A common misconception about microcopy is that if we want to sound human, being funny will automatically do the trick.
This approach, along with the current awareness to the importance of microcopy, has brought up quite a few cases of “trying too hard” microcopy, where it feels like the writers were trying so hard to be Joe Cool that they forgot they were writing for UX.
Overreaching microcopy is trying to be the showstopper, instead of serving its purpose and helping users.
This isn’t to say that humor is bad; it’s an incredible tool for emotional attachment, improving UX, and driving action. For more about this, I highly recommend reading Clifford Nass’s The Man Who Lied to His Laptop and what he found about humor in interfaces.
So what’s the right way to use humor in your microcopy? Here are seven guidelines to help.
1. Only if it fits the personality of the brand or product
Is your brand or product funny or cool by definition?
Why? What in its vision or values backs that up?
The way a brand will sound and what its voice projects isn’t a decision to be made on the spot according to what you want to write; it’s a strategic decision.
“Let your brand values dictate how much humor you use in your microcopy.”
Humor, sarcasm, and wit can support your branding and strengthen your relationship with your users, but it can also hurt them. For example, if your brand’s values are sharing and developing community, sarcasm may drive away users looking for connection and kindness. If your brand’s feeling is relaxed and homey, this might be the place for “softer” humor, and not wit.
TL;DR Before writing cool copy, let your brand values dictate why and how.
2. Only if it suits the target audience and the relationship you want to create
Will your target audience understand this language and connect to it? Does your choice of language connect to your users’ culture and age group?
This doesn’t have to mean that every. single. user. needs to connect to your copy—there will always be users disturbed by the slightest mention of fun. Still, you have to know enough about your target audience to know what shade of humor is relevant to your core users.
For example, young people under the age of 17 have a completely different vocabulary than us, the microcopy writers. When we’re writing for kids or teenagers, it’s important to have a “translator” from that age group look over your copy and see if it sounds authentic. Same goes for writing for any other culture or dialect that isn’t your native tongue.
3. Make sure wit isn’t your writing’s only defining characteristic
If the only thing you can say about a writing style is that it’s witty, then it’s probably flat.
The language in which we write microcopy can—and should—be as rich as a conversation between people, and people have more than one language axis. No one’s just “funny” or “cool.”
“If your microcopy is just witty and nothing else, something has gone wrong.”
Microcopy can be humorous and nostalgic or humorous and tech-y; cool and communal or cool and individualistic; nostalgic and communal and funny or tech-y and individualistic and not funny. It can be witty and warm or witty and cynical; modest or arrogant; relaxed and poetic or quick and sharp; sentimental or trivial; hippie or conventional, and so much more—all of which depends on your brand values.
If your microcopy doesn’t have any messages other than wit, that means something’s gone wrong.
4. How much is too much?
Did you laugh at the beginning and end? You don’t have to be funny in the middle.
Does your message close with a punchline? Start it off with a simple sentence letting users know what’s happening.
If possible, write the entire flow as a coherent sequence instead of coming at each screen separately. This will help you disperse your precious humor and wit with a gentle hand, usually before or after complex actions and not during so you can keep things simple.
Ultimately, choosing the right dosage of humor is the name of the game.
Look at humor and wit as spices—don’t use too much. This is something I learned from Yael Sela, Google Israel’s language manager.
And as Google says in their voice and tone design:
5. Nothing comes at the expense of clarity. Ever.
If your users have to stop for a moment and read twice to understand your microcopy, that’s a bad sign.
Usability rules. Humor can be a great sidekick to microcopy’s other qualities (concise, clear, helpful), but never a substitute.
“Never use humor at the expense of clarity.”
A great technique to filter out exaggerations in your humor is to close your eyes and imagine how it’ll sound when a user runs a screen reader. Will they correctly understand the situation they’re in without actually seeing the screen? This is something I’ve written extensively about here.
6. Be sensitive to the situation
Uh-oh, your system crashed. We don’t have any idea why. If your work isn’t saved, oops, it’s all gone forever! But hey, there are kids in third-world countries who don’t even have the internet!
Yeah… Don’t write stuff like that.
7. Be mindful of how frequently users see each joke
When writers enjoy their own joke too much, they run the risk of using the same joke in multiple places frequently seen by the user.
This isn’t ideal, because it’ll get boring fast. By the third time your user sees your joke, it’s probably not funny anymore.
Bonus: Never make the user the butt of the joke. Unless…
Unless all the above seven guidelines are fulfilled. Then you can go ahead and break this rule.
If the combination of product personality, target audience, and their mutual relationship permits, or even requires, making fun of users—do it. But do so carefully.
For example, Hipmunk has a fun relationship with users ordering vacations. This is what they have to say to users trying to book a hotel for more than their maximum available period:
Carrot Hunger goes a lot further. They introduce themselves as “A judgmental calorie counter app” and base their relationship with users on this attitude.
It’s not for everyone. But users who will find it motivational and fun are well on their way to getting hooked on using the app.
And if it’s not yet obvious: Making fun of users never includes racism, sexism, ageism, and all other forms of -isms.
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Kinneret Yifrah is the leading microcopy (UX writing) expert in Israel, and the author of "Microcopy: The Complete Guide." She has written microcopy and designed voice and tone for the largest local companies. Kinneret gives lectures and microcopy-writing workshops throughout the Israeli digital industry.