As a young content strategist, one of the first rules I learned was consistency. To build a holistic and hospitable user experience, we should use the same words as often as possible. I latched on to this rule because it just makes sense. If we swap terms and phrases with abandon, it could create doubt as users might not be sure if “transfer funds” and “add money” do the same thing. Consistency paired with repetition also does wonders for building brand awareness and recall.
But now that I’ve been around the content block a few times, I find that we don’t need to be 100% consistently consistent.
Before we talk about when to be inconsistent, we need to talk about content guidelines. Content guidelines are a key way to maintain consistency with all of the people making words (willingly or not) across the company. They help everyone know when to use title case, how to punctuate lists, and the company’s potentially spicy stance on the Oxford comma. This is a worthwhile endeavor for content designers at companies of a certain size. At my company, our team of three content designers has been undertaking this task for the past few months. It’s great fun wielding this power to build a more cohesive user experience, and I don’t underplay the value of sweating the details of punctuation and style. But then we got to buttons.
Like pretty much every app in the known universe, we have modals that pop up from the bottom of the device. Sometimes they bring good tidings, other times, errors, and they usually have at least one button. An esteemed member of our content design team wanted us to decide on a phrase for the button that closes a modal throughout the whole app. Having one phrase would help us be consistent and may even save us the two minutes we spend thinking about what words to use. It also helps teams without content designers finish their designs, eliminating their need to come to content office hours.
But the more I thought about it, the more I was against agreeing to always use “Got it.” I’m so against it that I was inspired to write this.
Why be inconsistent?
Humans are pretty good at understanding synonyms.
You most definitely need to consider non-native speakers and folks who have different cognitive abilities when assessing what are considered synonyms. But most users will likely understand that “OK” and “Yes” are generally the same. The time spent hunting down another teammate’s Figma file to find what they used for a similar flow adds up—and may not be worth it.
Repetition can also lead to terms and phrases losing their meaning.
I once wrote something along the lines of “Product X can help you do XYZ. Learn how…” with “Learn how” linking to a help center article. Several teammates asked me if it was a mistake and if I meant to put fan-favorite “Learn more.” I had written “Learn how” because it felt more natural when bridging the two sentences. Plus, our brains have been trained to gloss over “Learn more” into oblivion so I wanted the link to stand out. Does the fact that my teammates asked me about it show that my tactic to make it more noticeable worked? Perhaps.
Being flexible about consistency also saves us from being the content police.
I’ve been tagged in 27-message-long Slack threads that require me to read every reply to even get a sense of what the question was. And after sinking a lot of time in context gathering, it’s often about matching content to another team’s flow. There are definitely times when you need to play the role and ensure a cohesive experience across product teams, but matching verbatim the title of a modal with the headline of a marketing email probably isn’t one of them.
Most importantly, inconsistency gives space for humanity.
As a writer in fintech, I get very few opportunities to show that there are actually people behind the pixels. We shouldn’t be too cute or voice-y in flows that affect people’s access to their money. But by slipping in a bit of inconsistency, especially in things that don’t need to be the same, we create an opportunity to let our humanity peek through. After all, people are inconsistent. Rather than always using “Got it” for a button that closes a modal, maybe you can slip in an “OK,” “Let’s go,” or “Cool beans” instead (only if you work for a coffee company, naturally). Not only does it feel a bit more human-like, but it’s also a chance to sprinkle in your brand’s voice and tone.
When should we be inconsistent?
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. There are many times when consistency should be the rule for the copy in your app. Some examples for your consideration:
For brand reasons
- Is the product or feature a registered trademark? Use its government name every time to protect the trademark.
- Is the product or feature a proper noun? Even if you disagree with the feature being named at all, always use that name to build familiarity with it.
For terminology reasons
- Is it a verb or noun closely tied to a product or feature? When designing huddles for Slack, I explicitly defined the associated verb as “Start huddle.” We were introducing a whole new way of communicating within Slack, so we needed to use the same verb to make sure users understood what was going to happen when they clicked.
- Is it a defined term for a complicated thing? Meta uses “ranking” to refer to the algorithm that powers the News Feed. Using a synonym won’t get you anything since there are already piles of materials explaining how the complicated algorithm works under the term “ranking.”
- Is your product localized? If so, copy that is automatically localized might require more consistency.
For legal reasons
- Is it a defined term or phrase that’s used in terms & conditions and other legally binding documents? Your lawyers will want it to be the same in all experiences.
- Is a term or phrase required from a regulatory perspective? Don’t introduce risk and just be consistent.
For everything else, there’s room for inconsistency. Rather than asking why something isn’t consistent, ask why it should be. What do we gain from using the same CTA to close modals throughout the app? What’s the advantage of always using “Learn more” for help articles? If you don’t have a strong argument for consistency, I say go wild. Let some creativity, some of that brand voice, and a bit of humanity in. After all, we could all use a bit more of that these days.
Inspired by Chelsea Larsson and the Chime content designers. TJ Lee is a content designer at Chime, and has had a handful of content-related titles in tech, higher ed, and at an agency. He is currently based in Oakland, the city of his birth and eventual return.