The Four Cornerstones of Writing UX Microcopy

A few words can make all the difference when it comes to user experience. These tips will help you write better microcopy that enhances your UX and provides a more authentic experience.

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The Four Cornerstones of Writing UX Microcopy

A few words can make all the difference when it comes to user experience. These tips will help you write better microcopy that enhances your UX and provides a more authentic experience.

Microcopy can make or break a user’s experience. In just a few words, a user can establish enough trust with you to make a purchase, for example, or they could be driven away from your interface entirely, leaving their cart empty or abandoned.

Though it isn’t a new term, the role microcopy plays in a user experience is something many UX designers need to become more aware of — whether it is you writing the copy, a marketing team, or otherwise.

What is microcopy?

The term “microcopy” refers to the tiny tidbits of copy found on websites, applications, and products. These short sentences tell a user what to do, address user concerns, provide context to a situation, and help tell the greater story about your brand, product, and the way you do business.

Microcopy is everywhere — from the words that comprise a call to action, to the disclaimers that assure users that their email address won’t be shared or stored. While this may sound like the responsibility of marketers and legal teams, these works mark a vital part of UX that cannot be underestimated.

Microcopy as poetry

All too often it’s an oversight, when in fact writing good microcopy is an art, one that Amy Thibodeau, a senior UX lead at Shopify, likens to poetry.

“With poetry, there is a form, and there’s usually a length of a line and a way that rhyming works. There are all these constraints. You’ve got to communicate something that is important and moving and clear, but within the constraints of the form. I feel like that’s very much true for UX writing,” Amy said in an interview with Adobe.

“You really have to communicate something that is often really important to a person. [At Shopify, that’s to help them] grow and manage their business, but you have the constraints of the interface. You have to be really creative within the set of constraints. I think that’s the thing that I continually find the most fun and inspiring. It’s almost like a puzzle.”

If writing microcopy is a puzzle, the four corner pieces are:

  • Brevity
  • Context
  • Action
  • Authenticity

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Cornerstone 1: Brevity

When it comes to microcopy, less is more. Keep it simple and straight to the point. Your copy should guide users so intuitively that they barely even notice it’s there. You want it to be concise and intuitive, as this brevity is the foundation of your microcopy.

Airbnb is a good example of microcopy done well. The search bar prompts users to “try homes in Bariloche.”  It is short (brevity), provides an example (context), encourages a search (action), and speaks to Airbnb’s brand (authenticity).

Building on brevity, this microcopy provides a concrete example of what the user should be entering in order to achieve the desired results. It cycles through several different examples to highlight other features, such as to try “concerts in Los Angeles” or “restaurants in London,” while also showing the user the different experiences that are available.

Cornerstone 2: Context

Context helps users figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do, while empowering them to establish trust with the product/brand. Context isn’t reserved for just search bars and forms, but a fundamental part of all microcopy. Regardless of whether your constraints allow for a few words or a few sentences, context is your opportunity to give your user more insight into what comes next. It can be short (like the Airbnb example), or slightly longer to provide more details.

This example from ClassPass shows how a few sentences can not only provide context into what you’re offering, but also prompt action with a special offer and call to action. This is also very helpful for your users who may use screen readers to assist them with navigating websites and applications.

Cornerstone 3: Action

All microcopy has some sort of action associated with it. Whether it’s to get the user to click a button, to provide you with information such as an email address, or to simply keep them engaged and on the page, each word has a purpose.

The action component of microcopy is strategic. You don’t want the copy to be too sales-driven, but rather it should feel natural for the user to read and absorb.

Let’s look at Etsy, for example.

There is a lot of microcopy going on here. We’ve got:

  • Brevity: the search bar, which includes an example.
  • Context: A set of three examples of microcopy designed to foster trust with the user and their privacy, while providing insight into what Etsy is all about.
  • Action: A slider and two other featured boxes, each with its own microcopy and call to action (shop now, check out mood-boosting jewellery, and plan your wedding).

The user has numerous options here, but each one has been carefully thought about and strategically implemented with language that speaks to both Etsy as a brand and the user. It is friendly, informative, and it brings us to our final cornerstone: authenticity.

Cornerstone 4: Authenticity (and the risk of dark UX)

Of all the cornerstones of UX microcopy, authenticity might be the most important one. We have entered a time where certain brands have acknowledged the power of microcopy and have used it in ways that can damage a user experience by misleading users, among other things.

A study conducted by Sigma found that some online retailers are embracing what’s called “dark UX patterns” to intentionally manipulate users. One of the examples the study provided included this screenshot from Amazon.

After adding a television to their basket, the researchers at Sigma were prompted to “protect” their purchase with insurance. By taking advantage of color theory, the user’s eye is drawn first to “Add to Basket” rather than to “No thanks.”

“Microcopy is so important in reassuring users and making them aware of exactly what they are signing up for,” Sigma said in the report.

The study also highlighted examples of microcopy that contradicts itself, thus designed to confuse or mislead users, as well as microcopy that scares users into making a purchase. While we commended Etsy above for using microcopy in concise and contextual ways, the Sigma study reveals their using a scare tactic that many organizations use to increase conversions.

Under the “buy it now” action, the copy says, “Almost gone. There’s only 1 left,” with an image of an hourglass with time running out.

After discovering this study, I was tempted to remove the Etsy example from before, but ultimately decided to keep it. It shows that microcopy is something that needs to be considered across the board in order to be truly authentic. You can be doing it well in one area, but it really needs to be factored into all areas of the user experience.

To summarize

When writing microcopy, really think about the elements you want to include in your UX poem and the user who will be reading it.

They don’t have a lot of time, so be concise (brevity).

They want to know exactly what they’re/you’re doing and why, so be transparent (context).

They are there for a reason, whether it’s to learn more or buy something, so help them do it (action).

They want to engage with brands that they trust and that they feel understand them, so show them how you do this (authenticity).

With these four corners of the puzzle in place, you’ll be well on your way to writing UX microcopy as beautiful as poetry.

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