes to strategy, design, or brand to cater to each audience. Only surface-level changes are made.

That's because real localization requires more resources and significant investment in each market, which companies aren't always willing to commit. Often, it's not worth it for them since the products still function and users understand the copy, even if it's not 100% fluent and natural in their language.

A perfect example is AliExpress, which machine translates all their copy and still makes billions. Users don't care about the experience as much as they care about price.

Localization, on the other hand, involves fully adapting your product for each market. This approach often yields better results because our differences extend beyond language.

Recall the cultural dimensions theory we mentioned in the first lesson. While simplistic, it provides insight into how countries can differ. This theory covers aspects like power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and indulgence.

Understanding these cultural differences can influence a brand's voice in various countries.

Thankfully, while UI and design changes are challenging, adjusting the tone of voice is a one-time effort that can help companies shift from globalization to localization. Adapting the tone of voice to suit the local market can create a fluent experience with relative ease.

Once you determine the voice or receive it from the product team, consider how it will translate to your language and location.

For instance, Max Lanzarotti explains how informal English content can be perceived as too casual in French, so it's best to increase formality for the French market.

Spotify is another example of adapting voice. They found that Japanese users prefer a more educational and direct tone, while Indian users enjoy a playful and humorous tone. Combining an adapted tone of voice with visual design creates a unique experience for each audience.

Lastly, remember that formality levels vary across languages. In an article about tone of voice differences, Anu Carnegie Brown notes that Nordic languages use fewer polite words in their UX copy. So, even if a brand voice is extremely polite in English, it might not be the right choice for Danish or Finnish audiences.

Adjusting the tone ensures it feels fluent and natural in each language, creating a localized experience that stays true to the brand's values.

What if the brand voice isn't right for your market?

If you sense that something might not gel with the current brand voice, don't hesitate to voice your concerns.

Feel free to use any of the techniques we discussed in lesson 2. Your product team will value your input and cultural expertise, as it helps them tailor the brand voice to your specific market.

Remember to communicate your thoughts politely and back up your claims. Offer alternative solutions instead of just pointing out the issue. This way, you're giving your team a better chance to create a brand voice that resonates with your audience.

It's a good idea to provide examples as well. Your team will appreciate having tangible, actionable suggestions to consider.

And don't forget, if you're including translated examples, provide a back translation too. This will help your client grasp your meaning and visualize how it would appear in their product.

Adding another layer: The tone

We've established that every brand has, or should have, a voice.

This voice remains consistent, just like a person's voice doesn't change. They're the same individual, regardless of the situation, and their personality remains constant. Because like we said, if someone changed their personality every time we met them, we'd feel uneasy and untrusting, like they could turn on us at any moment.

But People don't act exactly the same all the time.

When I'm happy, I sound happy; when I'm sad, I sound sad; when I'm stressed, I sound stressed.

It's not just my emotions that affect how I act. If I'm talking to my daughter's teacher, I'll be respectful and maybe even a bit more formal. On the other hand, if I'm chatting with a friend, I'll be casual and even bubbly.

As I'm talking to you here, I'm being informative and teaching you something. But if we ever meet for coffee, I'll be friendly and warm. We'll both still be the same people, but we'll sound different based on the context we're in.

These variations, which change depending on context and environment, are called tone. It's like an emotional layer on top of the voice that helps it adapt to the situation.

Even though a brand's voice remains unchanged, its tone can constantly shift. The core characteristics stay the same, but their prominence can vary.

Take Lemonade, for example. When they talk about your insurance, will they be delightful? Nope, they'll be serious. They're still casual, clear, and simple – not using jargon or formal language. However, they won't crack jokes or dip things in paint while discussing Glass Breakage coverage because it's a serious matter. Their tone matches that.

But on social media, they can be light and fun, engaging in activities like dipping soccer balls in paint. They're still Lemonade, but their tone changes.

This holds true for any app or brand. The brand voice characteristics come into play in different combinations, based on the tone needed for a specific scenario. And at times, you might even add extra layers that weren't part of the original voice characteristics.

For instance, in this example, Duolingo is being playful and embracing. But they're not really being worldly... They're not teaching anything or showing off their knowledge.

This is a celebration screen, and it's not the time for dropping facts. If they did, they'd come across as showing off for no good reason, making them look bad.

In addition to the voice components, there's also the tone layer. This screen is a happy one, so it's written that way, even though there's no 'Happy' component in the Duolingo voice.

And how about this one? It's new to us; it's an error message. It says:

This message is mostly expressive and maybe a bit worldly, but not really playful or embracing.

A playful statement wouldn't work here – users are frustrated and worried about losing their streak. They don't want to see a fun, playful, lighthearted message now. They just want reassurance and to know everything will be fine in about 20 minutes.

To serve this purpose, the tone is comforting and empathetic, owning up to what happened.

In the same way, when something goes haywire at Headspace, the message stays calm and collected:

They're not trying to freak you out with a high-stress error message; they're just giving you a heads up.

And if you notice, the message is way shorter than most of their usual copy, without any extra fluff. That's because in a tricky situation, too much personality might rub users the wrong way.

So, while the voice remains consistent, the tone adapts to the situation at hand. Remember, a voice is a constant across all brand communication, but the tone can shift depending on what's going on.

Now, for one more example, let's see how Lemonade switches up their tone. Check out the email users receive once they cancel their insurance policy:

Lemonade's brand voice is still present—take a look at 'don't be a stranger' in the subject line and 'BTW' in the email body. They're delivering all the necessary info in true Lemonade style.

However, this email is more formal and precise than their other examples. They've swapped out casual language like "stuff" for more formal words like "occurring," "shortly," and "coverage gaps." Why? Well, if someone already left Lemonade, it's not the best time to try to charm or engage them.

Instead, they opt for a formal and considerate approach, which I think is a smart move.

Final words about tone

We've seen that all these brands rock a strong voice, consistently using it in their communication. It's the tone that shifts, adapting to what users need in each specific moment.

If a brand voice is formal, it won't suddenly go ultra-casual to fit a situation. Imagine someone who always speaks the Queen's English suddenly swearing in slang—it'd be super weird, right?

Sure, there's some wiggle room. If your voice is super casual, you'll want to lean towards formality when crafting a critical error message. But generally, aim to stay true to the brand voice.

But unlike the brand voice, which you either get from the client or figure out beforehand, you'll need to decipher the tone from the copy you're localizing.

Since it changes with each situation, it's possible that a localization task will feature a variety of tones. A single task might include error messages, success messages, onboarding flows, upsells, and other screen types. So, the tone will naturally differ, and you'll need to be adaptable, adjusting the tone in your localized copy as needed.

The key is to read the original copy carefully and use your logic. We'll cover UX patterns and copy in two comprehensive lessons, equipping you with best practices and knowledge to logically determine the tone.

Voice and tone

Chapter 4

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