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Less is more: UX Writing and Microcopy

How you like that:

What is UX Writing? The funniest answer that comes to mind is: Could we make it shorter?

But seriously, to a great extent, UX Writing is about text reduction. A text reduction that maintains its usability, consistency, naturalness, comprehensibility, communicativeness, simplicity, and accessibility.

UX Writing and Microcopy (the terms are often used interchangeably) are names of specializations and professions. They also mean the ability to create specific texts that improve User Experience. UX Writing and Microcopy are also aimed at increasing the usability of web and mobile applications.

What do we know about UX Writing and Microcopy?

What is UX Writing (in the broader sense) and Microcopy (in the narrower sense)? They are forms of a ‘conversation’ between a digital product and its user. Words, language and messages, information, tips, alerts, and explanations created with them are intended to improve the User Flow.

Their purpose is also to lead a user to perform a specific action. For example, to buy. UX Writing and Microcopy are also inseparably linked to the web application interface. They make it a user-friendly, comprehensible, usable, and simple tool.

However, you cannot use any language in web and mobile applications. The choice of communication method largely depends on the language(s) used by future users. Although, as a rule, it should be as inclusive as possible.

UX Writing should take into account the users’ linguistic competencies, habits, and expectations. Age, sex, lifestyle, motivation, typical behavior, aspirations, and mental models are equally important factors. They directly affect the linguistic view of the world, communication styles, and language needs. For example, women use language more frequently to build relationships and convey emotions than to provide information.

Text is important, but it is even more important to check your application or website as regards UX.

What is the difference between UX Writing/Microcopy and Content Writing?

The two concepts and professions can be easily equated. But a UX Writer is not a Content Writer. For a simple but not generally apparent reason. Experts in these two fields differ regarding the goals, means, forms, and contexts of their messages.

Content Writers create texts and messages that are:

  • Deliberately intended to make a powerful impression
  • Persuasive, urging, and appealing
  • Often ambiguous, employing sophisticated metaphors, unexpected figures of speech, surprising comparisons, and unusual style
  • Definitely more complex, longer, and more vivid texts
  • Image-building
  • Creating and activating needs
  • Focused on sales increase
  • In most cases, not formed into a coherent system; they can function independently
  • Using storytelling conventions
  • Subject to A/B testing, but it is not a hard-and-fast principle
  • One way; they do not imitate conversation or interaction.

Compared to the messages by Content Writers, the texts created by UX Writers are:

  • Primarily instructional
  • Useful: they are designed to help achieve goals, perform tasks and understand the mode of operation
  • As unambiguous, specific, straightforward, and comprehensible as possible
  • Brief, concise, aimed at conveying the meaning as briefly as possible
  • Including brand voice and tone, but it is not their primary task to express them
  • Not creating needs; they solve problems
  • Not persuading to purchase; they serve the satisfaction of using a user-friendly and intuitive digital product
  • Creating a consistent message; they function as a system
  • Devoid of stylistic and aesthetic ‘embellishments’
  • Usually (or at least in principle should be) researched and tested (A/B testing)
  • Conversational; focused on humanizing the interactions between the user and the application.

Also, the work on their preparation varies significantly. Content Writers usually cooperate with marketers, while UX Writers most often work with a team of designers, researchers, and developers.

An extremely important difference, or maybe the most important difference, is the text length. Content Writing typically includes longer descriptions of products and services, thematic articles, messages used in mailing, case studies, reports, and PR messages.

UX Writing is minimalist. It employs single words, short nominal sentences, and concise messages. The content is seldom expanded. Multi-sentence or multi-paragraph descriptions are not preferred.

Hence, UX Writing is synonymous with Microcopy. Some authors also use the term Micro Content. But Microcopy is far more popular.

What is Microcopy?

You may be surprised, but Microcopy is not a buzzword. It first appeared in 2009 in the article "Writing Microcopy" by Joshua Porter. The original meaning of this term has not changed significantly since then.

microcopy, ux writing - a guide
Microcopy. The Complete Guide is one of the most interesting and important books on UX Writing and Microcopy.

The author of the most convincing definition of Microcopy is Kinneret Yifrah. She presented it in her book "Microcopy. The Complete Guide."

According to her definition:

Microcopies are words and phrases used in the user interface and directly related to the actions performed by the user.

To put it more briefly and synthetically, Microcopy is used to:

  • Motivate the user before performing an action
  • Instruct the user during an action
  • Inform the user after performing an action.

Microcopies are short texts (commands, field labels, descriptions, instructions, alerts, names, guidance, tips, explanations, and error messages). You can find them in the interfaces of desktop, web, and mobile applications. Their function is to:

  • Instruct (what to do next, how to do it)
  • Guide (specify next steps)
  • Inform (about states, processes, and situations; in particular, about errors and methods for their correction)
  • Assure (about the correctness of a specific action)
  • Lead to the performance of a specific action
  • Describe and explain situations, processes, and their results (also the unexpected ones).

Their task is also to:

  • Engage users
  • Create a positive User Experience
  • Enhance usability
  • Increase Conversion Rate
  • Reduce tensions and negative feelings arising in situations of uncertainty
  • Remove obstacles.

In other words, Microcopies are seemingly insignificant messages to instruct the user or lead them to perform a specific action. They are created for the needs of:

  • Interfaces
  • Menus
  • Page headers
  • Forms
  • Buttons
  • Notification and confirmation windows
  • Screens, 404 error pages
  • Search engines
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • CTA.

The effectiveness of Microcopy depends on the following:

  • Consistency at the level of Brand Voice and Tone
  • Visual consistency between the content and layout, and graphics (design): content is an integral part
  • Effectiveness of solving problems, addressing doubts, and expressing understanding and empathy
  • Appropriate and natural language.

What to avoid when creating Microcopy?

Microcopy is the art of clear, consistent, and comprehensible messages. The art of communicating and writing using a minimum number of words, simple sentences, and specific content. It is also the ability to be understood by the user and reader. When writing Microcopy, your aim is to:

  • Avoid jargon and specialist terms
  • Avoid formal, solemn, and refined style
  • Avoid sophisticated phraseology and figures of speech
  • Humanize the style: write in a language as natural and as close to the user as possible
  • Achieve the effect of straightforwardness: familiarity and closeness
  • Maintain the consistency of the message about action performance with the context of the performance (Microcopy should also indicate the grounds for the action: why, how, and with what result it will be performed)
  • Inspire confidence, a sense of meaning, and a goal
  • Provide lightness of content through the use of humor.

Humor is very effective at relieving tension and reducing stress. Therefore, it is particularly recommended to use it for creating Micro Content. It is particularly valid in error messages and messages about complex processes and actions that might pose a cognitive challenge.

How to increase user engagement through Microcopy?

Creating Microcopy should be aimed at empathizing and understanding the user needs, goals, and concerns occurring at a given stage of User Flow. Microcopy should also anticipate possible reactions and expectations and go out to meet them.

nicely said - a ux writing guide
"Nicely Said" is another interesting and often cited book on UX Writing.

One of the most effective ways to increase user engagement is to consider emotions. Emotions create bonds. And bonds are best formed and maintained through conversation.

A recommended technique for creating Microcopies is to imitate conversation. For example, instead of the message “Please select a shipping method,” it is better to write “What shipment do you prefer?”.

Microcopy is a form of dialog with the user. Therefore, the more empathizing, friendly, attentive, helpful, and likable you seem, the better the user experience.

The interrogative is natural for dialog. Try to avoid dispassionate indicative. The imperative is even more unfriendly.

It is equally important to create messages that clearly indicate "what happened," "why it happened," and "what to do" to solve the problem.

It is also advantageous to avoid blaming the user for the failure. For example, instead of the message "Failed. Authorization error occurred", it is better to write: "You entered an invalid authorization number."

The first message suggests an abstract static situation where the user is not the subject but the object of the actions. It does not indicate in any way what the user should do. The situation is typical enough that you can guess, but such effort is unnecessary and should be eliminated through a message.

Is the second option better? Yes. Could it be even better? Yes. Although in the second situation, the user regains their subjectivity but at the same time is blamed for the failure. Consequently, an even better idea is to change this message. Into something like: "Please correct the authorization number." In the second variant, our message becomes specific and dynamic (encourages the user to act), suggests the problem, and indicates the solution. And it's shorter.

So the best way to engage the user is to make them:

  • The subject instead of the object of actions
  • Responsible for but not guilty of actions and their results
  • Understood instead of being informed
  • Encouraged instead of being urged
  • The addressee (active form) of the message instead of the message recipient (static and passive form).

A handy set of recommendations for user engagement and creating specific and active sentences is the article "8 Writing Tips to Supercharge the Quality of Your UX Work", available at the Interaction Design Foundation website.

What are the UX Writing best practices?

In addition to conversational form (where feasible and reasonable), comprehensibility, and brevity, the Microcopy should also be:

  • Helpful: it should explain, suggest, relieve the tension and make the waiting pleasant
  • Focused on problem-solving
  • Motivating: also to act in a manner more desirable from the digital product owner’s perspective (e.g., review, subscription, sharing)
  • At least amiable: bringing cheerfulness, or even better, joyful tone into the interactions, evoking pleasant emotional states
  • Empathizing: the user should feel that their problems and feelings are important and are not ignored
  • Anticipating expectations, reactions, possible frustrations, and satisfactions.

So much for theory. Here are a few examples.

Microcopy during password setting

Setting passwords while creating accounts usually involves the user complying with the imposed requirements concerning the number, diversity, and specificity of the characters used. A convenient listing of these requirements allows you to avoid frustration. Similarly, the possibility to view the password is also an expression of predictability, empathizing, and usability.

Microcopy during user account creation

Warmth and a friendly and emotional user welcome expresses a conversational approach to creating Microcopy and an opportunity to build relationships. Instead of a cool-toned message like “Create an account,” it is better to express emotions. For example: “Thank you for creating an account.”

Microcopy communicating action confirmation

We don’t like uncertainty and expect explicit confirmation that a task has been completed successfully. When using contact forms and making purchases, we particularly need confirmation. Process finalization is not only the opportunity to reassure the user but also to thank them, suggest further possibilities, and show concern.

For example, instead of confirming sending a request with the message: “Message sent,” it is better to enrich our confirmation with an emotional component. So, our confirmation should read: “Thank you for contacting us! We’ll get back to you within 24 hours.”

Summary: The differences between Copywriting and Microcopy/UX Writing

  1. UX Writing is not Content Writing. These are two different specializations and two different types of texts.
  2. A Content Writer or Copywriter is not a UX Writing specialist, although they could be one.
  3. Microcopies are words and phrases used, among others, in user interfaces directly related to the actions performed by the user.
  4. UX Writing and Microcopy are concepts meaning the ability to create texts improving web or mobile application User Experience.
  5. UX Writing is not Copywriting.
  6. Microcopy is a form of a 'conversation' between a digital product and its users.
  7. The purpose of UX Writing is to lead a user to perform a specific action.
  8. UX Writing must be written with the awareness of the user's linguistic competencies, habits, and expectations.
  9. Microcopy is a minimalist, brief, instructional and pragmatic message.
  10. Microcopies are typically created for the needs of interfaces, menus, page headers, forms, buttons, notification windows, confirmations, and search engines.
  11. Creating Microcopy should be aimed at understanding the needs, goals, concerns, and problems of application users.


How you like that:
Journal / Redaktor
Author: Radek
UX Writer and researcher by education + experience. Collects The Story's knowledge and shares it on the Journal.
Reviewer: Dymitr Romanowski

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