We can use tone to communicate understanding for what the person using a product is experiencing, making our messaging more relevant and useful in the process. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t always know what someone is feeling or experiencing. We can venture an educated guess, but it’s hard to be sure, especially when a range of people use our products.
A constructive approach is to design for stress cases, which is a way to frame edge cases as deserving of attention rather than marginal. For example, personal triggers or sensitive memories associated with specific holidays. These are situations that might not affect very many people, but can have a disproportionately deep impact on those who are affected.
As Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer point out in their book Design for Real Life, “identifying and mapping out stress cases shows fractures in our work that we might miss, leaving them open for someone in crisis to stumble into. By thinking through these scenarios, we get better at prioritizing information, removing fluff, and staying focused on users.”
Modulating tone to accommodate stress cases often makes a product better overall. Saying the right thing at the right time in the right way can make all the difference in a personal relationship. That’s also true in product work. The tone of our content can make or break experiences for people in real, and sometimes very raw, ways.