ARTICLE: Annie Hensley

Top 10 tips to produce effective, user-friendly microcopy

Chances are, your product team already pours ample resources into making your products as user-friendly as possible. You work hard to get the user flows and UI elements just right. But what about the verbal components of the interface? 

If you’re like many EdTech companies, microcopy — or the many verbal cues found throughout your product, from buttons to prompts and instructive overlays  — may be a last-minute consideration. This often means that microcopy is written on the fly, without rigorous guidelines or user testing. (In fact, it may not even get finalized until after user testing is complete.) 

Handling microcopy this way is risky. 

The truth is that poorly written microcopy has the power to undermine all the hard work you put into your product’s UX by hindering your users’ ability to accomplish tasks within your product. 

What is Microcopy, and Why is it So Important for Your Product’s UX?

First, let’s take a closer look at microcopy and why it matters to the UX of your product. Also known as UI text, microcopy is a sub-element of UX writing, and it performs a uniquely utilitarian function. Unlike other types of content, microcopy’s sole purpose is to help users utilize features and functions within the product. In other words, UX is microcopy’s only objective. It’s the digital equivalent of wayfinding signage. 

That doesn’t mean that microcopy is devoid of style or personality, though. It can and should be written in a way that meshes with your brand, as well as the product’s overall tone. For example, playfulness may be warranted in some cases. But you should never put style ahead of utility and clarity of communication. 

Given that microcopy is so closely linked with usability, you’d think product teams would keep it top of mind. But UX designers are trained to think primarily in visual terms. When they consider how best to get users from point A to point B, visual systems are the first priority. These visual cues are crucial. They can get users pretty far in terms of discerning workflows. But visual systems almost always need to be accompanied by verbal cues to get users all the way there. 

As products get more complex, microcopy gets more and more important in guiding users. 

Your team must give verbal cues as much attention as any functional, architectural, or visual design element. 

As with any other element of your product’s interface, research and testing are critical to optimizing microcopy. In many cases, your product team’s intimate familiarity with your product can result in suboptimal microcopy. The fact that you know exactly how every feature works makes it impossible for you to know what questions your users might have that should be proactively addressed by your microcopy. Only with research and user testing can you be sure that your microcopy will succeed in guiding users with minimal friction. 

A Holistic Approach: Best Practices for Optimizing Microcopy

Product leaders must guide their teams in taking a holistic approach to incorporating better microcopy throughout the product development process. Microcopy should begin with an understanding of your users. Early user research should inform the development of language that aligns with how your users think and behave. And it should match their mental models and expectations for how they use your product. The following tips will help your team craft clear and effective microcopy. 

  1. Testing, testing, 1-2-3. Testing microcopy is as important as testing visual components. Avoid testing your product with lorem ipsum — even in the earliest, paper-prototype phases. It’s always better to use real text, even if it’s in rough-draft form. On a related note, keep in mind that it can be hard to isolate microcopy-related issues in user testing. Follow-up questions about the microcopy can help you figure out if it’s actually the text that’s tripping users up when issues arise. Finally, consider testing multiple options for microcopy if you suspect verbal cues are a source of confusion. 
  2. No “insider training.” Many EdTech products have a loyal user base with an expert-level understanding of the product. These “power users” are equipped to give great feedback in testing, but make sure you also include users who are less familiar with your product. Your most experienced users likely won’t read your product’s microcopy very closely (if at all) because they are already so familiar with your workflows. New users are “outside the fishbowl” and therefore much more likely to rely on microcopy to guide their actions — and spot UX issues related to verbal cues, too. 
  3. Develop verbal guidelines. Ideally, you already have visual design language systems in place. In much the same way that you develop product-specific standards for UI elements, UX patterns, and interactive elements, you should also develop verbal guidelines. A UX writer or UX content strategist is the best person to help establish rules for verbal cues to ensure consistency throughout your product. 
  4. Be brief. It can be tempting to try and explain every detail, especially when it comes to complex products with many features and functions. But this can result in verbal clues that are much too clunky and confusing. Resist the urge to over-explain. Likewise, avoid packing the interface with marketing or brand-driven messages. Brevity is important when you’re trying to help users achieve a specific task. If certain elements of your product merit longer microcopy (one or more paragraphs), consider breaking it up into smaller chunks and using visual cues to make it more easily digestible. 
  5. Consistency is key. Microcopy should be consistent in two ways. First, it should be written in a manner that’s consistent with your product’s brand characteristics. And secondly, it should be internally consistent. Always use the same language when referring to the same functions, features, or elements throughout the product. For example, if your product is used to register for classes, the word “register” should be used consistently throughout the interface (not “register” in some places and “sign up” in others).  
  6. Use visual aids. In some instances, visual examples, such as a simple image or animation, can help users comprehend your intended workflow faster (i.e. for empty states, use illustrations to indicate to the user either 1) how to populate this area to change it from empty to active, or 2) use the illustration to allude what would be there once it is no longer empty.) 
  7. Educate users by being predictable. Avoid surprises and misdirection by being consistent with your use of visual and verbal cues. For instance, buttons should always result in an action that aligns with the wording on the button (i.e. if you are pairing a pencil icon with the word “edit”, use the two together wherever that action is required, and don’t use the pencil icon to indicate any action other than “edit”.) 
  8. Keep it simple. Avoid jargon and overly complicated phrasing or explanations. 
  9. Give clear and specific directions. Microcopy should be very direct in describing exactly what’s required of the user. 
  10.  Don’t forget about context. For example, if your product is used on mobile devices, you need to take the limited screen size into consideration. In this context, directions can be broken up and stepped out to deliver bite-sized packets of content that are easier to use on smaller screens.

As with most things that seem simple, a lot of thought goes into crafting great microcopy. But if you follow these simple steps, you’ll be well on your way to improving the user experience of your product.

 

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    Annie Hensley

    As UX Lead at Openfield, Annie’s focus is ensuring our clients benefit from world-class UX design and research. She knows how important it is to mind meld with product owners and engineering teams while remaining a champion for our clients’ users. Annie is a lifelong runner who enjoys helping others train for major milestones such as full and half marathons. Her passion for mentorship and social issues is evident in her leadership and involvement in organizations that support women in our industry.

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