Microcopy: Why Tiny Words Matter


What’s the first things that comes to mind when you think about improving a website or app’s user experience?

Most likely you think about user flows, information architecture, interaction and visual design, etc. Large and extremely important components. But there’s another component of UX that can help — or hinder — your users that you might be overlooking. I’m talking about microcopy.

Microcopy is short, contextual text that informs or guides users throughout your product. You can find it all over the place. On buttons, form fields, success and error messages, 404 pages.

"Don’t judge microcopy on its size, judge it on its effectiveness."

At a glance, these tiny clusters of words seem insignificant when compared to major elements of design. But don’t judge microcopy on its size, judge it on its effectiveness. Almost every interaction users make, through a website or app, involves words. Not considering words in the user interface is like forgetting to add yeast to the dough. Thoughtless microcopy can be the achilles heel of an otherwise excellent design.

Words form the backbone of communication on the web and in the apps. They should be positioned at the heart of a design process.

"Words form the backbone of communication on the web and in the apps. They should be positioned at the heart of a design process."

In this article, you’ll see how the smallest bits of copy can have the biggest impact. We’ll explore the craft of words at a micro level, along with some examples of apps and services that have really great microcopy we can learn from.

5 ways microcopy can improve your design

Words should always be considered part of a design; not just where they’re placed but also what they actually say. Remember that the fastest way to improve an interface is to improve copywriting.

You might also like: How to Develop an Effective Creative Brainstorming Process.

1. Alleviate the user’s concerns

Microcopy is extremely contextual. That’s why it’s so valuable. It answers a very specific question people have, and speaks to their concerns right on the spot.

Fear of irreversible changes

When users are about to sign up to Tumblr, they’re asked to choose a name for their blog. This seems like a big deal because this defines not just the username, but the URL at which the site will be available for others.

To reduce the stress of making a big decision, Tumblr reminds users that “you can change it any time.” Problem solved. No more worries about choosing the wrong sub-domain name.

microcopy: tumblr
Microcopy can minimize any doubts users have about the process.

Fear of spam

Microcopy can be fundamental in reassuring your users at the point of subscribing or sharing details. When people add their emails or connect their Twitter accounts, they hope their inbox won’t be spammed with things they don’t want.

Of course, the vast majority of apps and web services follow the rules, and don’t spam/auto-tweet when asking for email address or access to social network accounts , still many users hesitate to share details. That’s why it’s important to say something like, “we hate spam as much as you do”, when people add their emails and actually deliver this promise.

microcopy: timely
Microcopy from Timely covers all the potential user concerns in one tight little sentence.

Fear of data loss

Data loss is a nightmare for many users. Nobody wants to spend a few hours working on something important, to suddenly realize that all the results of their hard work are gone. Fortunately, it’s possible to prevent a data loss situation from happening by using autosave and microcopy together. Autosave will save information automatically, and microcopy will reassure users that their data is safe.

microcopy: data loss
Google Doc keeps you informed that everything is OK.

Fears over personal data security

“Why do you need that?” is quite a common question among many users when an app asks for personal information (such as a birthday or a phone number). People are very apprehensive about giving out personal information: a usability study by the Baymard Institute found that users felt as though their privacy was being invaded when they are required to enter seemingly unnecessary personal information, without any further explanation or help.

Explaining to the user why you need their information, or outlining how you use (and protect) their data, is crucial. When you tell users how their personal data will be used by your service, you give them more reasons to provide this information.

microcopy: phone verification
Twitter explains what the phone number is used for.

2. Help user along the way

Throughout a user’s journey, they’ll stop along the way for a number of reasons. Where am I? What to do next? How does it work? Be ready to assist users as they interact with your product. Good microcopy reduces negative friction and allows users to go from A to B in the fastest, smoothest, and most efficient way.

Help users get started

Once people have downloaded your app, you can create paths for them to follow using microcopy. Consider Twitter’s onboarding screen in the example below. The screen is full of contextual microcopy, which helps first-time users start using a service. For example, new users can tweet with pre-loaded tweets (with a hashtag to get them in touch with others like them) or write their own messages.

microcopy: first tweet
First tweet microcopy gives users a starting point.

Let users know what to do next

Good user interface is intuitive: when users see a new page, they should be able to determine what actions are possible in just one glance. In the Airbnb example below, the app provides specific text as a search box placeholder: “Where are you going?” instead of blank space or generic text like, “Search.” As soon as users launch the app, they know what the app is expecting from them (basically, all they need to do is to type a desirable location). This placeholder text gets the ball rolling.

microcopy: defaults
Good microcopy provides sensible defaults.

Explain new features

When introducing a new feature in your app, it’s easy to assume that users will find out how to use it right from the start. Unfortunately, what you think is intuitive might not work for your users. Thus, it’s always better to provide the necessary context to get users on the right track. A brief explanation of a new feature, like in Quora’s example below, makes it clear what has changed, how it will affect the user, and what they can do now.

microcopy: quora
A few words can go a long way in providing the necessary context to get users on the right track.

Reduce cognitive effort

Microcopy can minimize extraneous cognitive load — the amount of brainpower a user needs to understand and interact with your interface. Here is an another example from the Airbnb app— a host contact form. Small bits of text below the form tell a user the local time of the host. This allows the user not to waste time checking different time zones themselves.

microcopy: airbnb
When contacting a host, Airbnb app tells you their local time.

Suggest users take a certain action

Microcopy can guide users through an interface at a moment of potential uncertainty, and to explain certain outcomes. One great example can be found in the Google Hangout app. When a user starts speaking on mute, the app detects it, and notifies them about it.

microcopy: hangouts
Hangouts notices when a user is speaking while their microphone is muted

Help users in a moment of failure

Another opportunity for improving microcopy comes from user errors. How errors are communicated can have a huge impact on the way someone experiences your website or app. There’s nothing more annoying than receiving an error message, and not being able to figure out where the error is.

Unfortunately, we often see ill-constructed error messages both in our desktop apps:

microcopy: error
Error message during Windows 10 installation

And in our mobile apps:

microcopy: error mobile

An ill-constructed error message can fill users with frustration. This error message simply states there is a problem and does little to help a user fix it. Image credits: JakubVul

Good microcopy takes advantage of the situation by calming the negativity. A well-crafted error message can turn a moment of frustration into a moment of joy.

microcopy: network problem

Error states must incorporate concise, friendly, and instructive copy as to what to do next. Image credits: microcopymatters

microcopy: yelp
Yelp shows that an error doesn’t have to be disappointing.

3. Sets expectations

Microcopy is able to answer very specific questions people might have when using an app; questions like, “What’s the app doing now?” or “How long does the operation take?”. It can address user concerns on the spot, and let them know what will happen next. Just a few, carefully chosen words can stop users from struggling or dropping out of the process altogether.

Show progress

While an instant response is the best, there are times when your app won’t be able to respond instantly. Delays are usually caused by slow loading times and latency issues. For such cases, you must reassure the users that the app is working on their request and that progress is being made. Good microcopy lets you know exactly what’s happening.

microcopy: loading

This app notifies users that it’s loading files as the user waits for a page to load. Image credit: Benjamin den Boer

Set expectations

Checkout process is often one of the most annoying parts of buying something online. Usually, it contains a lot of steps and requires users to spend a lot of time filling out a dozen of forms.

But the checkout process on Photojojo is different. And the difference starts with a product page. The page includes a little bit of microcopy: “30 Second Checkout.” When users see such microcopy they think, “Sure, I guess I can spare 30 seconds.” But if you’re going to make a claim like this, make sure you can back it up!

microcopy: photojojo
Microcopy on Photojojo makes the user feel like everything they want is just around the corner.

4. Bring delight

Microcopy plays a big part in shaping how people think about your product. People are generally well aware that digital experiences don’t include feelings, and yet they prefer responses that feel warm and human, rather than cold and robotic. As Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Words have a capacity to make people feel something. Whether you create friendly feelings or cold formal relationships largely depends on your copy.

Make the product sound human

A quick way to make your UI warmer and less mechanical is to use a human tone in the copy. If your product sounds human, it’s easier for people to trust it.

microcopy: review
Yelp knows that delight is in the details. It shows the humans behind the brand.

Convey personality

Microcopy is the perfect opportunity to express a brand’s personality. It can turn a routine task into something memorable. For example, by customizing the message for a specific person or a group of people, you can make them feel special.

microcopy: hungarian
Each time you visit Flickr, the site welcomes you in a different language, which adds a quirky, playful touch.

Create positive moments

Delightful detail shows that app creators put a lot of love into what they’re making. Delight is often brought on by an unexpected, yet positive, turn of events.

microcopy: foursquare
Foursquare displays a special greeting when a user opens the app on their birthday. It’s unexpected but delightful.

5. Boost engagement

Microcopy has the ability make people take action. Good microcopy is able to move users and make them willing to do something, whether it be to sign up for a newsletter or provide their credit card information to purchase a product.

Reassure users

When deciding whether to sign up for a service or not, it’s difficult to know if you’re making the right choice. The task becomes even more challenging when subscription requires instant payment. Microcopy in the format of social proof can reassure users before deciding to commit to something.

microcopy: shopify
Shopify uses microcopy as social proof to let users know that they’re a trustworthy company with a lot of users (many of which are from well-known brands).

Motivate action

Microcopy can encourage people to keep going. Sometimes users need a subtle reminder to get things done (e.g. an app can give people a friendly nudge to encourage users to do something).

microcopy: cart
When your shopping cart is empty in the eBay iOS app, it gently reminds you to add something.

How to implement copy

Just because microcopy is small, doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement. Writing microcopy takes more than good writing skills. There are multiple factors that play a role in designing great microcopy. Here are a few tips to make a wee bit of text pay off in a big way.

Get inside your user’s head

Good microcopy comes from knowing your user. User testing is a tool that helps you better know your users and anticipate their questions. It gives you insights into what parts of the copy are clear, and what confuses the user. It’s important to identify the different needs and concerns of your users at each stage of the journey, and to use microcopy to address these concerns.

You might also like: 20 Expert Strategies to Help Overcome Creative Blocks.

Keep microcopy short and helpful

When implementing microcopy, use short snappy sentences. Users don’t want to read long instructions on how to complete a certain task. It’s supposed to be microcopy, not a long paragraph of content.

Be careful with jokes

It’s not always appropriate to use humour in your microcopy. First, not everyone shares your sense of humor. What might sound good on the paper, can be considered as uncaring or rude by your users.

microcopy: joke
Is it really funny or just rude?

Second, it all depends on context. For instance, when an app fails to save user data and a user loses a significant amount of his/her work, it’s s entirely inappropriate to say “Oops! Seems we lost your data. Take care!” Thus, leave humor out if the situation is potentially frustrating or stressful.

microcopy: medium
This is a message bloggers see when Medium can’t save their data.

Pair microcopy with images

Dr. Seuss once said "Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent."

Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.

Dr. Seuss

A simple picture can sometimes be the perfect pairing for your microcopy. They work together to create a feeling of delight that’s more magical than words or pictures alone.

microcopy: nfl
NFL Fantasy’s app pairs a connection failure error message with a fun cartoon.

Never, ever use jargon

Microcopy often falls victim to internal terminology — industry specific jargon often sneaks onto the website and in the app. Don’t let it happen. Remember, you need to convey technical information in simple terms.

Use natural language and talk to your user like a person, research and reuse the existing language of your audience. When you speak the same language as your users, you not only make everything easier for them, you also build trust by showing them you know who they are.

Be careful with idioms

Cute, clever microcopy shouldn’t leave those less familiar with the cultural vernacular behind. Think of those who don’t speak the primary language of your product, and try to use straightforward microcopy. Straightforward microcopy is a safer, simpler, and more scalable choice.

Test and refine your microcopy

Good microcopy takes time to get right. Thus, prepare to iterate, test your design, and revisit it when things aren’t working. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see how people respond. You can easily run A/B tests to compare your current microcopy against a new and improved version.

Small text, big impact

Writing good microcopy in your app is just as important as the app work correctly or the user interface being easy to use. When done right, effective microcopy increases conversion, improves the rate of task completion, and delights users. It also demonstrates the care and attention to detail in the product.

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