Sean Watson, ServiceNow
September 15, 2021

It’s a daunting task to create a style guide. Style guides contain grammar standards, voice and tone guidelines, words to use and avoid, copy patterns, and the basics of your product brand. These documents can easily end up being so tedious that they’re difficult to use, or so light that they don’t address needs. They can also become outdated quickly, rendering them irrelevant. Here are some ideas to create a successful style guide.

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead of covering the same ground as style guides such as the Microsoft Manual of Style, define your proprietary content within the context of the broader style guide.
  2. Collect a list of your proprietary terms and verify them with relevant stakeholders. This list should include any terms that are specific to a product or feature that should be used in a consistent fashion across documentation. Terms that are used beyond a product or feature that aren’t in a broader style guide should also be collected and verified with stakeholders for standardization. The style guide should be the sum of standardization. Incorporating stakeholders creates a meeting point for consistency and increases the likelihood of adoption of the document. By defining terms, the brand is also strengthened. Foundational terminology is addressed with the broader style guide used.
  3. Enable others to modify it. Style guides should be living, breathing documents that are updated according to changes in products and features, voice and tone standards, and the desires of stakeholders. It’s best to remember that the idea of a style guide is to maintain consistency across your documentation and not to impose the rule of law. Language is fluid. Because of that, cases will arise that challenge the document. These changes can be reflected in updates to the style guide, exceptions, or strengthening the authority of the document.
  4. Make your style guide broadly accessible. Use an intranet site such as SharePoint to create your style guide and ensure that stakeholders are aware of its existence. You can also send the link to other teams to bring awareness of the document and to entice their contribution.
  5. Incorporate the content of as many writing teams, UX designers, UX researchers, developers, etc. into the style guide. Having multiple teams using the style guide increases adoption and consistency across your organization. In addition to that, those teams don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can build upon your document. When that’s the case, enable each team to create sections for their own content to live.