Smarter ideas worth writing about.

The Voice and Tone of the Modern Day Intranet

Using Content Strategy Techniques to Drive Adoption

Planning and architecting a new Intranet often involves user interviews, stakeholder interviews, wireframes and design mocks, but what about all those words that will eventually replace the Lorem Ipsum or “Headline Here” areas? Does it fall under the old montage “that’s someone else’s responsibility?" Or since we are using a Content Management System (CMS), “someone” will update those areas later?

As a User Experience (UX) professional, it can be difficult to figure where your role ends and another begins, however, being a good consultant means being a good partner and helping educate your clients on new ways to increase user adoption for their new Intranet. In this case, I’m talking about creating guidelines for writing engaging, brand aligned content with a consistent voice and tone to help the visitors of your shiny new Intranet feel at home. 

For me, helping collaborate on the voice and tone of a new Intranet falls under Content Strategy, and depending on your UX team’s set up, ultimately under User Experience. I’m sure you’ve seen a graphic similar to the image below, but we generally place the following disciplines under the UX umbrella.

So what are we going to do about those generic headlines, labels and supporting microcopy? How should users feel when they read these items and what should our writing style reflect? These types of questions come up often, and can be answered using a Content Strategy approach – the basic Message Architecture.

If you’re lucky, your client will have a voice and tone section in their style guide that could help with those questions, if not, don’t despair. With a few meetings and a handful of notecards, you can help your client come up with a basic Message Architecture to help decide three main areas:

  1. Who they are.
  2. Who they are not.
  3. Who they want to be.

If you’re not familiar with the term “Message Architecture," it’s a type of card sorting exercise working with your project stakeholders where you sort through a large list of various adjectives into the 3 categories mentioned above. These adjectives range from buzzwords to the basics; all focused on helping the project team decide how they want their brand to sound to visitors. This helps provide a common language to reference and reflect your brands personality. 

Below is a picture of a portion of the cards that I use. My complete list uses somewhere between 90-100 adjective cards, feel free to download mine here.

With all the cards moved into 1 of the 3 categories, go ahead and get rid of the “Who We Are Not” pile, then allow stakeholders to consider which cards could be moved from “Who We Are,” into the “Who We Want To Be." Maybe there will be a few more that make it into the mix, maybe not, but this process will allow for debate and discussion to make sure the group is aligned and invested in the decisions made.

We can take this pile of “Who We Want To Be” cards and add a little more clarity by collecting them into logical groups with an overarching attribute that best defines the group. The end result would look something like this:

The example above was created for the
Kent State University Student Life website.

With your final Message Architecture in hand, you now have a useful tool when trying to decide how your real content should be portrayed when replacing the temporary words used in your early Intranet planning. In the example blow, using the adjective “inclusive” we improved the web part titles, providing a softer tone and helping users feel valued.

Initial Headlines  vs. Improved Headlines

This is only one example of the way your new Message Architecture can be used, it can be taken into account when doing any content creation, and even inform your design decisions. As Margot Bloomstein, author of Content Strategy at Work, would say “Words are cheaper than mock-ups," meaning this list can help designers on your team better understand how to design for the audience.

In closing, using your Message Architecture can benefit both the project team’s ability to communicate the brand identity to both internal teams, as well as the Intranet visitors.

Message Architecture References:



About The Author

User Experience & Design, Practice Manager

With a user centered design approach Ryan's role is a blend of User Experience competencies including User Research, Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Interaction focused Visual Design and Front-End Development. Well versed in delivering UX artifacts in an Agile (or iterative) manner, Ryan works side-by-side with the development team in Cardinal's Nashville office to implement elegant design solutions into the development environment while still balancing user needs and business goals for both Web and Mobile Applications.