The one thing user-centred design often forgets
We all employ a user-centred design (UCD) approach to inform what products we build and how they should work, but all that customer insight gives us one oft-overlooked learning: the actual language customers use to speak about their problems.
With just small additions to your existing UCD process, you have the power to improve everything from marketing through to customer service and UX writing.
In making sure observed customer language influences how they speak, brands can enter cultural dialogues with more authenticity and use familiar, inclusive language throughout product interactions.
So what are you listening for?
In short, you’re listening for Terminology, Problems and Contexts (it doesn't make a satisfying acronym, I'm sorry, not everything can)
Let’s explore why each of those 3 categories is useful from a language perspective.
Potatoes, po-tah-toes, spuds, tatties.
Here's the obvious one. Whatever language your industry uses for products, actions and technical concepts, chances are new customers don't speak like that. And even existing customers have begrudgingly learnt to understand it over time. In this instance it’s as much about avoiding complicated, stuffy terms as it is about sounding quirky.
In everyday conversation people ‘pay someone’, they don’t ‘authorise a transfer’.
We’re all in the problem-solving business.
At an individual customer level, your product purpose is to provide the solution to a set of user problems, with your wider company mission likely aligned around fixing wider problems at a societal level.
Say for example you’re a fintech solving liquidity problems for sole traders.
Let’s call them ‘Invoice Inc.’
Your product purpose might read:
‘At Invoice Inc. we provide automated invoice factoring to tackle cashflow issues, releasing cash quickly from your sales ledger when needed.’
Good lord, what a mouthful. Do not put that in front of customers.
This may be recognised vocabulary in corporate-land, but this is not how most sole traders would talk about their problems. They may not understand ‘invoice factoring’, or ‘borrowing from their sales ledger’, but they know how to phrase their problems: they struggle to get paid on time and they aren’t able to predict what their income will be month to month.
By actually listening to the words they use as they describe their problems, you may end up offering much more relatable services like ‘income smoothing’, ‘get paid earlier’ or even ‘bad client protection’.
While those that follow a Jobs to be Done methodology will recognise this approach to unpacking the real need, it’s easy to just plough this insight into product ideation or measuring desirability, but not to draw those same insights through into copywriting.
Listening for the myriad stories customers tell can make outcome-driven messaging less generic.
Understanding the contexts in which customers are hiring your service makes everything you say more human and relatable.
This is about stronger storytelling.
While potential customers often have a similar set of problems, the individual stories they tell around those problems are unique.
When it comes to product marketing you’re selling desirable outcomes, not just features, and listening for the myriad stories customers tell can make outcome-driven messaging less generic.
Think about life insurance.
Historically a poorly understood grudge purchase all about policies, clauses and premiums. Newer life insurance brands, like Dead Happy, have really listened to the inherent dark humour or love and concern for family members as people talk about death. This means they have been able to create a differentiated brand that tells a more human story, using this sort of language:
“Our prices are based on who you are today, not that wrinkly weirdo you might be in 20-odd years”
With our earlier example — Invoice Inc. — if the primary problem is centred around predicting cashflow, one wider context might read… ‘my company culture sucks because I can only risk hiring freelancers’.
It’s not just about the wider context of a problem or a need though, but also the contextual nuances within different communities you serve. A farming community struggling with cashflow has wildly different contexts to a freelance graphic design community, yet the underlying product experience is the same. How might you use the differences you hear in language to present more targeted use cases to different customer profiles?
Alongside richer marketing, these wider contexts can help clients at the business end of the purchase flow feel at ease during high-value decision points. Customers respond to relatable examples more warmly than cold commands. Feed customer language into your UX writing.
Stray into the colloquial or hyper-regional and you risk alienating those who don't trust that level of informality from your service.
Design for inclusion but keep your tone
Inclusive design is as much about language and representation as it is about accessibility. When we listen to customers and use their language to inform ours, we speak more inclusively.
Elitist or technical language excludes newcomers to the genre, or those with lower levels of education - it's just bad business.
How much you hold a mirror to customer language is going to be different for each brand. It's a fine line. Stray into the colloquial or hyper-regional and you risk alienating those who don't trust that level of informality from your service.
If you’re a global financial brand and you start speaking like a teenage makeup vlogger it’s likely not going to feel authentic. We’re talking about telling a more authentic story, but in your tone of voice.
How does this become part of product development cycles?
The good news is a lot of product teams are already performing most of the required behaviours to put this into practice.
- You’re designing iteratively
- You’re conducting customer research
- You may have feedback loops with sales and customer servicing
- When testing usability of a digital service you’re likely already asking the type of questions that deliver rich customer language cues.
So how do you pull this through into UX writing and marketing?
- Document and theme the phrases and terminology you’re hearing around your service pillars and listen for validation that these resonate
- If you’re using Intercom or similar to concierge customer problems, do not ignore this source of customer language (if legal allows)
- Invite marketing and sales teams to user testing
- Refine language with each design iteration, not just UX/UI
- We’re talking about squeezing better language out of a UCD process that you’re already doing, so you’re not necessarily adding cost.
However, moderated tests can not only be expensive, but create a false environment – when talking to strangers people inherently want to present themselves as smarter, richer, better educated, more agreeable – which can affect the language they use.
People speak more naturally when they're excited, passionate, angry, telling a joke, being sarcastic. So don’t ignore free cultural sources. If you’re building a mass-market wealth product, watch a Martin Lewis show. If you’re building a fitness app, join the Joe Wicks Facebook group.
And if that sounds laborious, the potential power of AI to crunch data sets of interview transcripts or forum posts and adopt a tone of voice will only make this process easier in the future.
This goes beyond just attracting a younger audience
This goes much further than simply sounding non-corporate to appeal to millennial or Gen Z scepticism. If you’re trying to build products for specific sectors, niche communities, kids, the elderly, the list goes on – that’s where baking these techniques into your UCD approach will really pay dividends.
So, if you’re reading all of this as a guide for ‘how to be down with the kids’... think broader and build customer-centric copywriting into your process. If you listen, customers will tell you exactly how to speak to them.
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