On a technical level, “UX writing” and “microcopy” describe the same elements of copy within a product’s UI: button texts, error messages, CTAs, hints, confirmation messages, and all the words and phrases that are directly related to users’ actions and guide them through their experience.
The difference between the 2, however, is far beyond semantic.
Though microcopy may be UX in written form, its role addresses product concerns far beyond UX. But if we settle for microcopy as UX writing, we cut out those extra benefits before we even start writing.“Recognition of the importance of microcopy is UX and marketing innovation.”
What’s in a name?
In 2009, Joshua Porter introduced the term “microcopy” to describe the small elements of web copy that help guide users through products and processes, which was (and still is) considered a UX function.
But if microcopy is a part of UX, then what’s the meaningful difference between microcopy and UX writing? And why did I choose to pursue microcopy specifically for the subject of my book?
The answer is simple: though microcopy is the written expression of UX, it also has a significant impact on a project’s entire creative process. To stop at microcopy’s impact on UX is to diminish the importance of what is actually a 3-part copy value.
The microcopy trio
Microcopy and UX
Microcopy’s foremost purpose addresses UX goals: balancing a product’s business needs with what’s best for the user. When achieved, uniting these goals provides users with an experience that’s both intuitive and delightful.
This combination is critical, because when users are satisfied then digital product owners will see both short-term rewards (higher conversion rates, for example) and long-term gains in brand loyalty and engagement.“Brevity and simplicity are the markers for high-quality microcopy.”
Before all else, microcopy has to meet UX standards; its goal is to help users accomplish their tasks, and therefore needs to be written for users to guide them through their specific use cases. Brevity and simplicity are the markers for high-quality microcopy.
It’s a pity, though, to stop here. If we’re putting so much time into these short phrases, we might as well make them work hard. Just as we would do for web copy or content, we can use microcopy to improve a product’s marketing and branding.
Microcopy as a branding tool
When done right, microcopy is branding’s strongest ally.
Error messages, confirmations, signups and tooltips are the same from product to product, making messaging and expression the only differentiating factor. Figuring out the most effective way to guide and talk to users is based on branding 101: generating the brand — and product — specific personalities.“When done right, microcopy is branding’s strongest ally.”
This isn’t (only) a UX process. This is creative, branding, and copy.
Nike chose this phrasing:
While J. Peterman chose a different path:
When judged by UX standards, these 2 phrasings are the same; both explain simply that the company is legally bound to ask the user’s age.
The difference is in the copy, in the choice of words, in the style, branding, and spirit. Each of these companies has made a conscious choice in how to make their users feel and neither choice is right or wrong—they’re just reflecting their brand’s values.
Nike’s microcopy is the fitting choice for its brand and users, and has no obligation to be funny or entertaining like J.Peterman; both speak to their brand and users, and are equally valuable.
The logic of UX writing is welcome, but relatively limited: it is useful to explain to users why we ask them for personal data, but not to determine how.
The logic of the copy, as inspired by the world of branding, expands and says: explain the concept with language and phrasing that will fit the brand and create a coherent personality throughout the conversation with the users, even in the most technical places (of course, never at the expense of clarity and usability and always depending on the situation).
Marketing with microcopy
Every “sign up” call-to-action (CTA) has the same goal: to have users fill out a registration form, usually located below or beside the CTA.
Again, because of its technical nature, the copy here is considered UX writing, but it’s not UX that will convince users to sign up for a service—it’s emotion.
To move users and make them willing to do something, whether it be to sign up for a newsletter or give their credit card information for a free trial, the signup experience has to be built with marketing understanding.“Emotion convinces users to sign up for a service—not UX.”
Take a look at this form, for example:
This form is a classic example of UX writing, from the fields to the button text to the click trigger guaranteeing a spam-free experience.
But what about the text on top of the form?
For copy to be effective, it has to address questions about users: what do users want to gain from entering the website? What are their pain points? What can make them trust your product, and what would make them feel suspicious? How would they answer all of these questions in their own words?
These points are critical to writing moving, engaging microcopy, especially when asking users to fulfill an action—whether it’s signing up for a website, downloading free content, or watching a product tutorial.
The goal of UX writing is simple: to create a form that clearly invites users to sign up, while reducing their product concerns.
Related: 10 UX copywriting tips for designers
The copy-based approach, however, goes well beyond meeting UX’s basic needs. To meet its full potential, even the simplest CTA, which by UX writing standards would be measured by its clarity, needs to address user-based concerns: what does the user expect to happen after they fill out a form? What would they like to happen, and what would they want to receive?
For an in-depth explanation of why user motivation is critical to copy’s success, I highly recommend reading Talia Wolf’s article about emotional targeting, where she addresses how important it is to design emotional experiences within microcopy, especially to increase conversion rates.
What’s going to happen if we keep calling microcopy UX writing?
Without emphasizing the marketing needs met by microcopy, I’m concerned that we’re going to miss out on a large part of microcopy’s potential.
Even YouTube can fall prey to UX writing’s limits. This is a great example of a standard UX tooltip, where users are explained how to engage with an ostensibly simple concept, the function of autoplay:
UX-wise, the function of this tooltip is to let users know enough about the feature so they can choose whether or not to disable it; by these standards, the copy’s goal is achieved.
By microcopy standards, however, this text can be drastically improved with just a switch in word order. The most basic understanding of user desires and marketing theory would probably lead a copywriter to a message more friendly to the user, such as:
Turn this on so the next suggested video will play automatically,
Turn this on to automatically play the next video suggested for you.
Not only do these nuanced phrasings give the user the information they need (thereby meeting UX standards), but they’re also clearer, more patient, and more engaging—all basic tenets of great copywriting.
When writing to encourage someone to do something, it’s of crucial importance to make the user feel empowered to choose. Without reflecting this in microcopy, even the most simple tooltip loses its effectiveness.
My say on the matter
Microcopy in all of its forms is a combination of UX demands, branding, and marketing understanding. As an experienced content writer specializing in both UX writing and marketing copy, it is clear to me that great user-facing writing is integral to effective UX, whether I’m dealing with early-stage startups or large companies, websites, apps, online stores, or complex professional systems.
UX writing addresses the space for words in UX strategy, but not its potential.
Ultimately, microcopy is the full application of UX, marketing, and branding practices to user experience throughout digital products. Recognition of the importance of microcopy is UX and marketing innovation; it’s the true gospel and the only way to push UI copy to its furthest reach.