The best things come in small packages, or so the old adage goes. And it’s certainly true for UX writing and its occasionally troublesome child, microcopy. After all, it can be a challenge to communicate brand identity and messaging, while meeting user needs, all in a short strap-line of microcopy. There is tremendous skill in imbuing meaning within a couple of characters and in this article, we’ll show you why your business needs to start sweating the small stuff.
What is microcopy?
Microcopy or microcontent are the tiny pieces of writing that populate a website, app or product. For example, they could be instructions, error messages, empty states, tooltips, pop-up windows or the words that sit around a sign-up or log in form. Basically, they are the small lines of text that push a user through a journey and help them complete tasks. And there’s a lot more to them than writing “click here”.
Microcopy informs and educates. It supports the actualisation of intentions and gives users exactly what they need, when they need it. And it does so in a brand’s voice. It tells your organisation’s story every time words appear. Digital and tangible experiences are slowly built through these incremental moments. These slices of copy drive the user through, reassuring and guiding, and providing helpful signposts along the way.
Microcopy encapsulates and communicates who you are to your users without getting in the way. And these users, incidentally, are a captive audience. We’re not trying to sell or push anything here, so why not reward them with a great experience and engaging copy? Mastering it may not be easy, but where there’s struggle there’s opportunity.
A good place to begin is with the UX ten commandments, also known as the Nielsen Norman Group’s Ten Usability Heuristics of Interface Design. Not all of them are directly applicable to content, but a few marry up well:
- Always orient users – we need to ensure that the user is always anchored on the page. They need to know what’s happening, why and what’s next. Good microcopy must support navigation
- Ensure interfaces mirror the real world – we need to speak in our users’ voice, using words, concepts and metaphors they’d expect and understand. This means utilising natural language rather than industry terms and speaking in plain English whenever possible
- Consistency in language conventions – similarly, use the same language across a digital system to avoid confusion. This will also help with another commandment; we want users to recognise a system by using helpful language and systems, rather than making them memorise a route through it
- Prevent errors and show users how to fix them – ideally, user testing will have revealed problem areas and you can craft support content to stop common mistakes from occurring. As humans are both infinitely fallible and unpredictable, we should include informative error messaging that helps them quickly solve the issue
Once you have the usability specifics pinned down and user needs established, we can then begin to thread in tone of voice. These two intentions need to work in tandem, with user needs leading and brand voice shaping. Sure, we can tread the well-worn track of predictable text, or we can use microcopy as a chance to go further and sprinkle more of your brand’s personality across every journey. But watch out – here be bad content.
As I walk through the Valley of Uncanny Content
This is something I spoke about in more length in my Beware the chatty brand voice blog, but I wanted to dwell on some microcopy examples of when an organisation’s tone of voice goes haywire. This could be because the internet is a crowded places and good ideas are quickly imitated. Or, a brand tries to step out of the pack but stumbles over executing how it wants to sound. We aim for cute and end up with creepy. Sometimes we just sound tone deaf.
For example, when the first 404 error message rolled out threatening to fire one of the dev team (like in the Whitespark image below) it may have been amusing.
Ten thousand renditions and reiterations later, and it’s less so. Such trend-chasing messaging is now so pervasive across the internet that its appearance is about as funny as your aunt’s obsession with sharing minion memes on Facebook.
Relying on gimmicks you saw online does not constitute a brand personality. And we also need to consider how many times this page will appear, or journey be taken. A joke isn’t as funny on the third, forth or even tenth reading. Humour in general is a tricky terrain to navigate and requires knowing your audience like the back of your hand. But who doesn’t like a challenge?
Conversely, Google Books features a familiar, albeit permanently lost, literary character in the form of Captain Ahab in its 404 imagery.
Fittingly, rather than searching for his white, watery nemesis, he overlooks a sea of pages. Unlike the previous example, this illustration won’t wear on the user as much as a tired old joke. It delights not just first-time users, but every user (especially if they have a soft spot for Moby Dick).
Think bigger than the beaten track
The point is, we shouldn’t only chase the shiny, latest fad. Instead, we should cast a creative eye over the brand in question and see what novel and appropriate ways we can communicate these intricate lines of copy. The likes of clickable elements, calls to action and accompanying text on forms may seem like a second thought to some, but when done right, they can cement an organisation in their customers’ hearts.