Microcopy – what’s the big deal with small words?
Let’s play a game of user experience (UX) bingo. The next time you find yourself in a conversation with a colleague about UX, award yourself a point every time they use one of the following pretentious and often meaningless buzzwords: deep dive, information scent, leverage, holistic and extensibility. It won’t take you longer than three full sentences to get a bingo.
One word you won’t hear often enough is microcopy. UX is so obsessed with emotion maps and hierarchies that it routinely overlooks one of the elements that has the potential to grease user flows and multiply conversions. Here’s what microcopy is, how to use it correctly or incorrectly and why you should use it at all.
Microcopy refers to all the little words you find scattered around form fields, error and success messages, empty states, tooltips, checkout pages for e-commerce and CTA buttons. Microcopy should always exist to fulfil one purpose – eliminating confusion for the user, visitor or reader.
Microcopy can be used to introduce or explain a new feature. YouTube introduced the “autoplay” feature which users could toggle on or off and used a clear and concise tooltip to explain how it worked.
It can also be used to reduce any anxiety the user might have about supplying personal information. The DStv World app requires you to enter your ID when you sign up, but reassures you that it’s only to check if you’re an existing DStv customer.
Clever microcopy makes you take action and convinces you that it was your idea. Madewell used gamification to encourage sales. The home page suggests a category of clothing and two cleverly worded CTAs that take you to the category page or suggest a new category.
You can also use microcopy as an opportunity to reinforce your brand’s unique voice and character. Tunnel Bear puts a creative (if not emotionally manipulative) spin on the usual progress notes we’re used to seeing when we uninstall software.
When bad microcopy happens to good brands
When enough thought goes into your microcopy, you deliver crisp, clear and delightful messaging to your users. Sometimes though, bad microcopy happens. Unlike good microcopy which can go unnoticed, bad microcopy sticks out and stares back at the user like a blister.
Thoughtless copy can cause confusion. Squarespace’s “cancel order” prompt gives you two eyebrow-raising CTAs. Do you choose “confirm” or “cancel” to cancel your order?
Ambiguous microcopy can lead to a feeling of unease. Vimeo’s email notification for important events leaves too much open to interpretation. What’s important to Vimeo isn’t necessarily important to users.
Quirky microcopy can backfire. Email opt-in pop-ups are a standard way of building a database the honest way, but Elle’s version of “no thanks” aimed for cheeky and hit snarky instead.
Sometimes bad microcopy creates dead ends. DoorDash’s error message achieves very little except to tell the user that something went wrong. It doesn’t explain why and it doesn’t suggest a way out.
Nail the tiny moments of magic
The principles of good microcopy aren’t too different from the tenets of good UX and web design. Fundamentally, microcopy exists to avoid confusion and help users along the interface. This overarching objective can be broken down into four main ingredients:
- Keep it brief. Attention spans are waning by the picosecond.
- Context matters just as much as content, so be transparent.
- Your users came to your platform to do something – help them to do it. Encourage action.
- Keep it original. How can you tell the user their password is too short in a way that’s creative but still works?
Google Earth’s loading screen uses the earth’s age instead of a percentage as a progress metric. This is well-executed microcopy that finds delight in the mundane.
Like all UX elements, effective microcopy is backed by human behaviour. Huemor’s old “view our work” CTA on its home page was extremely clickable thanks to people’s attraction to the forbidden.
Yellowwood’s 404 page seizes the opportunity to reinforce the brand’s vision and mission of “Asking Y”. It proves that microcopy can be multifunctional when it’s done well.
Instead of the standard “please wait”, Zeplin compliments its users while their projects are being imported. Microcopy works better when you know who’s your audience.
Small words matter
Microcopy should be one of the first things you scrutinise when assessing the usability of an interface. It has the power to produce error messages that are helpful, 404 pages that deepen engagement, CTAs that aren’t flat and interfaces that users don’t get lost in. The more thought you put into your microcopy, the more human it becomes and the less intimidating or foreign your interface becomes. New rule: if the conversation doesn’t include microcopy, no one gets a bingo.
Two of the examples highlighted in this blog are some of our proudest work. We believe that the devil is in the micro-details, so get in touch with us for microcopy that belies its size and intuitive user experiences that are built with humans in mind.
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