Microcopy Matters – How We Improved Our UX Writing and You Can Too

We all struggle to phrase specific thoughts or instructions. But if your user doesn't get you, all is lost. We give you our story: how we improved our microcopy and tips on how you can too.

For example, designers naturally want to create nice, usable products. Usually, they draw a detailed wireframe, test it a couple of times and at the end give it a fancy UI. They think in pixels and communicate with users in a visual language.

As a designer, I can truly understand this world of creative attitude. But wait, we might forget to spend enough time with something else – designing our words. Even a chatterbox can have difficulty explaining their thoughts so the listener gets the message.

In this article we answer:

  • What constitutes microcopy?
  • What makes microcopy important? How did we realize its importance?
  • What we learned about microcopy.

The definition of microcopy

First of all, we can learn a compact definition for microcopy in Kinneret Yifrah’s book about microcopy. It defines microcopy as:

“the words or phrases in the user interface which are directly related to the actions a user takes: the motivation before the action, instructions that accompany the action, and the feedback after the user has taken the action”.

I think this describes our topic here quite perfectly. That it comes as so normal for us humans to interpret everything through words makes this so natural.

One cannot ignore the fact that communication has a basis, and that words form this basis. Even if some people call it such an old-fashioned view, we just cannot deny that it forms the most human way of “talking” to each other.

Microcopy greeting on wall

You have to use words for others to understand you perfectly. Well, at least well enough compared to other possibilities. You even think in words, don’t you?

All in all, the main point here remains that we have to find a way to make our words user-friendly, just like the visual design elements or any other part of a product.

What makes microcopy important?

“Why should I design my words? Why should I even care about words? I’m a designer, Jim, not a writer” – you might think.

But let’s get honest, you communicate with words, too, just like everyone else. You do it because this comes so naturally.

When you want someone to understand your thoughts, you use words to explain them. And yes, you do it in your designs as well, as anyone could admit. Just think about those nice little buttons which call the user to action – words direct your users to the right action.

Quite surely, it matters to actually tell people to “send their applications” or “delete their precious files” if they want to succeed in those actions. For that reason, I’m putting the spotlight on microcopy here.

I realized I hadn’t paid enough attention to microcopy

Not that long ago, I used to have difficult days trying to explain something that sounded so obvious in my head. The right words to help users go through the actual workflow well enough would not come. Nor I could find the right number of them.

We were designing a product that helps people with motion sicknesses improve their capabilities. I knew exactly what all that involved.

Microcopy writing: a computer and glasses

Still, when it came to testing in real life, our poor physiotherapy patient users just couldn’t interpret the sentences quickly. In turn, this made them do the exercises too slowly.

The copy I banged out caused all that. At first, we didn’t deal with it enough – especially because in medical fields everything carries even more importance.

We managed to find the right expressions, calls-to-action and sentences after all, but it could have gone much faster and easier if we had had a system or more experience in how to design our words.

In those times, I started to think more about writing in the X field. Later on, I found myself thinking more and more about this topic while working on other projects, too.

Then we started to take it more seriously

We always educate each other and ourselves. That makes us improve constantly at UX Studio. So, when we talked about our personal objectives, I came up with the idea to focus on microcopy.

Luckily I found Kinneret Yifrah’s book on microcopy in our digital office library, deciding what to dig into in the following weeks and months. Immediately I fell in love with the topic again (if you haven’t read it yet, do so asap – you won’t regret it).

I realized that even though writing copy forms part of our everyday, even as UX designers, we still don’t consider it an integral enough part of designing products in general.

So, I decided to share the thoughts from the book with the guys at UX Studio. And after not getting surprised at all, they also got excited about the whole thing.

We started in-house microcopy workshops

In June we started to do workshops about microcopy to develop our writing skills. We all know that we practice microcopy when we design nearly anything. Now we started to pay much more attention to this field, keeping in mind that we cannot consider it a secondary task in any project.

Microcopy example by Pinterest
On one of our microcopy workshops, we had to rethink a
real product’s voice & tone and specific messages in small groups.

Long stories go much easier if you have a draft. Well, I got the feeling that making a checklist of Yifrah’s super cool guide would come in useful for my colleagues and me.

With this checklist, we can systematically design our words to turn out as user-friendly as possible. But before jumping into that, let’s look at some basic rules of microcopy to always remember when dealing with writing for user experience.

How can you improve your microcopy skills?

Know what microcopy does well

We want users to interact with the product and have a good experience. That happens only if we manage to engage the user in a mutual, humanized relationship with the digital interface.

This way we even improve the brand we are working on as we crystallize the character or personality of the product by working on the microcopy.

Think about a seemingly simple product or service you have used but felt like the only one who didn’t understand due to your own lack of cultivation – don’t blame yourself. I would like to refer back to Yifrah’s thoughts here that when designing something, to make it easy to use:

Don’t sound like an insurance company

To look it over a little more, let’s review the roles of microcopy:

  • Letting the user know what to do at a certain point
  • Explaining errors
  • Building confidence in the user when taking an action
  • Minimizing uncertainty in hard-to-decide situations
  • Alleviating worries
  • Setting expectations
  • Building the brand of the particular product

Microcopy example by MailChimp

All in all, it mainly entails making the user happy and not frustrated. Keeping all these general rules in mind makes dealing with our words much easier.

To dig deeper into the topic, a checklist of the very base of writing microcopy – the voice and tone design – ranks much higher.

Define your voice and tone in 9 steps +1

After creating a document of the voice and tone, you will have everything based on what you will be able to design the exact right words. Let’s walk through the points to check or create according to the book mentioned above.

Define the following:

1. The vision and the mission. Always keep asking “why”, and sooner or later you will get the statements about the brand.

2. The values. Choosing the five most important values and describing them in a few sentences will help create a toolbox for dealing with microcopy.

3. The personality. Just remember that not everyone does cute. Your writing doesn’t have to either. Describe the brand’s personality type. Maybe hold a brand persona workshop for this. We at UX Studio often do that.

4. The demographics. Yes, you have to know who the brand wants to talk to. Define the target audience’s age, socio-economic status, gender, location, etc.

5. The needs and problems of your target audience. These can take the form of emotional worries or practical challenges. Just focus on them, write them down, but don’t forget to use your target audience’s words!

6. Their hopes and dreams. Again, use your users’ words, and remind them what positive outcomes they can gain by using your product.

7. The objections and concerns of your users. Map out the barriers that stop them from using your product. Managing this can give them reasons to trust you.

8. The preferences of your target audience. List your product’s competitive advantages. Users choose it and not another for these reasons. So, really highlight these preferences whenever possible.

9. The relationship between the brand and the users. Describe the long-term relationship you want to create: a friendship or a mentorship?

+1 Always keep in mind that everything you write down should support the voice and tone!

This checklist should guide you toward a decent voice and tone design. Of course, it contains much more, but I find it very useful and smart to start with it. We could go much deeper, but that would make this too much to post on a blog.

Remember: Use the right words and the right number of them! 

Microcopy workshop participants

Summary: Microcopy Matters – We Improved Our UX Writing and You Can Too

All in all, we can say that microcopy must form an integral part of UX design. Give a lot of attention to what and how you write what appears in the products you work on.

Even if the right word doesn’t come right away, you can always find a way and a guide to help. So don’t stop yourself from “wasting” too much time on microcopy – it will pay off.

Remember:

  • Know what microcopy does well
  • Define your voice and tone
  • Keep educating yourself on microcopy

Oh, and just a little more about microcopy for takeaway: Write concisely and specifically; keep it as short as possible; forget about jargon; spell out numbers up to nine and do not overuse constractions. Just don’t.

Want to read more?

Read more related articles to copy: How to create legible screens and Tools for UX copy testing.

Want to know more about the UX process? Download our free ebook Product Manager’s Guide To UX Design to read our UX case studies and learn about tools and tricks.

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  • Andrew Kroll

    Another reason this is important is for accessibility, that there is a not insignificant population, estimated at between 8-15% of your users, that has trouble interacting with a UI visually (think screen-readers and other assistive devices.) I love a great UI as much as the next person, but if that is all you’re designing for, you’re leaving out a whole category of people.

    • Andrew, I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for adding the accessibility aspect of the topic as well. As you said, it is a vital part of UX 🙂