Microcopy: What is it and why is it important

Published by Tim
on 17 October 2019
Black keyboard

Content is at the forefront of users’ digital experiences. Content marketing is driven by copywriters who need to constantly optimize their content strategy as we move more and more towards multichannel content

But this content strategy typically only focuses on marketing copywriting, while completely discounting another major facet of copywriting - UX copywriting or microcopy, a crucial aspect of any user experience. 

Where longer forms of content, such as blog posts, videos or infographics, work to inform or persuade customers about a product or service, or tell stories and provide an experience in and of itself, microcopy is intended more as a guide that facilitates the use of said product or service, in the same way as an intuitive UI would. 

In this post, we’ll take a look at some best practices of writing microcopy, and we’ll see on the basis of some examples why good microcopy is so important, especially in the negative interactions customers and users may have with your brand.

 

What exactly is microcopy and how does it differ from traditional copy(writing)?

Microcopy refers to all the little bits of copy that are not content and don’t tell a story of their own. Things like the text on buttons of an interface, in error messages, in forms - all of this falls under the domain of UX writing and requires a different approach than traditional, marketing-oriented copywriting. 

The psychological process is where the first major difference lies. While it’s true that both require the ability to empathize and put oneself in the user’s shoes, this thought process is realized differently in these two forms of copywriting. 

With content marketing, the greater focus is on the customer - their desires, the problems that they wish to solve with your particular product or service. 

By contrast, microcopy focuses on the user, who is the same entity, just at a different stage of their digital journey. Microcopy steps in once the customer becomes the user and now needs some help with adequately using the product or service and getting their desired benefit out of it. 

Because, as we know, a beautiful UI and cutting-edge technology have little effect if they’re difficult to use and are unable to guide the user to the solution to their pain.

This could be succinctly recapped as: good copy brings the customer in, while good microcopy retains the customer now turned user.

 

Who writes microcopy?

Traditionally, microcopy has been taken care of by UX/UI designers themselves. Since consistency is as important in the copy as in the visual design, designers are perfectly suited for the role of UX writing, especially if the product or service they’re designing is in their native language.

And yet, writing and language proficiency are not typically something designers should invest a lot in. It’s outside the scope of their expertise and responsibilities, and tasking them with producing stellar copy alongside their design could lead to burnout on the one hand and a subpar user experience on the other, as they would need to disperse their focus. 

This is precisely why we’re witnessing a rise of a new position that focuses exclusively on microcopy - the UX (copy)writer. Whereas the UX designer focuses on the visual aspects of the design, the UX writer takes care of its linguistic peculiarities. 

Logically, it’s very important that the UX writer is included in the project from its very start. They have to be aligned with designers and other stakeholders in order to best capture the essence of the product in words. If UX copy is viewed as nothing more than an afterthought, it’s unlikely to provide a good user experience. 

 

Error messages and other points of friction

Clear, concise and user-friendly copy is important in all touchpoints users have with your digital presence. Where it’s downright vital, however, is in the negative touchpoints. 

As Tom Wentworth, SVP of Product Marketing at Acquia, points out in their webinar on the Digital Experience Platform, a single bad experience can break a brand in the digital space, and it’s extremely difficult to come back from it.

With that in mind, and also knowing that it’s practically impossible to eliminate all negative experiences for all users, alleviating these negative touchpoints becomes a priority. Luckily, as we’re well aware, words have a tremendous impact and can completely change how we feel about a certain situation.

And the magic of microcopy lies exactly there: it has the potential to turn these negative experiences into positive interactions with your brand

Take, for example, an error message such as the “404 - page not found”. Instead of a simple blank page and these three empty words, you can use this page to guide the user to other important pages on your site (e.g. related products in the case of an e-commerce platform). 

Or, perhaps you want to liven the mood and empathize with the user not being able to find what they’re looking for. Staying true to your brand’s tone and voice, of course, you can instill some humor and/or empathy in the “page not found” message, or explain to the user why the error occurred (e.g. “the page you’re looking for may have been removed or its link has been updated”).

Consider this “Access denied” page on Agaric’s website: 

 

Agaric's Access denied page with verse from Marvin Moore's "Green Door"

 

While encountering such a page would typically lead to frustration, the verse from Marvin Moore’s “Green Door” appeases that frustration by self-referencing the page itself with an ironic comment about its “thin” hospitality. The page contains both an apology and humor, which work in tandem to transform the negative touchpoint into a memorable one. 

An area where good microcopy is especially important is e-commerce, which has a lot of potential friction points. Even with its recent rise in popularity and better security, a lot of people are still reluctant to share personal information such as credit card info and spend money online.

Because of this, they may abandon a purchase if the checkout process is convoluted and non-transparent. In order to lead customers to the purchase step and retain them afterwards, you need helpful on-point copy accompanying each step of the process. 

E.g., when an item has been added to the cart, tell the user that this has been successful. After they place an order, tell them that the order has been placed - and when they can expect a reply and/or delivery, for some additional spice to the customer experience.

 

Examples of good microcopy

One of the coolest examples of good microcopy are Slack’s welcome messages. You’re able to customize them and set your own, but the default ones provided by Slack truly strike a chord with the user. As Slack is one of the first things people check when they arrive at work in the morning, being greeted with such a warm message can do wonders for one’s day.

Here are a couple of these welcome messages that really stuck with us:

 

Slack's heartwarming welcome message (1)

 

Slack's heartwarming welcome message (2)


Both examples are a testament to how great of an impact a simple sentence or two can have. 

The first one feels as if you’re being greeted by a close friend who’s been eagerly awaiting your arrival. The second one is even cooler and even warmer (pun definitely intended); it plays on the antonymy of the two words, at the same time showing concern for both the mental and physical comfort of the reader in a fun and easy-going way. 

This personal touch in both of these is accentuated as well as justified with the signature “Your friends at Slack” - naturally, your friends are concerned with your well-being and are happy to see you, so this signature is very fitting. 

The rapid pace and the progressively distributed nature of working in the digital often restrict the time we can spend with loved ones and at times altogether prevent us from doing so. This makes thoughtfulness and recognition that much more valuable, in any way we can get them - even if they’re coming from a bot or another automated source. 

More examples of excellent copy can be found in the newsletter messages of best-selling author and entrepreneur Nir Eyal. Even the subscription pop-up itself is very empathetic and answers exactly the questions reluctant new subscribers typically have:

 

Subscription form for Nir Eyal's newsletter

 

First, the copy is clear, and the benefit the new subscriber will get is clearly outlined in the subtitle. But it’s the innocuous little line at the end that truly shines. In just two short sentences, Nir addresses and appeases two of the major hesitations to subscribing: he promises to keep your email safe from spam, while stressing that you can unsubscribe whenever you wish

The latter fact especially serves to build trust with the reader and prevents them from feeling cheated or tricked into opting in. And he keeps his promise - every email you receive contains an unsubscribe link, in plain sight rather than intentionally made barely noticeable.

Making unsubscribing extremely difficult is, unfortunately, a pretty common dark UX pattern, so, those businesses that simplify this process and even point to it automatically get points with the user. This is especially true for users from the EU, who have benefited from more transparency since the implementation of GDPR in May 2018.

The message you get confirming your subscription, then, is even more heartwarming:

 

Confirmation message to Nir Eyal's newsletter

 

The page reads easily, with short sentences and highlighted bits. The second point is very welcoming and promises the reader a positive interaction if they choose to connect, encouraging them to do so. 

But, again, it’s the very last sentence that truly hits the spot - “it’s great to have you here!” This feels perfectly genuine and gives the reader a strong impression that it was written specifically for them, personalized and manual rather than something automated. Even knowing that it is in fact an automated response, you can’t help but feel that Nir is genuinely happy to have you. 

Notice that this last sentence is very similar to one of the previously mentioned Slack loading messages - “You’re here! The day just got better.” Both make the reader feel special and valuable, without having to be super personalized and to solve particular pains. 

Feeling inadequate or incompetent is actually a pain in and of itself, one that a lot of people face daily, and hence such small instances of recognition can truly go a long way towards brightening their day.


Conclusion

 

Microcopy should be aligned with the overall design - they are both intrinsic parts of the same user experience.

 

We hope this blog post has given you a better idea of what microcopy is and what some best practices for writing microcopy are. Ideally, you’ll start noticing more and more examples of exceptionally good (or poor!) microcopy and, in time, subconsciously adopt some of these practices and incorporate them into your own writing. 

For further reading, we highly recommend the excellent book Microcopy: The Complete Guide by Kinneret Yifrah. It’s truly an invaluable resource for anyone undertaking UX writing and further elaborates on a lot of the points mentioned in this post.