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I don't like grey areas. I'm a planner; I prefer yes or no answers, clear guidelines, and written expectations.

So why the hell am I in Content Design?

How can we get the user where they're trying to go in the easiest possible way? With clear, consistent copy and design.

But consistency has a limit. I wish I could give concrete answers to questions like:

  • What tone should we strive for?

  • Should we say company or organization?

  • Do features need to be named?

  • How many lines long is a good subtitle?

The answer to these questions, and multiple others, is It depends. I know, it's not very satisfying. What's the point of style guides, content design systems, and UX writing in general if there are always exceptions to the rules?

Consistency and guidelines can go a long way in outlining the direction a company's product moves towards; it can provide answers instead of forcing every designer or writer to reinvent the wheel each time they're creating an empty state or toast.

But guides are rarely all you need. Intuition almost always come into play. A map can tell you which path to take in the forest, but if a felled tree is blocking your way, it takes common sense to know that you need to walk around or find another route. Same with content: guidelines may work in 90% of situations, but there will always be exceptions.

Think about whether a company wants to use the second person within its interface. Most style guides say to avoid we, our, us; users don't want to feel like they're communicating with a conglomerate. But let's say you need to let users know that you received their customer care request:

We received your request. We'll respond within 2 days.

Well, okay, but the style guide says not to use we. Is there a better way? So you try again:

Your request was received. You'll receive a response within 2 days.

But wait: the style guide also says not to use passive voice. So which rule should be broken? Sometimes, it really is a choice between a rock and a hard place; but before conceding, it's good to write out a few alternatives. Don't worry if most of them are garbage; you're just trying to get some ideas out. See if you can come up with some that don't "break the rules," but don't discard ones that do, either.

Our team received your request. Expect a response within 2 business days.

Thanks for your request. You'll receive an answer within 2 business days. Request sent. We'll respond within 2 business days.

Received. Wait time: 2 days.

...and so on. Obviously, there's not much gold here. But write enough, play with the words and ordering, and you'll find the best option for your company. What you choose will depend on your tone and voice and, yes, the rules of your style guide. But any good guide has a hierarchy that puts clarity over consistency, meaning that sometime divergences will be the right answer. Or maybe the feature itself needs to be reworked: maybe it's better to talk about the 2 day wait before they submit the request, rather than after. And so on.

Let your style guide act as a path, not a fence. Guidelines are great, especially when multiple designers and writers are working on a product, but the best form of consistency is knowing that everyone will use their common sense.


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