7 steps to building better microcopy
To wrap things up, let’s talk a bit about process. Everyone’s is different, but here are a few of the steps I’ve worked into my microcopy routine that have served me and my clients well.
Step 1: Build microcopy into the design process
Allocate time and resources for this at the beginning of the design process and save yourself countless hours of re-iteration later. And if there’s no one on your team with copywriting experience, hire a professional copywriter. Your clients will thank you later.
As a user myself, there are few things as satisfying as Mailchimp’s encouraging “Rock On!” schedule confirmation messaging.
However you tackle it, make sure you plan for microcopy at the beginning of the design process. As famed author John Steinbeck said, “Bringing writers in at the end of the creative process is like trying to put toothpaste into a tube.”
Step 2: Know (and write to) your user
Just like in all other aspects of UX design, familiarity with your user will help you zero in on your users’ needs, and identify how you can best facilitate their experience through the addition of a few choice words.
First, pore through your user interviews, or if you’re already at the prototyping stages, your usability tests, and take special notes of frustrations, motivations, and pain points that could be addressed with a little bit of designed microcopy:
- Where are the instructions unclear? Is the user getting lost anywhere along the primary task flow? If so, what is the source of the confusion?
- Is the navigational flow straightforward and easy to move about in?
- Does the user get caught up wondering “why” they’ve been asked to do something?
Compare the before and after of these two screens from my KAUS Insurance project in Phase 1 of UX Academy:
Usability tests indicated that users were a little put off by being funneled into field entry screens without any indication of how long the form would take or how many questions they would have to answer. Adding the numbered step navigation alleviated this frustration and the hesitation that came along with it, and allowed the user to easily navigate back and forth between questions.
Adding a bit of microcopy to describe the steps was a suggestion that my mentor threw in as a way to further elevate the experience. It keeps the whole interaction on-brand, while giving extra help to the user.
Step 3: Keep it short
Copy should be a guide, not a crutch — so be brief. This is especially true of microcopy. It’s all in the name. You can’t fix your design with copy, but you can improve it. Use copy to solidify how your product speaks through the design, and allow it to complete your user’s experience of the brand.
Remember, most online users don’t read both at length and in depth, so keep it to the point. Hers’s a good rule of thumb from Bill Beard at Smashing Magazine:
“If you can’t explain what a user needs to do in eight words or fewer, then reconsider the design.”
Step 4: Write (on brand) with authenticity
Every piece of microcopy within your product is an opportunity to reinforce your brand’s values and tone of voice — but don’t get carried away with humor where it’s not always necessary. Remember, you’re writing to your users, aka other human beings.
Setting a strong tone for your brand is essential, and can make all the difference, but be wary of overbranding, especially on instructional or otherwise straightforward interactions, like navigation elements. Overdoing it could mean that you end up confusing the user rather than clarifying things.
Step 5: Contextualize
The “content-first” approach is great, but content is nothing without context. Every time you iterate, take the time to go back and trace the user’s “contextual flow,” i.e. their experience of moving through various steps and tasks. Pay special attention to consistency in messaging.
For example, somewhere down the iteration timeline with KAUS, I realized that I had built in some mixed messaging to my prototype.
On the KAUS Insurance landing page there are two call-to-action buttons that. Essentially, both of them funnel users into the “My Custom Policy Builder Tool”, but the messaging for each was quite different. On the top CTA, the button says, “Get a Quick Quote!”
On the bottom CTA, the button messaging says, “Build Your Policy!”
When I revisited my KAUS purchase user flows, however, I realized that this mixed-messaging may be confusing for a user who finds the landing page via a Google search for a quick insurance quote.
This context is key for capturing that particular user, and is something that I will need to address in future iterations.
Step 6: Associate action
Every bit of microcopy should be supporting users and guiding them through the various actions you, as the designer, are preparing them to take. Microcopy without an associated action can easily become clutter. And even if it’s the most cleverly written copy on earth, if it lacks a distinct purpose and function, it’s likely no one is going to read it anyway.
If you’re unsure how your carefully crafted microcopy ended up in this no-man’s-land, go back and review Steps 3 through 5.
Step 7: Test and iterate!
The best way to see if your microcopy is clear, contextual, and actually supporting the usability and overall experience of your product? Test it with real users, iterate, and test again.
When I first start writing out my microcopy content, I go through the low-fidelity wireframes first and start jotting down action points that are aching for some quippy copy. I then do some quick brainstorming of 5–10 alternate lines, words, and formulations, so that I have multiple options for each element. (Check out the SCAMPER Technique for some ideas on rapid idea generation).
I narrow down my favorites to a choice three or so, and then create different versions of the prototype, each with the associated microcopy, and run some A/B testing (or in some cases, A/B/C).
This is how I jazzed up a simple sign-up button, which got a great response from my test participants! At this point, the user has already gone through the entire quote process and built a custom policy that fits their needs; they’ve adjusted the price and coverage, and customized their purchase.
All that’s left is creating their account (by typing an email and password) and inputting payment details. They’re near the end of the process, and they know it. The microcopy effectively delivers a reward for making it this far, and amps them up for the final step.
However you choose to approach your microcopy, the moral of the story is: whatever you do, just don’t ignore it altogether — the worst thing you can do is nothing at all.