Microcopy for complex products: Part 3/3

Yael Ben-David
5 min readJun 2, 2019

This is the third part of a three-part series.

Part 1 covered the first step a UX writer takes when writing microcopy: learning. A few ways to collect the info and knowledge you need to begin drafting good copy are interviewing stakeholders, listening to users, and staying connected to all the moving parts in your company, your industry, and the world that impacts the mindset of your users.

Part 2 dove into how to take your learning to the next level , because especially in complex products, you can never learn enough. That next level is teaching: teaching as a tool for learning, and how the more you teach the more you learn and in both cases you’re never done. After learning and teaching you’ll have a universe of information, but which bits do you communicate to your users? Explicitly and implicitly? Isolating what they need to know from what you know is the next step. This requires organizing the information you’ve collected and structuring the way you’ll present it, for starters.

In part 3 we’ll take it from isolating through iterating and delivery.

Iterate

Once you isolate the messaging you want to communicate, it’s time to turn it into microcopy. What are the actual words you want to appear in the UI? For starters, make sure your copy is clear, concise, and useful.

Clear

Get a draft on paper (screen) and then then make it as clear as you can. Microcopy is not the place to show off your vocabulary or write abstract poetry. It’s the place to be crystal clear, giving the user all the info they need and nothing more, right when they need it, in a way that is super easy to understand.

Concise (or not)

Good microcopy is also (usually) concise. I say “usually” because there are cases, like in complex products, where users need more meat. They need more content in order to be convinced to trust you.

But as a general rule of thumb, concise is important. The easier the copy is to read, the less time and cognitive load it requires to consume, the more likely the user is to read and understand it and therefore stay on the quickest path to wherever they’re trying to go.

Useful

Microcopy it not decoration; it should always be useful.

UX writing is the practice of crafting copy which is directly used in user interfaces to guide users within a product and help them interact with it.

— UX Planet

Microcopy is there to help. Take a moment to ask yourself what the goal is of the copy you’re writing — how exactly is it meant to help the user and is it getting the job done?

If you don’t have something valuable to say, don’t say anything at all. You’ll just clutter the screen and distract from helpful elements. More than once, I’ve seen teams working hard to get the phrasing right for a string that actually shouldn’t be written at all.

In short, when you first start drafting and iterating copy, put it through “clear, concise, and useful filters”.

An example from Google of iterating copy through “clear, concise, and useful filters”.

Delightful & On Brand

Next, see whether you can add a “delight filter”, wording the same message in a way that is more engaging but without compromising too much on clear concise and useful. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but totally worth it if you get it right.

Google getting it right.

In-app microcopy should always conform to the brand voice, that is, the personality of your brand and product. What kind of a company are you? What is your relationship with your users? How do they feel when you’re around? Why do they keep coming back for more and what do they tell their friends about you?

Imagine your product was a person, someone you knew well, and as people do, they had a certain personality that came out in pretty much every interaction. Then, one day, out of the blue, they didn’t sound like themself. You’d worry. You’d stop and think. And that’s the last thing we want our users to do. (There are exceptions to that rule but for the sake of this article, we’ll let it go.) It is just as important that your copy is clear, concise, and useful, as it is consistent with your voice.

Next, are you using the appropriate tone? The high school wallflower still jumps for joy when accepted early admission to their first choice school. The class clown cries when their boy/girl friend breaks their heart. Let that emotion show. Voice and tone work together to make your product copy make your users love you.

Data

If at first you don’t succeed… or even if you do… iterate, iterate, iterate. So you’ve deployed your golden strings, huh? You’re feeling confident that you got it just right. Your stakeholders love it, it conforms to all of the best practices. You’re flying high and on top of the world. But what about the users? Do they get it? Because at the end of the day, they are the only stakeholders who matter.

Test the $hit out of everything you write. There are endless examples of A/B tests that increased conversion, read: moola. So you’re going to have to hold back the confetti a minute and consider that maybe, just maybe, you can do even better.

Even Google, especially Google, measures and goes back to the drawing board again and again. Like when in their hotel search feature they wrote “Book a room” and let users fill in dates to start perusing available hotels. “Book a room” satisfied all of the best practices above, but it didn’t meet the users where they were. Google realized that their phrasing was too committal for users at this point in their journey. By dialing up the empathy, they came up with an iteration that improved engagement 17%.

Google, crushing it again.

This whole series about writing microcopy for complex products has been quite high level. If you’re looking for a more tactical view, check out What do UX writers do all day?

Want to hear more? Invite me to speak at your organization. Cheers!

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