How to handle emotion-driven copy

How should you balance giving information with managing a user’s feelings?

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We’ve recently been working with clients that offer people support when they need it most, including MOMO – an app that helps young people express their views more clearly. Through Comic Relief’s Tech For Good programme we’ve also been working with Relate – the UK’s largest provider of relationship support.

In these cases, the copy has to work hard to guide users who are likely in a vulnerable situation.

One word can easily become a trigger that trips a user up and changes the course of their interaction with the service you’re writing for. In contrast, a service with no personality can feel cold and callous to a user in a sensitive mindset. 

How should you balance giving information with managing a user’s feelings? 

Don’t assume 

One thing that remains consistent online, despite the trends and changes we see, is that every user is different.

No matter how well we feel that we know them: every person has different experiences and expectations. When we write for a ‘target market’, we write for an idealistic version of that person, which could be far from reality. That’s why it’s important not to play on people’s pain points when producing copy. 

Think about this line: “We know that moving house is an exciting time.” But what if that person is moving because of loss? From such a small statement, you’re suddenly miles away from how your user is feeling, making your business seem insensitive.

Instead of making assumptions about the state of mind your user is in, focus on what your service offers. Regardless of their race, age, gender and situation they’re in, what can you give them? 

Now consider this version: “Moving house can be stressful, but we’re here to help make it as easy as possible for you.” See the difference? We want to show the users how we can support them, no matter how they’re feeling.

MailChimp manages this perfectly within their style guide

“MailChimp’s voice is human. It’s familiar, friendly, and straightforward. Our priority is explaining our products and helping our users get their work done so they can get on with their lives.”

Be clear and simple

In times of crisis, the emergency services work in a calm and clear manner to find the resolution to a situation. Your content needs to work in the same way: to be a guiding voice within any chaotic situation. 

One of our clients is MOMO (Mind Of My Own). The app creates a space for children and teenagers in care to write down how they’re feeling in preparation for meetings with their care workers.

As it can be difficult for those in care to express themselves during these meetings, the app allows them to communicate using a device they’re familiar with (their phone). They can also use the app as a diary to monitor how they’re feeling between meetings and whether things have changed. 

MOMO needs to confidentially guide its user group through each question, without getting in the way or causing confusion.

When writing the copy for the app, we knew the tone needed to be reassuring but strong, letting the young person know that this is their space to safely write down their thoughts and feelings, and share them if they are ready. 

We created a tone for the app that sounded human, without being patronising. Using feedback from user research, we knew we needed to talk directly to the people using the app in simple language they’d be able to relate to.

Protect privacy

Let’s be honest, we’re all a little bit obsessed with data on the web. While it can be useful to find out exactly who the audience is (and what they want from services), it can also be at the sake of privacy.

For example: is it necessary to ask for a user’s job title, sex, date of birth and address when they’re signing up to a service?

For some users, the sight of a 20-question form can be overwhelming. For others, needing to provide too many personal details could cause them to wonder why and even distrust your reasons for asking.

When working with a digital team, those in charge of the copy can fight for the user and remind the team as to the whys. Why are we asking the user this and do we need it?

Determining need can be a simple process.

In the case of forms, Caroline Jarrett of the GDS user research team, sums it up perfectly in her blog post: My new favourite form lets you pay your self-assessment tax online

“Paying a tax bill is a bit like going to the dentist: important, but not necessarily pleasant. It’s good to get it over with as little fuss as possible.

“To get a tax bill paid, all you need to know is your UTR and how much you have to pay, both of which you can find on the tax bill. Click into the form, stick those two numbers in, type in the details of the card you want to pay with, and you’re done. That’s it. You can get directly to the point, straight away.

“No log in. No nonsense. How cool is that?”

Manage expectations

When writing with your users’ emotions in mind, taking the time to really understand their mindset can help to make your content as easy to absorb as possible. 

There’s a reason why your users have arrived on your site or are using your service. If you’re asking them to do more than what they were expecting, they might not have set the time aside to complete it. This often leads to unsatisfied users that leave your site or service before they’ve accomplished their task. 

While you can’t control what your users are expecting from your service, you can better prepare and educate them on what you offer. 

Relate’s new appnew app is designed to help ex-couples make a separation agreement outside of court. Each party is required to fill out their own thoughts on their home, children and finances. They work together to create an agreement that they can get signed off by a lawyer, if they want.

Because both sides have to answer a series of questions, it can often be time-consuming and emotionally draining. To prepare the user for this journey, we’re working with the Relate team to create supporting messages before the user begins and as they progress through the questions. These highlight how long it will take to complete, what process the user will go through and where they can turn to for help if they’re stuck.

By managing the user’s expectation, we’re helping them prepare before they get too far into the service. This means they can put forward the right level of emotional and time commitment.

Treat your users as humans

If we take the time to talk to our users in a way they understand, you’ll get more than just numbers in your analytics. You’ll get satisfied users.

Think how you can give your audience an experience that speaks to them in a language they understand, and leaves them feeling like their needs have really been considered.

Further reading

Content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher has also written a great post on this subject: Everybody hurts: Content for kindness