Choosing the right voice and tone for your app

The rundown
Read this if:You're still experimenting, prototyping, and exploring.
Read next:Localiz(s)ing your Slack apps

Your Slack app is a representation of your brand, and the way your app communicates will become part of your brand voice, especially if you’re building a conversational interface.

No matter how small your team is, even if your team is just you, if you're putting an app into the world (and into Slack), then you have a brand voice. Even if the only place it’s used right now is in this one app.

This presents a great opportunity: you can thoughtfully define what your brand voice is. The best thing to do is think of this voice as an extension of your own voice.

Clear, concise and human

If you stick to being clear, concise, and human, you can’t go wrong. Whatever you’re trying to say, think about how you would explain it first.

You might find it helpful to jot down some attributes or characteristics of your brand voice (e.g. friendly, authoritative), once you’ve thought about it. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone guide (styleguide.mailchimp.com/voice-and-tone) is a widely-admired example.

How much personality is too much?

Always remember that your app’s primary purpose is to help users accomplish a task - even if that task is inherently entertaining, like finding just the right cat GIF. It's great if your app sounds clever and entertaining - just please ensure that these traits don't obstruct the user's ability to complete the work your app is assisting them with.

Foreground the information necessary to the task at hand, then add voice and tone elements like you would add seasoning to your favorite dish. They should enhance what’s already there, not overpower or overwhelm the reader’s senses.

You want your voice to differentiate yourself from the crowd. We recommend keeping these guidelines in mind as you craft it:

  • Keep messages on point. If you have to add sentence upon sentence in order to get to a joke “in keeping” with your app’s sense of humor, it's probably not worth it.
  • Make sure your meaning is clear. If you choose to include puns or wordplay, make sure they focus a user's attention, rather than creating a distraction.
  • Stay professional. Informality is good, but getting too friendly is often seen as grating or culturally insensitive (particularly in a workplace).
  • If you decide to give gender to your app (and it’s very easy not to), then be appropriate with the kind of things it says - make sure it doesn't use any stereotypes or generalizations.
  • Use contractions and conversational cadence. This is a good way to lightly infuse your app with human personality - “You’ll be able to” rather than “You will” and that sort of thing.

A little goes a long way. We cannot say this enough.

Let’s talk about the actual words: Be brief

Nearly every word your app says should facilitate an interaction (courteous parts of speech, such as greetings, are also useful). Don’t add a joke or aside just to be glib.

Like this

brief example

Not like this

overly wordy example

The first example still has plenty of distinctive personality, but gets straight to the point, and doesn’t risk users tuning out/not wanting to wade through unimportant content.

Be clear

Words and copy used in your interactions should be easily understood even by someone who doesn’t speak the same language fluently. That means:

  • Don’t use jargon and slang in the important parts of message text
  • Avoid culturally specific references, like jokes from movies
  • Stick to common, simple words
  • Buttons labels should be clear and specific
  • Make buttons active-voice and reflect the user’s outcome (Save, Book Flight, Place Order)
  • Avoid vague, non-actionable text like Click here or Settings
  • Don’t replace words with emoji

Like this

non-culturally specific example

Not like this

overly culturally specific example

The second example is confusing in two ways: it includes a reference to an obscure film, and the emojis it uses may stall some users as they try to decipher their meanings (“Fire... meat? Firemeat?”).

The message button copy is also unclear and confusing, potentially preventing users from selecting any response at all. We recommend using standard combinations on buttons (Attend/Decline, Confirm/Cancel) to help your users have a smooth, simple experience with your app.

Read over your copy and ask yourself, “Is there anywhere a user may pause in confusion?” If so, rewrite.

Be empathetic

All kinds of people use Slack, and we previously described how important it is to understand that variation in terms of their ability to use your app properly. But that diversity is also important when thinking about the tone you use to communicate with them.

Ensure that your voice and tone express empathy toward every single person who uses your app. Some basic steps to take include:

  • Use gender-neutral pronouns
  • Use a variety of emoji skin tones
  • Don’t use sexist, racist, or ableist language
  • Make an effort to trial your voice and tone with people from a diversity of backgrounds, in different settings (on mobile, with flaky wifi, etc.)
  • Don’t assume any level of technical fluency from your users, keep instructions clear and simple
  • Writing for a broad audience takes a bit of practice if you’re new to it, and it is usually easier if you have a diverse team of people working on your app from the start.

Spend time rewriting

We spend a good amount of time at Slack writing, rewriting, agonizing over, and then rewriting just once more to get every sentence as good as we can make it. If you’ve worked with a professional writer before, you know that no one gets it right the first time.

Here are some techniques we find helpful in revising:

  • Read your work out loud to yourself. Ah, you found a typo, didn’t you?
  • Find someone to read your script out loud with, to prototype the two-part interaction (Thanks to Erika Hall for this advice - abookapart.com/products/conversational-design). Where does it sound unnatural? Forced?
  • Rewrite as though you’re writing to a friend. Does that sound more natural or human?
  • Record yourself verbally explaining the concepts you’re trying to convey. This may help you find a more casual way of expressing your app’s message.

After a few rounds of revision, your app should be ready to help your users accomplish tasks in Slack, while avoiding confusion, frustration, and consternation. Congratulations!

Try it out

  • Brainstorm and list five adjectives that describe your app’s personality and tone.
  • Write a message to send to the installer of your app. Make sure to include the purpose of your app and how to use it. Keep in mind the audience you defined earlier.