Who should write your microcopy?

4 min read
Kinneret Yifrah
  •  Oct 4, 2017
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Microcopy has become an indispensable element of UX and user engagement strategy, guiding users through products, helping them complete tasks, and increasing conversions.

So, the question isn’t whether microcopy is important—it’s who’s doing the writing (and who should be doing the writing), by profession and by job title.

What does it take to be a great microcopy writer?

Microcopy writers are ‘triple threats’Twitter Logo—they understand content, UX, and marketing.

How to know if this is you:

If you prefer to type on a typewriter, digital products aren’t your thing.

If you’re a UX specialist who’s okay with lorem ipsum, copywriting might not be a good match.

If you’re a marketing geek but would rather leave UX for the UXers, then you’re better with funnels than flows.

Caring equally about content, UX, and marketing—or, at least, specializing in one of them and caring about them all to some large degree—is what differentiates microcopy writers from the others.

What kind of writer are you?

Content and copywriters

If you already know how to write to motivate users, then all that’s missing is some UX and user behavior understanding—something that’s not intuitive or taught in copywriting courses.

Microcopy combines what you already know about copywriting—how to write to make a person feel something—with product writing. For example, when error messages are received, what they need to say, and why.

“Caring equally about content, UX, and marketing is what differentiates microcopy writers from the others.”

Think about what you know about writing for conversions, and now apply that to buttons and fields. How can you convince users to sign up for newsletters or websites? What are the 4 components of a good confirmation message that are more likely to increase engagement? When is a tooltip better than in-line copy?

This kind of writing is technically UX writing, but it’s nothing you can’t figure out if you’re willing to sit down with your UX people and ask some questions. It doesn’t take any UX experience, and you can trust me on that—this is exactly how I got started.

If you have the patience to learn and your teammates are willing to teach (and they’re usually happy to do so), learning microcopy will be a breeze.

Marketing writers

Marketing writers need to know how to write in a way that’s nuanced and user-oriented already. So, like the content writers, all you need to do is pick up some tricks from your friendly UX experts and you’ll be ready to go.

UI/UX designers

There’s nothing stopping you from writing copy for your own designsTwitter Logo, but don’t feel like you have to. You’re a designer, first and foremost, and no one’s demanding you become a copywriter too. And you can be certain no one’s letting your copy colleagues go near Sketch.

With that being said, if you have a thing for words and you’re ready to go for the copy challenge, it’s not a huge stretch to jump from UX design to microcopy. The rules of good microcopy incorporate what you already know about UX (basically, how to make users happy) with a bit of marketing, to turn happy users into engaged users.

Writing for UX isn’t covered in all UX courses, and when it is, it’s rarely covered deeply. Because of this, even designers who are great writers don’t always know how to create relevant, effective texts that engage users.

Think about empty states, for example. All UX designers know what this means—when there are no results for a search, or a basket is empty—but not how to turn this dead-end into a valuable interaction that promotes marketing and engagement goals.

You don’t have to go to copy school to learn how to take advantage of these use cases. Put on your UX thinking cap and start learning about writing for specific interfaces and use cases, and it will all come together.

Technical writers

Technical writers have the unique advantage of understanding interfaces and how to simply explain complex concepts. So to write great microcopy, they just have to learn how to write for users instead of systems.

Writing for systems focuses on what systems can and cannot do; writing for users is about what systems can do for them and what value the system will bring them. This shift demands a change in language, writing for users instead of product managers and developers.*

* Though I very sincerely hope that one day everything will be written for users, because there’s no excuse for technical manuals to be written like chemistry textbooks.

The best example of this kind of copy switch is in alerts and error messages. For a technical writer, error message reports are addressed to the system. For example, the value entered is invalid. For writing that addresses the user, however, the language has to be, above all, human. Whoever’s reading the message shouldn’t be scared or feel blamed—they should understand what’s wrong and how to fix it.

If the brand personality allows it, a bit of humor can make the users feel much better. Try and reserve a hotel room on Hipmunk for over 30 days, and then come back with any questions.

Okay, but who’s writing the microcopy?

In big companies

The larger an organization is, the more differentiation and segmentation will exist between writers’ designations. Therefore, depending on the project and budget, whenever possible it’s recommended to assign someone specifically to microcopy.

This way, there will be copywriters working on slogans, banners, and hard sale pages, whether in advertising or marketing; there will be content writers writing newsletters, landing pages, blog posts, and social media; and then there will be microcopy writers (also known as UX writers), specializing in the writing that appears within the product itself.

“Whenever possible, assign someone specifically to microcopy.”

Twitter Logo

Ideally, all 3 writers will be writing in the same tone and using the same voice, so the different channels of the company will be represented coherently and cohesively.

For a one-off project, such as copy for a release, it might make more sense to work with an external contractor who will lead the voice and tone design and write the microcopy accordingly.

This is also an option, of course, for multiple products and continuous updates and releases, but in this case it makes more sense to hire an in-house writer or a freelancer, per hour or on retainer.

Working with one committed microcopy writer over time will make sure they understand the depth, complexity, and target audience of your product, so their copy fits into the overall writing puzzle.

If you want the microcopy written within the organization but without an assigned writer, the organizational structure and products’ assigned department are very important in determining who writes the microcopy. There are organizations where the marketing department is responsible for writing product copy, while some have content departments who take responsibility for microcopy. More technically-oriented companies usually assign microcopy to technical writers.

For small businesses

The smaller a company is, the bigger each person’s role will be.

A small ecommerce company, for example, won’t—and shouldn’t—hire separate writers for content (e.g. about page and blog posts), copy (slogans and titles), and microcopy (for the online store itself). Beyond the fiscal impracticality, it would be a logistical nightmare to coordinate voice and tone standards with 2, or even 3, writers that sometimes don’t even know each other.

If the content writer doesn’t have experience with microcopy, they should be paired with someone who understands user behavior for sensitive processes like purchasing, lead forms, or hand-holding forms. Alternatively, if whoever is in charge of UX understands microcopy writing, they can take the writing upon themselves (so long as they’re familiar with the brand language and can maintain consistency).

Either way…

Whoever runs your company’s microcopy needs to posses the knowledge and skill sets both to guide and sell within your product—meaning, excellent marketing writing combined with thorough understanding of UX and user behavior patterns.

Find someone who doesn’t just know these important words, but knows how to use them.

Did you miss Kinneret’s previous post about why we can’t let UX steal microcopy’s thunder?

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