A Human Approach to Product Content

At HubSpot, we’re working to build a more diverse and inclusive place to work. We want to make sure that HubSpot is the kind of place where everyone can do their best work. We also want to make sure that our software — which thousands of companies use in their own workplaces — fosters an inclusive environment for our customers, too.

Our customers themselves are very diverse, and it’s important that the HubSpot software reflect and support that diversity, too. Small business owners from all over the world use HubSpot. So it’s on us to infuse our product with a spirit of diversity and inclusion, and the content in our product plays a big role in that. 

This post explores some the ways we’ve approached creating a more inclusive experience with product content design. It’s always a work in progress, and we’d love to hear from other teams who are working on this sort of thing, too. If anything here strikes you as insufficient, incomplete, missing, or off base, please let us know. That’s how diversity and inclusion works best, after all.

First Principles

We’ve got a set of unifying design principles at HubSpot that guide our work on the User Experience team. They were originally formulated as part of the Canvas design system project, and they’re worth a read.

One of the first principles we identified is that our designs must be human.

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At first glance, this might seem too vague a directive to be helpful at all. As we all know, lots of design guidelines fall into this trap — just offer some aspirational hand-waving, stick it in a frame on the wall in your office, and then go on with your day. But this one, I think, is actually practical and specific, when you dig into what it really means.

What does it mean to create language and imagery in the HubSpot product that’s human? That fosters joy? That resonates across cultures?

First, it’s usually helpful to think about what it is not. Content that isn’t human would be jargon-y, robotic, tone-deaf, and abrasive (among other things). So we don’t want to do that. But that’s assumed. That’s just table stakes. Don’t be a jerk is a reasonable place to start when creating UI content, but it doesn’t exactly go far enough.

We could start by looking more closely at the “global” part of what it means to be human. How can we create product content that will appeal and offer value to as many members of the human family who might be using our product as we possibly can?

There are lots of ways, but they all boil down to variations on one basic theme: Try not to present the privileged, tech-savvy, wealthy, able-bodied, white, cisgendered, anglo-centric male experience as “standard” and everything else as “other” or “diverse.” Seek ways to place the “other” in the center of things instead.

We recognize that to be human means a lot of different things. And we put that principle into practice in all sorts of ways.

Clear and Simple

According to another one of our design principles, our work must be clear. HubSpot Product Designers take great pains to make sure our UI is straightforward and easy to use, and our UX writers make sure that the language we use in the product is clear, simple, and as nontechnical as possible. Not only does this create a more helpful experience for new users and those of a less technical bent, but simple, plain language also has been shown to increase comprehension, usability, and satisfaction even in those who are highly technical and adept. From an accessibility point of view, users who rely on screen readers to use HubSpot are far better served when the UI content they hear is short, simple, and free of unhelpful (to the sight-impaired) visual cues.

Plain language is important from a usability point of view, but it’s also important for inclusion: think about all the people who are non-native English speakers, using our English UI, and those who are non-native French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and Portuguese speakers using those interfaces, too. We live in a world of continual migration and mass movement, a world of first-gens using our kind of technology for the first time, a world of all kinds of people trying to use our software in difficult situations that complex language would only exacerbate. Even native English speakers benefit from plain language — a very sizable chunk of the population has basic or below basic English proficiency, and many of these hail from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. Because we’re serious about diversity and inclusion in the product, we try to make using the product easy for them, too.

And remember, this is not about dumbing interface content down: Writing in plain language is good for all users. Nobody ever complained that an interface was too easy to read.

It’s important to keep in mind that product content is much less about words than it is about the meaning we’re trying to convey. We have content components in the UI library that are constructed and ready to use for simple, repeatable patterns of content, such as form field prompts. But when the value that a user will gain by using a feature is complex or difficult to convey, that’s when our teams call on the UX Content Design Team for help. Working alongside a UX writer can supercharge our users’ comprehension, adoption, satisfaction, and usage.

UX writers do this by applying the rules of the HubSpot style guide. They know all the idioms to strip out (and which ones to use), the plain language equivalent of jargon, the more straightforward turn of phrase — all elements of how to convey meaning in an inclusive way that a non-writer might struggle for hours to come up with. 

Does that mean you need to strip your product content of any personality at all? I hope not. Fun, idiomatic expression has always been a hallmark of HubSpot’s product content. People have always loved our quirky sense of play. So do we propose to create product content that’s completely free of idiomatic expression and our trademark sense of whimsy and fun, and give up that essential “HubSpottiness” we’re so beloved for? No, we do not.

Within the bounds of writing clear, comprehensible content, there’s always scope for including whimsy and fun, when the situation warrants it. Whether or not it translates into other languages — or should — is another question, and it’s one we rely on our localization team to help us address.

Global First

Scribble text in an illustration

We try not to put any content in the product that can’t be easily translated or localized. That includes any icon that relies too much on text (or an abbreviation) to convey meaning, or any illustration that features text. Icons and illustrations that rely on text to convey meaning would either have to be reproduced and translated into the five different languages we currently support, or we’d have to shrug and just say those users will have to adjust. Which is the opposite of inclusive, really. So we try to avoid it.

We also avoid using video or static images that rely on screenshots to convey meaning. Whenever we rely on screenshots or screencasts, that imagery or video needs to be reproduced in five different languages before it will work. That’s fairly expensive and time-consuming, so we try to find alternatives if we can. It’s not always possible or even preferable to avoid it — after all, sometimes a screenshot or video screencast is exactly what a user wants and needs, and in fact some markets prefer video — but it needs to be planned for, and the costs and timeline of a global-first production fully accepted and understood. Just shrugging and accepting the idea that a non-English-speaking user is going to have to use a translated UI with an untranslated video stuck in the middle of it — a video that we put in there precisely because we believe the user needs to watch it to really get value or proceed — just isn’t good hygiene. It’s deeply non-inclusive, as a matter of fact.

We also avoid using metaphors (visual and written) that are specific to just one culture or class. So for instance, we avoid using phrases like “knock it out of the park” or “hit a home run,” even though these phrases are pretty common in North America, because they’re just not going to resonate in all places outside of the US. Not because people will be offended by a reference to baseball, but because they won’t be as familiar, so the meaning won’t be as clear.

All of our product content is translated by a top-notch team of localization specialists, and those specialists are empowered not simply to translate content, but to adapt (or “transcreate”) content so that the voice, tone, word choice, metaphor, and so on is appropriate for their market, country, or region, and delivers what the typical business user expects and wants to see there.

This focus on adaptation or transcreation comes in especially handy when cultural norms differ across locations. HubSpot’s source language (English, North American) is, on a formal-to-informal scale of 1-10, usually about a 7.5. We’re pretty informal, but not wildly so, as a rule. And that informality expresses something important to us as a company, about how friendly and approachable and human we are. But the same level of informality in, say, Germany, would not come across as friendly and approachable; it would come across, I’m told, as immature or juvenile. Almost clownish. Obviously, that’s not the brand voice we want to convey, so our German localization specialists have established their own point on the scale — say it’s a 5 or a 4 — so that they can achieve a level of informality that gets across the same intended meaning that our significantly more informal voice gets across in the US.

When our teams work with UX Content Designers, their content will, by nature, be more global-friendly and easier to localize, and this benefit multiplies for every language we choose to support. When content is consistent and clear, we pay less to adapt it, and we take less time to bring that content to other languages. Inclusive UX Content habits can help a company save significant time and money over time.

Inclusive of all

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When you use HubSpot, you’ll encounter a number of illustrations — they exist to represent concepts, direct your attention, or even just add a bit of fun. We pay particular consideration to how we portray humans in illustration. Sue Yee, our product illustrator, tries to ensure that the people we represent in illustrations are diverse in appearance, and that these different types of people are represented doing many different things (for instance, a person of color doing the talking while others listen, a woman in a wheelchair at an executive desk, etc.). These decisions are often subtle, but they’re massively important in fostering a sense of inclusion in our global, diverse user base.

We also have specific guidance in our product voice & tone guidelines about how to use language that’s truly inclusive. We encourage the use of "they/their" as a singular, non-gendered pronoun. We discuss how to avoid using humor that deprecates others or is at the expense of any class/type of person, how to avoid using metaphors and idioms that exclude or assume a certain class, culture, ability, age, other privileged status, etc. 

Any technology is going to reflect the life experience — and the implicit bias toward that life experience — of the people who build it. So we have to watch out for language and imagery that assumes or privileges the life experience of a tech worker in Boston or Dublin (where our product teams are mostly located). Everything from our tone of voice (we as HubSpotters are fairly informal in writing, as a rule, while our global user base frequently skews much more formal) to our cultural references (you’d be surprised how often our language is influenced by memes) to our idiomatic expressions (oddly enough, “Heads up” is not a universally supported way of saying “This is important”).

We’re continually auditing and cleaning up our product source content (recent work included an effort to edit any error messages that started with “Uh oh!” and “Whoops,” both of which can come across as infantilizing or at least condescending, for example), and there’s always more work to be done. We are, after all, a pretty small team, and our product is large. So we’re always looking for ways we can automate and scale the effort to make our product content inclusive and world-class.

Automated Editing

We recently built an automated editor bot, known as Bethbot, which relies on some fairly comprehensive rulesets to flag non-inclusive language and suggest alternatives (as well as about a dozen other rulesets). Sexist, racist, and otherwise insensitive language can be hard to recognize and fix in your own writing (this goes for professional writers and editors, too), so it’s incredibly useful to have an automated bot to watch out for these things for us. Any HubSpotter can access Bethbot in our internal Slack workspace, as an internal web app, or — our favorite — a handy Chrome extension. Product teams can also opt in to enabling the bot in their Github repo as a final failsafe check. 

 

We’ll never be done working to create more inclusive content across our whole product. Our team is still learning how to design content for those who use screen readers, especially when it comes to illustration and video scripts. We’re actively trying to learn more (and apply what we learn) about ways content can do a better job of serving those with different abilities of all types.

While we strive to create content that serves our whole user base, we’d love to get better at finding out just who those people are. It’s a bit of a moving target, thanks to our rapid global growth. So we’re always seeking out and learning about new audiences and cultures and segments that we need to solve for.

If you have any ideas about how to write more inclusive content or thoughts about creating content that’s more accessible and clear, please let us know in the comments. 

Elizabeth Dunn

Written by Elizabeth Dunn

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