Choose Your Words Wisely When Designing an App to Delight Employees

When people think about user experience and digital design, they typically think of visual elements like the layout, colors, fonts, and images on a screen. But one thing they may not consider is the impact of the words they use.

Recent research conducted by the Nielsen Nelson Group revealed that the words included on a screen are just as much a part of the user experience as the colors and visual design: slight changes in the “tone” of content presented on company websites had a measurable impact on how friendly, trustworthy, and desirable people perceived the companies to be.

What about the workplace apps that companies provide to engage, connect, and support employees? I’ve written previously on the pivotal impact that user experience has on end users’ adoption of and engagement with workplace apps. Essentially, a user-unfriendly app will be used if companies mandate it, but it won’t be enjoyed, and it will add frustration to an employee’s day rather than the enhanced work process that was intended. And word choice plays a part in whether an app is user-unfriendly. Think about the language used in the apps you interact with every day. Do they convey a friendly tone? One that is cold and technical? Or worse, one that is a confusing mix of both? As technology evolves and we begin moving into more conversational interfaces like those used by Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and SAP CoPilot, words that are presented in the experience of an app are going to have increasingly larger effects on how users perceive them. In short, words are going to become the app… so we’d better choose them wisely.

When we decided to re-design the SAP SuccessFactors mobile app user experience, we started with a statement essentially setting the app’s personality. Our thinking went something like this: we want our mobile app to guide our customers’ employees through their careers. Like a personal assistant that understands the employee and their needs, the app should provide features and functions that help them manage their HR activities. It should bring them information and content that allows them to receive and understand critical company objectives, and that enables them to feel part of the company culture and vision through which their career can grow.

If that is how a personal assistant would approach an employee’s career, how should the app “speak” through these activities in order to be similarly effective? We started broad, visualizing how this might look with respect to app design conventions. For instance, within the Google Material Design guidelines it is recommended that apps have more colloquial language—using terms like “Got it” in response to messages, including contractions to indicate conversational dialogue, and setting the tone to be friendly and respectful. Apple guidelines, on the other hand, can be a bit more formal, limiting the use of contractions and recommending that humor be avoided. And of course, there is the additional consideration of an enterprise tool versus an app used for entertainment—because the SAP SuccessFactors mobile app is a workplace tool, it would be odd and inappropriate for the tone to be akin to your best buddy greeting you on a Friday night. But it would also be a mistake for the tone to reflect an overbearing parent. So, we had a challenge ahead of us: to leverage words in order to strike a tone that users would perceive as helpful, informative, and still ultimately respectful.

With such a wide variety of features in the SAP SuccessFactors mobile app, including org charts, recruiting, onboarding, learning, and performance and goals management, to name a few, we needed a process to ensure that copy and tone were consistent across the different features in ways that made sense. For instance, for the errors, labels, and empty state that occur across the mobile app, word choices needed to be reviewed and designed in much the same way that the layout and colors were. This design involved considering the user mindset, expectations, and screen size available. To achieve this consistency, I created a design role specifically focused on creating and reviewing all the words. Instead of designing with graphic tools, this individual is tasked with using language to craft the right experience.

As with visual design, our designer led user testing and research to determine which words worked best. We wrote, we tested, and then we went back to the drawing board and wrote again if the words didn’t achieve the level of understanding and impact we wanted. For example, when building the continuous performance management feature, we originally used the phrase “Capture snapshot” for the action of archiving Activities. Through testing we discovered that “Capture meeting” worked best to indicate the intent of the action across the 41 different languages supported in our mobile app. In short, it is not an easy process to design user experience through words, but it is a rewarding one.

Human capital management software that is mandated for employees to use will probably be used, it’s true. But for HR to achieve its goals of helping to streamline business processes, engage employees, and enhance their people’s work experience, they need to ensure the apps and tools they provide are enjoyable and user-friendly, from the layout of the screen down to the individual words of the app.

See SAP SuccessFactors Mobile App in Action

Demo from global head of Engineering James Harvey:

Overview video:

Martin Cheng is director of Mobile Product Management for SAP SuccessFactors