Microcopy for complex products: Part 1/3

The things tech can do today are basically wizardry to any generation that came before. But the coolest most magical functionality in the world is useless if no one can find the “ON” switch.

Without usability, tech doesn’t matter.

That’s why I love writing copy for complex products. Writing good copy for complex, highly technical products, makes new innovations accessible to mass markets and that’s meaningful work.

When people think about “UX writing” or “microcopy”, the first examples to come to mind are usually along the lines of MailChimp and Slack. They are indeed gold standards for UX writing best practices in many ways. But optimal microcopy will not always look like those brands because the adorable, witty experience they create is not appropriate for all products or all users. And it’s always about the users, after all.

When writing for a relatively simple product in a crowded space, like a photo editor or messenger app, much of the focus is on raising the level of delight to get ahead of the crowd. When writing for highly complex products, like genetic tests or financial apps, “delight” is less about eliciting a smile than about a sigh of relief. In both cases, the primary aim of the copy is to help the user get the job done that they came to do; the feeling you want to create with your voice and tone, however, is very different. Simple products want the user to have fun and feel happy, while complex products need to make the user feel calm, secure, confident, and empowered, all at once. Meeting a simple product is like deciding whether an acquaintance should become a friend — you need chemistry and a good time or you’ll move on to the next one. Meeting a complex product is like deciding which medical provider or financial planner to use — you need a different kind of chemistry; not the kind that lifts your mood and keeps it light, rather, one that calms you down and makes you feel that you are in good, patient, professional hands.

It’s challenging to communicate enough of a complex product’s unique value to build trust and credibility, without alienating the user with jargon and other stuff they don’t need to know in order to reach their goals. But that’s also what makes it so rewarding.

I recently published an article about how copy for complex products is different from the screenshots that tend to go viral. In this three part series, I want to dive deeper into how to do it, not only because there is a subset of UX writers out there who work on complex products and could benefit, but also because many, if not all of the learnings are applicable to every product.

Learn

Step 1 is to learn the complexity you will need to explain. From my previous life as a journalist, I know what it’s like to always have the least expertise in the room. The people you are interviewing and writing about always know more about the subject than you do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write expertly. It’s about asking the right questions. And a lot of them.

Credit: Flickr

Every person who is working on the product has something to offer you. Each one can provide information that no one else can. Each team member understands their own contribution better than anyone else. So ask the product manager about the lay of the land — background on the industry, the competitors, the history of the product and how that led to the direction it’s taking today, and the biggest challenges they’re facing right now.

Ask marketers and UX researchers about the users — who they are, where they come from, and what they want.

And speak to dev. Always speak to dev. Take dev to lunch. Take dev for drinks. Woo dev until they’ve told you everything they know. Understand the tech they are building — why are they building it that way? What were the considerations they weighed along the way? What continues to drive their decisions? What areas of expertise have they brought with them to the product and how do they leverage that background?

Ask and ask and ask. Take notes, review your notes, and then ask again. I find that if you ask smart questions and you care about the answers, everyone will talk to you for as long as you want.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s not enough to understand the complex thing from the perspective of the people who are building it; you need to hear from the people who are using it (duh). They will undoubtedly have a unique perspective on what makes the thing complex in the first place. Listen to your users on social media and by listening to and reading customer support tickets. Once you understand the technical thing your team is building, the technical problems you are solving, and the users’ perspective on challenges you have not solved, you’ll be in an excellent position to start communicating what each side is trying to say and addressing the things they are looking to hear.

Tech is dynamic. Stay in touch with internal teams to keep up to date on what your product does and how it does it, and keep your ear to the ground to keep up with user chatter. But also, consume the interwebs. Industry news, and non-industry news, can have a major impact on the headspace your users are in; when you are writing to your users, you must take headspace into consideration if you want to communicate as clearly and successfully as possible.

Step 1 is to learn. Next steps coming soon…

UX writer specializing in complex products. Passionate about making tech accessible to mass markets. Also a proud em dash enthusiast.