Getting your feet wet with microcopy
Thu, Feb 22, 18
7 minute read

Getting your feet wet with microcopy

A few weeks ago, I released an article going over some simple steps of UX design that people often overlooked. And though parts of these areas of the user experience may feel like basic rules, they can be severely passed over. One of which is being the microcopy, or the text that we use in our UI designs.

Originally posted on Compass of Design Original article link

Darian Rosebrook's avatar— by Darian Rosebrook

A few weeks ago, I released an article going over some simple steps of UX design that people often overlooked. And though parts of these areas of the user experience may feel like basic rules, they can be severely passed over. One of which is being the microcopy, or the text that we use in our UI designs.

I sometimes wonder if the words we choose affect the success of our project.

I tend to talk about words all the time, mainly because I wrote enough valuable content last year to fill a book, but that’s looking at these pieces of text at a macro level. When it comes to paying your due diligence with designing content, you have to make sure that the words you choose to put in the project focus on the success of the end user.

That is why I wanted to talk again about microcopy.

The words we choose for buttons and links don’t usually get a lot of attention when it comes to designing things like mobile applications, websites and landing pages, and even print design like signage, newspapers, price tags, and wayfinding.

When it comes to launching your projects, a lot of the time (unless you’re hiring someone to do it,) you are in charge of every nook and cranny of your product and its marketing.

Because of how prevalent that is, it’s important to know that if you want someone to be successful using what you’ve created, the end user has to be able to understand precisely how to get what they came for, and any helpful information that guides them along with it.

The more data you can get from current conversion and tracking tools will be your best ally here.

Though I am not an expert in data analysis, there are a few things that I’ve got for you today to help you write better microcopy for your idea.

Setting the right tone with the words (or lack of words) you choose

With words, you can set the tone that someone has when using the project you


Whether that tone is — playful, a matter of fact, minimal, humorous, etc. You want to make sure it fits the message and nature of their product.

One thing I heard my friend tell me was the success or failure can be determined by how you present your product. There was a bank that ran user tests trying to find the right words to use in their online banking. And the tone they settled for was one that sounded geared towards a young generation where it was trying to be “cool.”

What ended up happening is that they were not gaining traction like they had wanted to because the tone didn’t match the service they were selling. People aren’t looking for “Cool” in a bank; they are looking for “Secure.”


The best help is conversational

One of the best things that I have seen when it comes to the use of words is having a welcoming chatbot.

An excellent example of this is slack’s welcome bot. It opens up a dialogue with you to get you familiar with some of the everyday tasks of running a Slack community (or using one if you’ve joined another Slack community).

This form of conversational dialogue is going to become a lot more prominent as we continue to learn and implement great UX Design best practices throughout the design community.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Though this is a very interactive form of conversation, some of the best types of conversational microcopy come in the designed elements on screen (or on the product if physical).

Think of any time you’ve run to a search bar that just said** “Search”** Of course you understand it’s mechanics and the base functionality.

But think of how a change of the way you frame common elements on the screen can lead to more direction towards action:

“What are you looking for?” Vs. “Search”

“How many cases do you need?” Vs. Select Quantity

“Start a new project” Vs. “Contact”

You have so many things that are much better described by goal-oriented conversational labels rather than just stating the core functionality of what that action does.

An excellent read on this topic is this article for the differences in terms used in checkout carts.

Load balancing and how your mind works.

When I first introduced the section on conversational UI, it was also brought to my attention by a friend, Stuart B, that what he’s experienced is the opposite effect.

[…] However conversational copy is usually longer and can drastically increase the cognitive load and time needed to complete an action. Especially when it comes to commonly used input fields.

There is a principle of UX design called Hicks Law where the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices.

I could see two cases where this type of interaction might not be useful.

  1. The user’s environment only allows for minimal attention to using the item
    This could be situations like:
    — a mom wrestling her child into clothing while trying to get ready for work.
    — being out at an event and needing to answer a message you received.
    — being in the mad dash of getting ready for work in the morning
  2. The reaction time for completing tasks has to be minimal to avoid missing the moment
    — applying the right dose to a patient
    — setting a timer
    — selecting the right choices in a video game
    — starting and selection options of a camera app

It would pay to do research on what situations are going to be present when someone is using the project you’re designing.

You have to be conscious of the amount of choices or actions a person needs to go through in order to complete what they came for. So by paying attention to the path to completion, you might think about breaking the tasks apart in order to lighten cognitive load.

I do still stand behind the idea that we should use the tone that’s most appropriate for the context with the formula:

(Right Tone * Level of Invisibility[or]Interactivity) + Descriptive micro copy = Positive user experience.

Challenging convention

Sign up and Sign in

Though we’ve grown accustomed to the conventional actions of signing into and signing up for a website, often times we might not be using the best terms for our end users.

We use convention when designing because it becomes easier to complete our project than spending time on the micro copy we use for actions in design.

In a recent article that I’ve read, I was introduced to the idea that we need to differentiate our calls to action by the way we label them.

Finding the right option for someone to click shouldn’t be as hard as we make it for them. User experience is better served by avoiding using the verbs ‘sign up’ and ‘sign in’ together.

Instead, make the actions distinct from each other by using different verbs in labels in ways that vary their appearance to the end user.

In fact, we can help even further throughout the login experience of most things with simple changes outlined by Nick here.

Descriptive vs. Divisive

Avoiding Dark UX

Dark UX is something that I’ve talked about in our Design Ethics article. In it, we cover something called “Confirm Shaming.”

Using words in your call-to-action buttons forces the end user to “Identify” themselves with that action. It’s a way of showing “Yes this is something that I want.”

Where the danger of that lies is in the tone of words you use.

Some companies and brands have opted for a very dark pattern where people have to click a self-deprecating statement to complete an action. Most of which say things like:

“No, I hate free money.”

“No thanks, I’d rather waste my time searching instead.”

“I don’t need a new sofa.”

These types of interactions demean the user by forcing them into action and often can influence self-esteem. It’s not something to ever play with as a brand unless that is expected by the brand to be that way.

Where Descriptive comes to the rescue.

Being descriptive in the ways that your user is supposed to interact with the project you designed can be a fun experience.

You have the power to make this process into one that’s delightful to use and can help people through stressful situations.

This format outlined through the use of Tone, Invisibility/interactivity, and Descriptive microcopy will help elevate your products to the next level regarding:

So by focusing on these areas in your UI designs, you will have one step closer to the perfect UX of your projects.


— Darian Rosebrook, Compass of Design

Originally posted on Compass of Design on Feb 22, 2018

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