This post provides an overview of Microcopy with a few tips on the way. The article first appeared on Orr Innovation as a guest post. Orr Innovation is a studio that specialises in behavioural design.
In 2009, Joshua Porter wrote a blog post with the title "Writing Microcopy" (link here). He described a checkout form he created where quite a few online transactions failed due to billing address errors. So what did he do? He added one sentence next to the billing address field: “Be sure to enter the billing address associated with your credit card”.
In the post he wrote:
“And just like that, the errors went away. 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 felt that just adding a few words in the right place at the right time could completely change the user experience. Not only that, he created the name for this type of copy: microcopy.
Microcopy is what we call all those words and small phrases that help someone use an application or website in an optimal way so that they feel good about themselves and succeed in whatever they wanted to do in the first place.
It can include field names, placeholders, field help, button names, alerts, trigger texts, and so on.
Or as Joshua Porter put it:
“Microcopy is small yet powerful copy. It’s fast, light, and deadly. It’s a short sentence, a phrase, a few words. A single word. It’s the small copy that has the biggest impact. Don’t judge it on its size…judge it on its effectiveness.”
The idea is to enhance the user experience and engagement with a site, and make it more usable, while guiding the user to where we want them to go. We want users to feel that there is a real person behind the app or website, not just some faceless machine, and real people communicate.
So the microcopy usually needs to be written in a conversational style rather than in a formal stilted language.
How do we know what messages to project? What drives our users? What value we provide them with? Can we use humour, and if so, how much? Are we trying to excite someone or calm their fears? All these questions are asked up-front before writing the microcopy, and result in the voice and tone of the brand.
We start off by understanding the organisation that publishes the website or app, what personality they want their brand to project and then define what we call the “voice”, how we will communicate with their customers.
We also, of course, try to understand the users, who they are, what fears or anxieties they might have, where they need more knowledge to complete a task without receiving an alert, and so on. This affects the “tone” of the voice, how we project the voice in a specific situation.
So when you next create a product give a lot of thought to those small words and phrases. Think about what you want to achieve and how this is best done taking into account your users and the interface.
Think about those motivational triggers, what to write on the action button and if it needs more motivational text nearby.
What might confuse the user? Do you need to add an “i” or text under the field?
Think about every part of your website or app, such as sign up, log in, contact us, alerts, confirmation messages, and so on, and make sure you provide the correct messages and atmosphere.
Don’t let your empty states stay empty. Use them to market the rest of your site, or tell users what to do so that the next time they access this screen it will include meaningful data.