One 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.
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.
Doug initiated two main changes to the text:
- Use of plain English.
- 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:
- A traditional, formal tone of voice.
- An empathetic tone of voice.
- 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.
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.