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Microcopy and the rise of UX writing

Microcopy & the Rise of UX Writing | Edgar Allan

Unlike, say a print ad, digital products are inherently interactive, which means there’s more to worry about than how something looks and what it says. Enter UX writing: well-crafted microcopy that guides people through their online journey, providing answers, encouraging action and more.

There’s a lot of different types of writing and copy-related terminology that gets thrown around in the digital world. Content marketing. Copywriting. Brand journalism. And the list goes on and on… But an entirely new category has recently taken center stage and evolved into a specialty of its own: UX writing.

In its simplest terms, UX writing refers to the copy that guides users through a digital experience, be it a website, mobile app or other type of interface. The CTA button you clicked directing you to “Learn More”? That’s UX writing. The error message that pops up when you enter the wrong password? That, too. It’s basically all those little snippets of text associated with the actions a user takes on screen. To be clear, this type of content — known as microcopy — has existed basically as long as websites have. But now, as digital products become increasingly more complex, and in a time when “user experience” has almost hit “storytelling”-level buzzword status, people are realizing how integral these words are to, well, the user experience. Boom. UX writing is necessary, and now, UX writers are a valuable thing.

Getting those tiny bits of copy right, so to speak, takes a little art, a little science and a whole lot of user empathy. In addition to having a way with words, UX writers are information hierarchy alchemists, working with designers to understand user flows and make sure page structure and microcopy work together to guide people through the site. They might also engage in a little research and analysis, looking at conversion metrics and user session data to see if microcopy is doing its job (aka helping people know where to go and what to do), or is creating rage clicks and the occasional Mac thrown out a window.

So what exactly makes for good, user experience-driven microcopy?
We break it down into 4 core qualities:

1. Useful
Microcopy should provide guidance and encourage action, whether it’s text written in a search bar that prompts the user to enter a piece of information like a location, or a button with a CTA that solidifies an intent, like “Place My Order.” That means button labels like “Ok” or “Submit” aren’t gonna cut it in good UX writing. Say you’re trying to log into your account on a website and an error message pops up that reads “Wrong password” with an “Ok” CTA on a button that closes the message box. Ok? No, it’s not okay! You need to log in to your account! What do you do now!? To avoid this scenario, websites with smart microcopy have CTAs attached to the error state that offer options like “Try Again” or “Reset/Recover Password.”

2. Succinct

UX writing is not the place to wax poetic. The goal is to communicate what you need to as concisely as you can; typically, the fewer words the better. Let’s go back to the wrong password error message. Bad microcopy might be a CTA like “Click here to re-enter your password.” Good CTA copy is the more succinct “Try again.” The only exception to the rule is when you might add a few extra words to support your brand’s voice. Google, for example, doesn’t like to lead with negative words, so their version of “Wrong password,” becomes something a little more friendly: “That password doesn’t look right.” (More on that in the next paragraph…)

3. Human

The most important thing in UX writing is to maintain focus on your user — don’t forget that the whole purpose is to help them out when they’re online, so make sure they’ll understand what you’re saying. That means writing in a way that sounds like you’re talking to another person rather than entering text in a computer, and writing in plain English, getting rid of any industry jargon or other technical language they might not be familiar with. (E.g. computer speak = “An authentication error has occurred.” Human speak = “That password doesn’t look right.”) Along these lines, you should also tailor copy to fit your brand personality, aligning messaging with your voice and then tweaking the tone as appropriate to different interactions throughout the user experience. Mailchimp is great at injecting a bit of its playful personality in its microcopy in this way. Case in point? The success message users receive after scheduling an email campaign says, “High fives! Your campaign is in the send queue and will go out shortly.”

4. Transparent

Good UX writing is known to increase conversions by directing action, but it also does so by alleviating user tensions and fears, sometimes by anticipating users’ questions. This becomes most important during sign-up processes or when a transaction is involved. For example, if you’re asking for certain personal data in a form field, add a line of copy that assures users they’re information won’t be shared or made public. Showing the number of steps in a purchase flow, or telling the user what will and won’t happen when pressing a button are also great tactics to reduce purchase anxiety. Netflix offers a great example of using transparent microcopy during sign-up for a free trial, outlining the steps the user will take and letting them know what to expect in each stage of the process. You never want to leave people guessing!

Next time you’re browsing the internet, pay attention to all those subtle prompts and little lines of messaging… we bet you’ll start to realize how important well-crafted microcopy is to your online experience!

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