Microsoft moves away from “robot speak” in its user documentation

DSC00498One of the highlights from the Technical Communications UK 2014 conference was the keynote presentation from Microsoft’s Doug Kim. Doug is Senior Managing Editor for Office.com, and leads guidelines and best practices for Voice in Office. By Voice, he means the tone of voice and style of English used in the User Interface and user documentation.

Doug Kim at TCUK14

The change in voice is something we explore on our advanced technical writing techniques course, so I was interested to see how Microsoft was addressing this topic. The good news for us is that Microsoft’s approach is consistent with what we advocate on the course (however, we will need to update the course before the next one in December to include some of the topics Doug discussed).

Microsoft carried out some extensive research (surveying 1,900 people and carrying out a lot of search analysis). They discovered users really hated some of the dialog screens and Help topics in Windows and Office. He described their style of English as “robot speak”, and illustrated this by showing us the text from Window 7’s “Blue Screen of Death”, a Help topic on circular references in Excel spreadsheets, plus a number of other examples. He didn’t hold back in highlighting their shortcomings.

Microsoft's Blue Screen of Death

Doug initiated two main changes to the text:

  1. Use of plain English.
  2. Adopting a more empathetic tone of voice. This involved understanding where the user was in ‘the customer journey” and their point of view (what was the most important thing they wanted to do next?).

They used a 20 minute methodology for deciding on changes to topics, and they carried out extensive testing to see if users liked these proposed changes. They tested three alternatives:

  1. A traditional, formal tone of voice.
  2. An empathetic tone of voice.
  3. An overboard (“whoa, dude”) tone of voice.

They found the less formal tones of voice performed significantly better, with the overboard tone performing almost as well as the empathetic tone.

Microsoft's new Blue Screen of Death

Microsoft’s new Blue Screen of Death

Microsoft tone of voice test results

It’s important to recognise Microsoft moved to a plain English style as well as to an empathetic tone of voice. In other words, there were two changes. Moving to a plain English style helped Microsoft reduce the number of words in each topic, which has also helped them reduce the cost of localising the content.


 

If you’d like to know more, please consider attending our next advanced technical writing techniques course, which is on Tuesday 9th December 2014.

 

10 Comments

Paul O

But did he mention the cost of localizing documentation in overboard surfer-speak?

Ellis Pratt

The amount of words was reduced in the English rewritten source text, which meant their translation costs came down. They have adoped the middle option (conversational) rather than the surfer speak version.

Helen Griffith

Please could you give an example of these different voices?

Ellis Pratt

I don’t think Doug’s slides are available yet, but if you attend our advanced course on the 9th December, you’ll see some examples.

Helen Griffith

Am hoping to be there, Ellis, just waiting for authorisation!

Katie

Hi, there. I was hoping you could direct me to the study that this conclusion was based on? I was really interested in this article and wanted to know more, but I have been unable to find the published research even on the Microsoft web site. Thanks!

John Collins

I saw a similar presentation on Microsoft tone of voice at WritersUA West 2014 by Dan Brown. It completely broke stereotypes and was surprisingly one of my favorite sessions of the conference.

Unfortunately, I’m not finding any slides from either Mr. Brown or Mr. Kim online, nor any references to the tone of voice guidelines on the Microsoft website. I’d love to have more of a reference to share with people.

craig wright

I’m sure marketing people must laugh their heads off when they see these ‘findings’ – they have known this for years! Most advertising uses a conversational tone because it helps people to engage with the content. As someone who has trained as a tech writer and copywriter, I really think every writer could benefit from learning about both disciplines. Somewhere between the two, there is a happy medium that will work well.

I was trained to write technical documentation in a more conversational/journalistic style about 20 years ago, but in the workplace, found that there was an attitude of ‘it doesn’t seem technical enough’. It was a long hard fight to get people to move away from jargon and techno-babble. I wonder if anyone else has encountered that? Hopefully MS’s stance will help eliminate that attitude.

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