In 2009, Joshua Porter wrote a blog post entitled “Writing Microcopy.” In it, he described a checkout form he had created for an e-commerce project, where 5%-10% of the online transactions were failing because of billing address errors, causing financial losses.
What did Porter do? He added one sentence next to the billing address field: “Be sure to enter the billing address associated with your credit card.”
“And just like that the errors went away,” he wrote. “It was clear the right copy meant I didn’t have to worry about that problem anymore, thus saving support time and increasing revenue on the improved conversion.”
Porter shared with his readers an idea that he had been mulling over for a while: Just adding a few words in the right place at the right time could completely change the user experience (UX). Not only that, he coined the name for this type of copy: microcopy.
What is Microcopy?
Microcopy is the words or phrases in the user interface that are directly related to the actions a user takes:
- The motivation before the action
- Instructions that accompany the action
- The feedback after the user has taken the action
Examples are buttons, error messages, short explanations in tooltips, confirmation messages, words written next to fields and also inside them, and more.
The goals of microcopy (also known as UX writing) are to drive users (i.e. customers) to act, provide them with guidance, excite them when needed, remove obstacles, improve usability and conversions, and sometimes just to be funny. It engages users, helps them identify with your brand, enriches their experience, and resolves frictions with the user interface (UI) before they even arise.
Here are some guidelines for writing great microcopy.
The Ten Golden Rules of Microcopy
- The interface is a conversation. Don’t write, converse
“The Internet breaks down the age-old boundary between written and spoken language, and gives rise to a third option: conversational writing.”
(Carmel Wiseman and Ilan Gonen, Ivrit Internetit [Internet Hebrew]. Keter, 2005, p. 21 [In Hebrew])
In order to induce in writing the same sense of trust and closeness that a human provides, you need to recognize that the written words of the UI are actually you conversing with your customer. The more authentic, warm and natural it sounds (yes, even if you are an insurance company), the better the customer experience will be. Kate Moran and Hoa Lorenger have written about this on the Nielsen Norman Group website.
And no, you don’t have to choose between professional and conversational. Interfaces can and should be both: respectable and pleasant; professional yet with a smile; referring to users respectfully but as equals. Look around you, humans are like that too.
This one is from Lemonade, the friendliest insurance UI on earth:
- Every word is an opportunity
Every word on your website is an opportunity to prove to your users that they are wanted and loved, increase their activity and establish your brand’s singularity. Every remark, every field and every button, even the most annoying error messages, are an occasion to surprise your users, excite them, and show them that you thought about them and that you have something really, really good to offer them.
This is what GoGo (an inflight internet service) says while uploading:
However, this comes with two restrictions:
- Don’t sweat it. Users feel it when you overdo or over-try. Be elegant and natural. Implement this wisely.
- Don’t touch standards that will confuse users and harm usability. For example, don’t change the wording on the sign-up or log-in links in the header, because this is exactly what users are looking for, but definitely feel free to change the boring confirmation “Your sign-up has been successfully completed” into something that will enhance the experience.
This is the awesome sign-up confirmation message on Ash Ambirge’s website, The Middle Finger Project:
- Give the brand a personality. Design a unique voice
If we ask two people to convey the same message in their own words, we’ll receive two different versions. If we ask five people, we’ll get five versions. We each have our own character, a unique way of thinking, different experiences that have shaped us and distinctive goals in life. Therefore, even if we talk the same language, what each of us says will have a slightly different tone.
For example, when Nike explains why they ask for your birth date they say:
But the J. Peterman Company explains it like this:
Two different brands write exactly the same message (“we are required by law”), each with its own unique character, thus the voice and tone they use is different. Neither phrasing is better than the other, they both fit their respective brand. Had J. Peterman used Nike’s voice and tone, it would have spoiled the warm and intimate atmosphere that they created by carefully selecting each and every word in every nook and cranny of their delightful site; whereas had Nike used J. Peterman’s voice and tone, it would harm the credibility they try to create as a company that takes itself very seriously.
So, don’t try to write like anyone else. Characterize your brand and design a voice that is suitable for this character.
- Be specific and relevant to YOUR target audience
Don’t settle for bland wording like “Get fresh updates” or “Start” or “Be the first to know”—your users see dozens of similar calls to action every day. Instead, tell them exactly how their lives will improve if they take the required action. Offer them value, a benefit that’s specific to your product or service.
For example, the subscription pop-up on life coach Marie Forleo‘s website doesn’t say just “Subscribe to our newsletter,” but:
On the job-search website Indeed, the button doesn’t just say “Search,” but expresses the central value of the service:
- Make your users feel good about themselves
Don’t shame your users (called confirmshaming) like this:
Why would you want to make your users feel bad while they’re with you? (No, short-term conversions are not a good enough reason).
Instead, make your users feel like they’re doing great! Prof. Clifford Nass from Stanford University found that compliments work great even when he explicitly told users that the compliments are generated randomly by a computer that (obviously) doesn’t know them from Adam. Why not flatter users if you can? It’s free!
This is what the dating site OKcupid tells you when you upload your photo:
- Prepare an answer to every conceivable question or concern
Our users need very little motivation to abandon a form. All they need is to hit a single field where they’re not entirely clear on how to fill it in, or to have the smallest concern regarding their privacy or a question for which they can’t easily find an answer. Good microcopy offers users an immediate and accessible answer to any question or concern they might have, instilling in them a sense of certainty.
The most common frictions concern professional terms, issues of privacy and security, fear of spam and missing explanations on how to use the UI or its features. Provide explanations and allay your users’ fears:
- Avoid dead ends. Always open a path to the next step
Empty states are states where there is nothing to show your users. They can appear when the user first encounters a site, app or feature, and they can also occur as a result of an action, such as running a search that yields no results.
When you leave the empty state empty, you are basically telling your users what there isn’t. You are missing out on an opportunity to tell them what there is.
- A feature that hasn’t been used yet is an opportunity to present its benefits and encourage them to use it.
- An empty shopping cart is an opportunity to encourage a sale.
- A search that ends without results provides the opportunity to show that you care by offering the user similar items and preventing them from leaving empty handed. This is more than providing good service, but also a way to direct your users towards the next step and get them back in business.
Barnes & Noble does a great job of this—and with minimal text. When your cart’s empty, they remind you that there’s free shipping, and they show you their current popular items.
The same goes with error messages: Don’t dump a “system failure” on your user. Explain exactly what went wrong, and more importantly—open the door to how to fix it and move on.
- Think far ahead, all the way to the moment the product is in your customer’s hands
A stitch in time saves nine. You, the UX people, see the full picture: You know what’s going to happen on the next page or in the next stage of the process. You know what should happen when your users get the product or receive the service. Therefore, you are responsible for letting them know what they need, and prevent them from falling into traps.
Online clothes retailer Belle & Sue suggests that you provide your office address, as deliveries are made during work hours and you more than likely don’t want your order to arrive at home while you’re away.
- Be gender-neutral
The Linguistic Society of America writes in its Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage:
“…use plurals (people, they) and other appropriate alternatives, rather than only masculine pronouns and ‘pseudo-generics’ such as man, unless referring specifically to males.”
The American Psychological Association explains in its Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language:
“…using the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ is problematic because it often leads us to omit the distinctive elements of female experience and behavior.”
They provide seven ways to do so:
- using plural nouns
- deleting ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’ altogether
- substituting articles (‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’) for ‘his’; and ‘who’ for ‘he’
- substituting ‘one’, ‘we’, or ‘you’
- minimizing use of indefinite pronouns (e.g., ‘everybody’, ‘someone’)
- using the passive voice [use sparingly]
- substituting nouns for pronouns [use sparingly]
Jason Fox, a microcopy writer, wrote a post titled “Whatever it wants, they gets,” about navigating gendered language as a professional writer. Check it out.
And last but not least,
10. Make them laugh
Prof. Nass, who was mentioned earlier, discovered in his study that besides making people feel better about themselves, humor makes them like and appreciate the interface more, and more importantly, cooperate more and accept its suggestions.
Humor can also turn frustrating situations into magical moments and engage users who were upset a second earlier. So go ahead and make them laugh!
With that being said, Nass emphasizes that it is important not to use humor that is too sophisticated, or complex word plays that could leave some of your users out of the picture and even make them feel stupid. Also remember that being funny is not always the right path, even if your product or service is amusing, for example, when your user faces a particularly upsetting failure or tries to perform an action in a limited time. So use humor wisely and adapt the tone to each situation.
This is what you see when you install TunnelBear, a private VPN service:
Edited by Danya Hercberg
© Kinneret Yifrach, 2018. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.