Understanding Microcopy – The Where & When

Microcopy isn’t new. Apps, websites and other digital products have, however, increased its importance. Anyone who creates resources for users should understand what it is, where to use it and when to implement it.

White cup with "begin" written on it. Liam Hennessy, Digital Strategist
Source: Danielle Macines, Unsplash

Imagine a website without words.

Now, imagine navigating it.

There are buttons. There are red crosses, green ticks and arrows. Icons illustrate what different pages mean, and there are even a few pictures.

But no words.

You’re likely to muddle through. You may even find what you’re looking for – eventually. And while icons and pictures provide guidance, they don’t quite tell you what’s happening. You must figure out the website for yourself. You must do the work.

Most of us would give up and bounce. No one has time for that kind of nonsense.

But this is exactly what the digital world would look like without microcopy.

What Microcopy Is: Online and in Life

The best examples of microcopy are everywhere: the small bits of text on website, online platforms and products that tell users what’s available. The writing on a button link is microcopy, so are the words used to describe menus. You can even find microcopy on physical machines: microwaves, dishwashers and fridges may have small pieces of text communicating a message.

In short…

…microcopy is everywhere.

Take a look at a page from Gira.com, a smart homes provider:

Gira cornerstone content page. Liam Hennessy, Digital Strategist

There’s a beautiful and captivating picture, and a page headline. Right below it is the microcopy, “Find out more”. And below that, an arrow visually instructing users to click on it.

While the arrow alone would be cue enough for most people, it doesn’t quite tell the user what to expect. Three simple words, “Find out more” inform the user that the answers to improving indoor air quality are literally a click away.

What Microcopy is Not

Microcopy is not marketing or ad copy.

Its purpose is to inform and guide users around an interface. It is akin to having signposts pointing a user in the right direction. The process for creating and writing it may be similar to that of writing advertising or marketing copy, but its purpose is very different.

Marketing copy focuses on selling. Microcopy focuses on informing.

UX Writing vs Microcopy: Nuances Explained

UX writing is a subset of UX (user experience) design. In turn, microcopy is a subset of UX writing.

UX writing focuses on product writing for the user journey. Microcopy is a part of that process and one of the deliverables produced but writing for user experience is a much bigger and more complex field. It is about designing customer-facing communication throughout each point in the customer journey. The text that accompanies the user interface is only a small piece of a larger puzzle.

Creating Effective User Interface Texts

Microcopy needs to anticipate user expectations and needs. Doing this requires a deep understanding of the user. For the user, it must feel as though they are having a conversation with the interface.

Effective microcopy is:

  • Clear, concise and easy to understand
  • Encapsulates the tone and voice of your brand
  • Blends in visually with the overall design of the interface
  • Fills a user need, answers questions and builds empathy

Understanding the Where & When

Knowing where and when to place your microcopy comes from the insights gathered during user experience research. It depends on the goal of your website, app or other product. Where will the user find a button text the most helpful, and when will they need to click on it? It all comes down to the user.

This is why writers collaborate closely with UX designers. By understanding what the user needs (NOT what you *think* looks good), you’ll have a roadmap for creating useful signposts throughout your app that add to a helpful and relevant user experience.