Three Requirements of Good Microcopy

Microcopy, as defined by Nick Babich of UX Planet, “is the term for the small bits of copy on a apps’s interface that help users do ‘stuff’.” Microcopy is the same as copy. However, it is differentiated from long-form because too often it is overlooked. What not many people recognize is that microcopy does more than help users accomplish goals. There are actually three elements to good microcopy.

Image of 2 people in dialogue
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Good Microcopy is Good Dialogue

One of my favorite books is Joy in the Morning, by Betty Smith. In the book, the main character audits a college playwriting course. Her professor explains the three requirements of good dialogue:

“Each line of dialogue must: one, characterize the person speaking; two, advance the plot; three, be interesting in itself.” -Professor Haise, Joy in the Morning

The same is true of good microcopy. Let’s explore what this means for product UX.

Good Microcopy Characterizes the Speaker

Any fan of The Big Lebowski can hear the phrase “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man” and know exactly what character said it. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ll likely be able to guess which of these three phrases was said by a different character:

  1. “Yeah man. It really tied the room together.”
  2. “Nobody calls me Lebowski, you got the wrong guy, I’m the dude, man.”
  3. “Have you ever heard of Vietnam? You’re about to enter a world of pain!”

Where the first two phrases have commas and periods, and use the word “man” as an interjection, the third has an exclamation point and a question mark. It’s more direct. It’s a different character.

Web copy is a conversation between the brand and the user. Just as the phrasing of a sentence in dialogue characterizes the person, phrasing in microcopy characterizes the brand voice. Voice and tone is a key element of good microcopy.

Good Microcopy Advances the Plot

Good dialogue is about more than recounting a story. It’s about telling a story that later influences what a character does or says. For most copywriters this is the easiest part – just write something direct. Yet this is also where many UX writers fail. In an effort to create interesting, brand-appropriate copy they forget that their copy needs to “advance the plot.” In the case of user experience, advancing the plot means being actionable.

  • Can your audience understand what they need to do?
  • Can your audience take the right action?
  • Is the task at hand easier to accomplish because of your copy?

Good microcopy is not distracting. It’s not just about being cute and funny and endearing. In the moment of action, when your audience is trying to get something done on your app or website, they don’t care if your copy is brand-appropriate. He may be stressed. She might be driving while using their phone. They might be in a time crunch. They want copy to be helpful. Usable. Useful.

Good Microcopy is Interesting in Itself

Being interesting is the fun part. Some microcopy, like help text, is likely to be skipped unless it is engaging. So take changes, and do some usability testing. Is the microcopy interesting? Engaging? Enjoyable to read?

As Professor Haise tells Annie, “Perfect dialogue has all three elements. Good dialogue has two.” In the play in question, the playwright has only accomplished one: advancement of the plot. Most good microcopy can get away with only two, as long as they are the first two. But for perfect microcopy, it must also be interesting in itself.

The trick is to create interesting microcopy without taking away from it being brand appropriate and usable. So if you can only do two out of three, I’d recommend skipping this one. But whenever possible, do some usability testing. Find out what people are getting out of your microcopy.

Web Content is a Conversation

When writing for the web – whether apps or websites – you always have to consider the person on the other side of the screen. That’s the person you’re having a conversation with. Since web writing as a conversation helps us remember that there’s another person involved it makes sense to take the next step and consider web writing like playwriting.

Make your microcopy into dialogue. Build a conversation, and make it brand-appropriate, usable, and interesting.

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