Microcopy is your Google Maps in product UX

August 31, 2020 | Reading time 5 minutes

The devil is in the details and Microcopy is the devil that can break your product.

One of my personal quotes is: talking destroys more than you like. And with that in mind, microcopy must be a perfect match for me. Don’t waste words, but use them wisely and with care.

The power of microcopy is guiding people without them noticing it. It’s about words giving context to a button. Or the text that provides context to a sign up form. Done right, microcopy is like the perfect personal assistant that makes a product better.

Not copy writing

Microcopy is not the same as copy writing. It’s an aspect of UX writing (see my article about UX writing) focused on the text that people use in an app or on a website. It should text blend with the product in a way that people won’t notice those words.

Words keep people on board

According to Statista, 25% of the downloaded apps have only been used once in 2019.

Graph with the percentage of apps that have only been used once from 2010–2019

Andrew Chen explains, based on Quettra’s data, that Android apps lose 80% of its daily active users 3 days after downloading the app.

Graph with the retention curve of apps on Android.

That’s a lot, but there a several ways to keep people from abandoning a product or using it less. One of your tools is Microcopy and we’re going to look how it does that.

Microcopy is all over the place

Microcopy keeps people on board because the words guide people through a digital product. That’s an app, a website and even an ATM. In each step there are words that provide context to where you are and what you can do.

Take the steps in a webshop.

  • Searching: you are motivated to create an account or add items to you cart. This happens during the onboarding and with call to actions.
  • Purchasing: you see hints of what’s required and why, the advantages of a payment method and buttons what to do next. Your tools are for example labels, tooltips and buttons.
  • Confirmation: you receive a message if the purchase was successful and an estimated delivery date. In case it was unsuccessful you get a message with what went wrong. Both are on screen and through emails.

Microcopy is your Google Maps for digital products.

It answers questions before people ask them

An important task of Microcopy is answering questions before people ask them. Therefore the writer needs to identify potential friction points. For example:

  • What makes that people call support?
  • What information do people prefer not to give?
  • Which tasks result in questions?

You can answer questions upfront with a few words that provide context for user. Takes these examples:

  • Asking for a phone number: tell why you need the phone number and what’s the benefit of providing it.
  • Asking for a serial number:: tell where people can find it or provide a link to a page that guides them in getting it.

Most of us humans don’t like surprises. That’s why you must tell people what they can expect. It makes them confident and motivates to continue.

Use microcopy as a motivator

People need motivation and hints to act. Therefor you should motivate them and tell them why they should:

  • Download an app.
  • Creat an account.
  • Allow access to camera, location, contacts.

It’s not my favorite company, but take a look at Facebook. On a laptop Facebook tells you why you should sign up. It lets you connect with friends around the world.

Facebook sign in form on desktop.

When using a browser on a phone, the message is different. Instead of telling you why you should sign up, they tell you why you should download the app.

Facebook sign in form on mobile.

Apparently Facebook’s priorities differ per device you use.

Dead ends

Websites and apps are full of dead ends. The result is that people don’t finish their shopping or stop using an app.

Microcopy can prevent dead ends and guide people the right way. An empty shopping bag can be a dead end but Coolblue suggest that you search for products or view your wish list. It creates a new start.

Image of an empty cart with microcopy of webshop Coolblue.

Write like humans talk

Developers tend to write like they program. Brief and without context. But that’s not how people talk and your text should be fluent, so people read it like you’re talking to them.

Talking like a human means using words used by humans. Let’s look at a situation where you want to know if your reservation was successful. The confirmation can be:

  • Robot: Reservation successful.
  • Human: We have a reservation for you on Friday September 4th at 5pm.

That’s the same for buttons that lead you to the next page:

  • Robot: More info.
  • Human: I want to know more.

Use plain language

You are writing for all users, not just the experts. That’s why you avoid jargon and use text that everybody is familiar with. It doesn’t have to sound smart. People want texts they understand without thinking. Remember that we said that done right, people won’t notice the words? That’s unlikely with jargon.

Each word has a purpose

I started with the quote: talking destroys more than you like. And it’s true. Microcopy done right, means each piece of text has a purpose. That means you avoid fillers like many, amazing, trustworthy and so on. Each word must contribute to getting people to do what they want.

There are cases where more is good. For instance with error messages. Tell people what went wrong in a way they understand and stay away from error codes. Error codes are for techies.

Be nice, but not too funny

Microcopy must adapt the tone of voice of your brand. That’s what people are familiar with. Don’t be funny if the product is meant to be serious. And be careful with jokes. Even if the audience is informal.

Microcopy in a few words

Leo Burnett spoke on a different topic, but explained of microcopy in a few words:

“Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.”

That’s it.