UX Design6 minute read

Why Small Words Matter: The Importance of Microcopy UX

Small words matter. Effective UX microcopy can help UX designers create digital products that are more useful, engaging, and simple to use. Here are several examples of good (and bad) microcopy.
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Small words matter. Effective UX microcopy can help UX designers create digital products that are more useful, engaging, and simple to use. Here are several examples of good (and bad) microcopy.

Chintan Bhatt

Chintan is a user experience designer with over a decade of experience designing products for web, mobile, and other digital mediums.

Expertise

As UX designers, we focus a lot of attention (justifiably) on interaction and interface design, but how can we continue to raise the bar and create digital products that are more useful, engaging, and simple to use?

Words. They yield more power than an atom bomb. UX writing, in particular, is an essential part of the design process because it can dramatically improve user engagement concerning digital products.

Don't ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.
– Hamza Yusuf

Famed usability experts, the Nielsen Norman Group claim that:

  • Scanning text is typical behavior for higher-literacy users.
  • Users read only about 20% of the text on an average page with 600 to 800 words.
  • Concise text, objective language, and scannable copy improves usability by 124%.

There are a lot of distractions and constraints competing for user engagement with digital products. High-quality UX writing cannot be underestimated as a vehicle to both improve the user experience and engage the user.

An often overlooked yet powerful form of UX writing is microcopy.

What Is Microcopy?

Microcopy is the small, informative, or instructional text on forms, pop-ups, buttons, search prompts, tips, etc. They inform and assist people in small ways as they are using a product.

Microcopy serves as a guide when users take specific actions, such as searching for products or trying to choose an appropriate response. Microcopy can also build trust and empathy with users and form a stronger bond with the brand overall.

Effective UX microcopy is:

  • Clear, concise, and easy to understand
  • Takes on the voice and tone of the brand
  • Fits in visually and feels like a part of the design
  • Fills a need, answers a question, or builds empathy

How Microcopy Improves User Engagement

Effective microcopy seeks to understand and anticipate user expectations. It allows the user to feel as if they are having a conversation with the interface, and it yields the power to engage users and increase conversions. Here are some of the benefits of effective microcopy:

User Empathy

Adding emotion to microcopy creates a better connection with users, and helps foster a stronger bond. Users fall in love with brands that make them laugh and feel better about themselves.

But how do we know what to convey to create the right emotions? By conducting in-depth user research at the beginning of the UX process. Understanding the users, their unmet needs, motivations, and behaviors will assist UX designers when crafting the most effective empathetic microcopy.

Another example of building user empathy with microcopy is showing the steps that are being taken when placing an order. Giving users a little extra context will provide them with a sense of what is going on and alleviate the stress of wondering when their order will arrive.

Clarity and Control

There are many reasons why users abandon shopping carts, stop using products, and cancel subscriptions:

  • Ambiguous or confusing messages
  • Too many personal questions on forms
  • Too much jargon
  • Unclear shipping charges
  • Not enough information about the product, service, or process
  • Uncertainty around how to cancel an order

Using microcopy on or around buttons to inform the user what happens next when they are going through a purchase sequence, helps them feel more in control. Another example is using microcopy when installing or updating a product. With each step, the microcopy can let the user know exactly what is, or will be, happening.

For conveying clarity and control, effective UX microcopy does not have to fill up an entire paragraph. It simply needs to be clear and concise. The goal from a UX perspective is to reduce anxiety and better inform users. This example from Mailchimp shows an effective use of microcopy when a user is having an issue signing in to the platform:

Transparency

Because digital products can raise concern for security and privacy, microcopy that builds trust will have a positive impact on the UX.

For example, if people feel insecure or suspicious while making a transaction, it can lead to the abandonment of a purchase or being skeptical about continuing to use a product. Here are a few scenarios where that might occur:

  • Asking for too much personal information
  • Unspecified details about guarantee/warranty/replacement of the product
  • Asking for credit card details for free trial subscriptions

Instead of assuming users will give all of the information asked, effective microcopy can inform the user why it is being asked and how it will be used.

The Netflix sign-up process is an excellent example of providing user transparency with microcopy. They provide reassurance by letting people know when they can cancel a trial without being charged.

Another excellent example of microcopy being used to provide transparency is LinkedIn. During the signup process for their premium service, they explain exactly why they need credit card details and how to avoid being charged.

Prompting People to Take Action

Good, effective microcopy can help people complete tasks, drive engagement, and encourage users to go further and do more.

For example, if people are using an eCommerce site and they remove items from their “cart,” microcopy can be strategically placed, encouraging them to continue exploring other similar products.

Driving engagement, providing empathy and transparency, and giving a sense of clarity and control are all tenets of effective microcopy UX. Product designers have multiple opportunities to improve the user experience.

But not all microcopy is good.

The Effects of Poor Microcopy

UX designers should always strive to create effective microcopy. But is any microcopy better than none at all? Not necessarily. Poor microcopy can ruin even the best UX within a product. Here are some tenets of poor microcopy:

  • Unclear and confusing
  • Too verbose
  • Unengaging, vague, and misguided
  • Tone-deaf and non-empathetic

Unengaging text that is vague and unclear can misguide users to take unwanted actions within a product, leaving them angry and confused.

Lack of any microcopy at all, in certain situations, is also considered a poor UX choice. For example, a sign-up form asking for an email address and acceptance of Terms and Conditions without any explanation of what will happen with the given email address is a missed opportunity.

“Confirm shaming” is another example of poor UX microcopy. It is tone-deaf and non-empathetic. When users experience this, they associate these feelings with the brand and often never return.

Creating products that are more useful, engaging, and simple to use is a balance between sound design principles and other less recognized techniques, such as the implementation of UX microcopy.

Small words can have a significant impact. UX microcopy is no longer a trend, but a discipline that has made its way into the core part of design processes and systems.

The benefits of effective UX microcopy are substantial: increased user engagement, brand loyalty, trust, and frictionless product experiences. When used correctly, good microcopy can help a product stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace. User adoption rates tend to be higher and products experience less churn.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

  • Why is user engagement important?

    User engagement is important because it measures the value users find in a product or service. Products and services with higher user engagement tend to be more profitable and experience less churn. Engaged users also provide a lot more feedback which can be used by internal teams for continued improvement.

  • How do you write microcopy?

    Microcopy can be written using brevity, context, action, and authenticity. With brevity, less is more. Context is helping users figure out exactly what to do. Action uses words that help users do something, i.e., take an action. Authenticity reassures users and helps them feel they know exactly what is going on.

  • What’s UX writing?

    UX writing is the practice of creating copy that helps users interact with a product or service. It includes microcopy, instructions, assistance, guides, error messages, and can even integrate with legal copy such as terms and conditions.

  • What is UX content strategy?

    A UX content strategy is a plan to create content that is useful, usable, engaging, and valuable. The UX content strategy must align with core business objectives and be a part of the larger content strategy.

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Chintan Bhatt

Located in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Member since December 29, 2016

About the author

Chintan is a user experience designer with over a decade of experience designing products for web, mobile, and other digital mediums.

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

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