What is UX microcopy? And how you should be using it

11 minutes to read • Published 30 November 2020 • Content strategy, UX design

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    When it comes to designing apps and SaaS products, good implementation of microcopy is crucial because so much of your success rides on functionality and user experience during interactions.

    Even with more traditional websites, microcopy plays an important role. When populating your website with copy, creating your primary content that will – quite rightly – occupy the majority of your attention.

    (Despite claims to the contrary from the Google overlords, word count is believed to impact upon page ranking and SEO.)

    But website microcopy mustn’t be neglected either.

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    But what is microcopy, and how should you be using it?

    What is microcopy?

    Microcopy is small parcels of text that direct users through a website or app, whether as error messages, disclaimers or calls to action.

    Oftentimes, it’s your microcopy that creates the first impression and sets the tone for user experience. With this in mind, you must get it right.

    Examples of microcopy

    Microcopy is a hot button issue for UX experts. As the world becomes increasingly web-savvy – and the global pandemic ensuring that online shopping is at an all-time high – more and more users are turning to the internet to ensure their needs are met.

    This is a double-edged sword for webmasters. On the one hand, it means that you have a vast array of hitherto-untapped customers and users waiting to discover your online presence. On the other, so do your competitors. You need to make the user experience of your website as seamless and painless as possible. Microcopy is a key element of this.

    You will already use microcopy on your site, whether you are aware of this or not. Here are some popular examples of UX-friendly microcopy:

    • Calls to action – your site likely includes at least one CTA, often in the form of a button or banner
    • Bulleted small print – in addition to lengthy copy, your site may include a summary of bullet points for the, “TL; DR” crowd
    • 404 error messages – if somebody follows a dead link or makes an error in typing a web address, they’ll be notified through microcopy
    • Explanations and disclaimers – if you’re asking for personal data from a user, microcopy can explain why
    • Rules and regulations – microcopy can profile what combination of words, letters and numbers are required when creating a password
    • Essential information – microcopy can convey the answers to FAQs in a single sentence, such as detailing a returns policy

    Some webmasters consider microcopy an afterthought, to be applied at the last moment before a site goes live. This is a mistake.

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    For somebody scanning a website, especially on a portable device like a smartphone, microcopy can greatly enhance user experience. In some cases, it may be all a user takes the time to read. With this in mind, microcopy must be taken seriously. 

    Guide to writing microcopy

    Having established that microcopy is important, we now need to address how to make it great. Microcopy is an art, not a science. You’ll need to ensure that it matches the tone and messaging of your brand.

    With this in mind, start by addressing what message you wish to convey with your microcopy.

    Is your brand identity fun and playful, or strictly business?

    Are you looking to build an emotional connection with your audience, or simply meet their needs?

    Your microcopy, much like the content of your site, needs to meet user expectations.

    By creating outstanding microcopy, you’ll in turn create a welcoming user experience. To achieve this aim, follow these parameters:

    1. How long should microcopy be?

    First and foremost, never use three words when one will do. This practice is called microcopy after all, not macrocopy. The whole purpose is to summarise what you are trying to say quickly.

    A good rule of thumb is to aim for around 70 characters per paragraph. That can be a challenge, but it will reap rewards. Microcopy will be all over your website. It’s always preferable to have three pieces of microcopy to one intimidating slab of text.

    Let’s imagine that you are using microcopy to convince a user to sign up to your mailing list. This may take the form of a pop-up or a banner that unfurls at the top of the screen. Here’s an example of bad microcopy in this instance.

    “Hey there! It looks like you’re enjoying yourself here. That’s good to know. Why don’t you sign up for our mailing list? That way, we can keep you informed of all our latest and greatest products.”

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    This is needlessly wordy. Stick with something brief that conveys the same message, like –

    “Want to keep in touch? Sign up for our mailing list.”

    This second example serves the same purpose, without wasting the user’s time. They will know within seconds of spotting the message what you are trying to achieve. Making them read through lengthy copy is unnecessary and, to be blunt, annoying.

    2. Language and writing style for microcopy

    Do not think of microcopy as a quick-and-dirty practice to shoehorn into a website. Think of microcopy as a guide to navigating your website for a new user. Microcopy is a series of tiny roadmaps that get a user from A to B to C.

    This means that your microcopy must match the tone of the rest of your site. If you have hired an external copywriter to write your content, it’s advisable to get them to pen the microcopy too. Yes, this will involve further expense. It’s more cost-effective than losing potential sales due to jarring microcopy, though.

    You should follow a style guide for microcopy. Most experts recommend sentence case – Capitalising the first letter in a sentence and using lower-case for the rest, unless you’re referencing a name or place. 

    Title Case Looks Untidy Unless it’s a Title or Subheading. all lower-case looks rushed and unprofessional. All upper-case is attention-grabbing but CAN LOOK LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING. Use bold fonts to attract attention if necessary. 

    There are further guidelines that should also be utilised in microcopy:

    a. Be direct

    Microcopy should be straightforward, simple and jargon-free. Do not use microcopy to attempt to diagnose a fault or issue. This is not the time or place. Provide a simple instruction as to what you want the user to do next. Better yet, use a single keyword and a visual prompt.

    b. Emphasise the positive, play down the negative

    Your microcopy should be empowering, creating a fun and enjoyable UX. This means that you need to steer clear of loaded words with undesirable connotations.

    For example, imagine that a user is presented with a 404 message after making a typo in the address bar of their browser. Do not insert microcopy akin to –

    “Error – you entered an invalid URL.”

    This may meet our criteria for brevity, but it’s also negative. Nobody likes the word, “error” and it reads as though you are pointing an accusing finger at the user. Instead, try something like –

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    “Sorry, something went wrong! Please try again.”

    Also, microcopy is a great way to promote a positive message. This is most impactful when using microcopy in a CTA. If you are offering a discount or something free, this is the time to mention it.

    You can also use microcopy to further your company’s ideals. If you are targeting environmentally conscientious shoppers, for example, use microcopy to stress your green credentials and use of sustainable materials.

    c. Humour is great, but don’t be cloying

    Humour can help you build an emotional connection with your users. It shows an understanding that a human being is at the other end of the computer screen. Humour is subjective though, and it can quickly become heavy-handed. 

    Ensure you use a deftness of touch. Filling a website with unnecessary microcopy to demonstrate your devilishly sharp sense of humour will detract from the user experience. Keep any jokes for microcopy that would benefit from them most, such as defusing the frustration of a 404 page.

    Disclaimers are another ideal time to inject a little humour into your microcopy. When asking a user to sign up and supply contact information, consider adding a line akin to, “we promise not to spam your inbox, follow you on social media or claim the soul of your first-born child.” This shows the user that you understand the petty frustrations that can arise from doing business online, and heads off these concerns at the pass.

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    d. Be helpful

    Ultimately, microcopy needs to be helpful. Use it sparingly and make every word count. A great example of this is guiding a user when they create a password to use on your site. Use microcopy to spell out exactly what you need – for example, “at least 8 characters, with at least one number and one special character.” This makes the user’s life easier as they will achieve their aim at the first time of asking.

    3. How to encourage interactions with microcopy

    Microcopy should encourage visitors to a website to take the next step on their journey.

    Users can have short attention spans and you’ll need to ensure they keep moving forward, especially where transactions are involved.

    This can be something of a tightrope, though. If you’re too pushy, it will come across as desperate.

    We previously discussed the importance of promoting positivity with microcopy.

    Copy like, “sign up now – it’s free!” is great. It makes the user feel as though they are getting something for nothing.

    Anything more, such as, “sign up now – it’s free for a limited time only! This offer expires in one minute!” will be met with cynicism.

    Remember the purpose of UX – you want the visitors to your site to have a good time. Making them feel as though they are battling a ticking clock will have the opposite effect.

    Besides, making people rush through your site could result in a high bounce rate, which will negatively impact any page ranking.   

    You can improve user experience by using microcopy for encouragement. Occasional text like, “that’s great! Almost there” or, “now you’re talking!” will make a user feel as though they are achieving something.

    Perhaps more importantly, it makes the potential transaction feel like a collaboration, not a duty being performed under duress.

    4. Explain everything to gain trust

    Have you ever abandoned an online transaction because you felt like the website was asking for too much personal data? You’re not alone. Nobody wants to feel like they are signing their life away to a business when utilising their services. Microcopy is a great way to explain just why you are asking for particular information. 

    This is particularly important when asking for information like a contact telephone number or a date of birth.

    Use microcopy to stress that you just need a phone number if there is a problem with the order, or the date of birth is to confirm that you can legally supply an age-restricted product. This will set a user’s mind at rest.

    5. Use microcopy for good, not evil

    As you’ll see, microcopy can achieve a lot for your website. Sadly, not everybody uses this practice for entirely scrupulous means. Do not use microcopy to play psychological tricks on a user.

    Colour is a prime example here. You may be using microcopy to promote bolt-on deals or additional products. Wrapping these in colour will automatically attract the eye but ask yourself if that is how you want to do business.

    If you’re not careful, you’ll gain a reputation that a company that specialises in last-minute upselling and hidden fees.

    Equally, be transparent in your microcopy. If you have a pop-up chatbot, for example, do not try to trick the user into thinking they are speaking to a human being. They will quickly see through the ruse and grow frustrated with the attempted deception. Microcopy should be used to gain a user’s trust, not betray it.

    Microcopy may not take up much space on your website as your core prose, but it’s every bit as important.

    It’s up to you when you add microcopy. We recommend doing so once the site is otherwise complete, just to ensure you match the tone. Do not take the artform lightly, though.

    Microcopy, as the name suggests, must be small but perfectly formed. If you get it right, you will vastly improve the user experience of your website. Get it wrong, and you may find that visitors rarely stick around for long.

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