07 / 01 / 2022

Microcopy and the golden rules of UX writing

By Sanne Kjær Thygesen, Advisor, Forte Advice

The art of writing digitally lies in what we call UX writing. A discipline where we use text to guide users on their customer journey, most often on digital platforms. In doing so, microcopy is extremely important.

And now you might be thinking; what is microcopy?! Overall, microcopy refers to the smallest pieces of text on a page. It can be anything from button labels to link copies and input fields. Although these copies don’t seem like much, you shouldn’t underestimate their impact.

Microcopy has a huge impact on the overall user experience and it’s something you can’t overlook when talking about digital platforms. Think about the last time you logged in to Netflix, and the text fields and buttons you encountered along the way, such as ‘Play’, ‘More info’ or maybe even an error message. We constantly encounter these small pieces of microcopy. Therefore, we also owe it to the users to pay attention to them. 

We must take responsibility and focus on the discipline of UX writing. This requires a definition, where I allow myself to borrow the words of Lisa Sanchez:

“UX writing is the practice of designing the words people see and hear when they interact with software. It's about designing the conversation between a product and its user.”

Personally, I’d like to say that UX writing is very similar to copywriting, as many of the same principles are repeated: clarity, consistency, precision, context and of course voice and tone. But with UX writing, the interaction with the users might get a little bit more attention.

However, UX writing is not "just" about microcopy. It is just as much about the complete experience users get. The reason why this blog post is specifically about microcopy, is because it is a great place to start when we talk about UX writing. By focusing on microcopy, you can quickly raise the level of quality, and it’s thus a good starting point for working with UX writing at a higher level.

Now, it may be a little bit confusing where to start, so let me make it easy for you. Below, you will find Advice's starter pack for good microcopy within UX writing.

THE GOLDEN PRINCIPLES

You are probably familiar with having some sort of checklist that you automatically follow when designing something. As a UX designer, I at least recognize having some kind of golden rule set that acts as my own checklist - a checklist that raises the quality of my work every time I tick a box.

At Advice, we currently have seven golden principles when it comes to microcopy within UX writing. Don’t pay too much attention to the specific number though, because we all get wiser over time, so the list will probably expand. However, it certainly does not change the validity of the principles, which in our opinion should be checked if you want to create a user-centric design.

#1 PRINCIPLE: DEFINE YOUR VOICE

First, you should define your microcopy voice. This means considering what you want the voice to sound and feel like, even in the smallest pieces of copy. So, how do you do that? Our advice is: dive into the organization's voice and tone.

The voice and tone define how you say things. How do you express the organization behind (voice), and how do you speak to your users (tone)? Therefore, in your voice and tone, you should ensure that your microcopy reflects the values of the organization as well as the feelings of your users in the situation.

#2 PRINCIPLE: BE CONSISTENT

Being consistent is about using the same words and phrases when referring to the same thing. It is thus about whether you create a consistent experience across your platform and pages.

However, I often find that we use different words for e.g. buttons that entice the same action, which confuses the users, perhaps even to such an extent that they don't achieve neither their own nor the company’s objectives. So, even if you think you have been consistent with your choice of words and phrases, then you should always doublecheck your microcopy. My guess is that you will be amazed how often you say the same thing with different words.

Tip! Put your button and link texts in a document and compare them to each other. Then edit.

#3 PRINCIPLE: CREATE MEANINGFUL LINKS AND BUTTONS

Do your users know what awaits them when they press a button or follow a link? It is your responsibility to prepare them. A responsibility you can only live up to by making sure you use the right verbs and phrases.

Massimiliano Albizzati is sharp when it comes to creating meaningful labels on buttons and link texts. By comparing two examples, he shows the effect of choosing verbs carefully and making it clear what to expect next.

Even though the copies above are somewhat similar, the comparison highlights how the exact choice of words defines how well you succeed in guiding the user. The same applies to the examples below:

So, be critical of which verbs and phrases you use. Ask yourself if there are other words that can help give users a better indication of what to expect when they click on the link and/or button.

#4 PRINCIPLE: MAKE THE COPY EASY TO DECODE

Once you have decided which verbs and phrases you want to use, you should make sure that it is written in present tense. This makes your text more active and alive, which is easier for users to decode.

Feel free to be brief, but still informative so it is clear what you want to say to the users or want them to do. But remember, it must not be too rigid either. After all, the users should not feel that you are simply giving commands.Do not sound too formal in your microcopy, but use simple everyday words that match the target group you want to reach. 

Exemplified below by Massimiliano Albizzati, with just the slightest change, you can make the copy more informal and thereby help users decode the button.

#5 PRINCIPLE: PUT YOURSELF IN THE USER’S SHOES

When users visit a website, it is often with a purpose. Perhaps they look for inspiration for buying a new sofa or for more information on which insurance company to choose. No matter what, the context helps determine the emotions users have in the situation.

These feelings must be addressed when writing your microcopy. Therefore, you must put yourself in the user’s shoes. It will help you write a more useful and informative copy that meets the target group at eye level.

In addition, your copy should always be open and inviting. Often, it is beneficial to communicate positive emotions as users will find the content more appealing. It will lead to a better experience even when error messages appear, which leads me on to the next principle.

#6 PRINCIPLE: BE HELPFUL

You know what it feels like to be met with an error message. Remember that feeling and then think about how you can improve that user experience. Not that you can prevent users from getting error messages, but you can try to make it a less negative or maybe even a positive experience.

First and foremost, keep a positive tone. The way you express yourself has a lot to say. It’s bad practice to write error messages that are too technical. Instead, take your users by the hand with understandable and informative copies that help them make their next move.

It is your job to ensure that the users don't "get stuck". Therefore, use microcopies and effects to give them ongoing feedback, for instance when they press a button or fill out a field. The feedback can be both positive and negative, and it can give a hint as to whether they are on the right track or not.

Again, Massimiliano Albizzati makes it easy for users to create a strong password by continuously providing clear feedback.

#7 PRINCIPLE: REMEMBER THE STRUCTURE

Imagine that you worked for hours on your content and then threw it out in the trash. Similar scenarios would unfold if you did not take the content structure into account. Because no matter if your content is 'on point', it doesn’t help if the structure is bad.

Therefore, prioritize your text and make sure to place the most important things at the top. Next, you must create a good flow down the page. It is important that you help users with what information to focus on. Consider everything from the level of detail to the use of effects such as colours, fonts, etc. to catch the eye. This helps users get a better overview of the content.

If you manage to create good content and a good structure/flow at the same time, then I almost guarantee you’re home safe. At least, you have improved the user experience a lot.

LAST WORDS FROM ME, FOR NOW…

Test, test, test… As with all other UX work, you should always test your microcopy with your users to make sure you meet them in the best possible way.

You might not ‘hit the spot’ in your first try, but you'll already be well on your way. By reading guidelines like this one, you are one step closer to creating good microcopies that live up to the criteria within UX writing.