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What's microcopy and why is it important?

news #user-interface

In another life, I worked at a newspaper, and one of the toughest things to write was a nib (news in brief). Nibs are those little stories that tend to sit in a column at the side of a page, where a whole tale is condensed into one or two paragraphs.

Although you're only looking at 50 or 60 words, crafting a good nib could take longer than writing a page lead. Why? Because in a page lead, you have room to breathe. You can spin out the story and even create a feeling of suspense if appropriate, but with a nib? You've got a few lines to pack in all of the who, what, why, where, when and how, and then if you've got space, insert some journalistic flair.

Nibs are where 1,000-word press releases are crunched into informative snippets, and where rambling court reports are boiled down to their core components. 

A nib is tiny, you can spend an inordinate amount of time doing it, and getting it right can be a battle.

In the digital world, microcopy is the new nib.

Microcopy is the small bits of text that help guide users through products and processes. It's contextual copy that makes life better in one way or another. 

It's stuff so small that it barely counts as "copy", but is so important you ignore it at your peril. 

But many businesses do ignore it.

Despite its diminutive size, writing awesome microcopy can be a potent tactic for engaging users: not only does it nudge them along user flows, but it also allows for better user interaction. 

Often when people think about improving user experience they consider visual design, information architecture and other "big" things that are easy to get hold of and run workshops on.

But bad microcopy can completely derail a user's experience on an app or website.

It's not for nothing that it also gets referred to as UX copy. Microcopy is perhaps the point where user experience and copywriting most intersect.

Microcopy venn diagram

Sometimes tweaking the few words next to a particular field can transform a hesitant visitor into a guaranteed customer and lifelong advocate.

How much influence can microcopy have on a business? How about $300 million?

The tale of how one business increased sales by $300m by changing a button to read "Continue" instead of "Register" is well-known, but still amazing (you can read the full story on Fast Company).

Good microcopy comes from knowing the product, knowing the customer and knowing what you want them to do.

But it doesn't always have to be about an action. Microcopy can be a subtle way to reinforce your brand, to inject personality or even create delight. 

Yelp uses microcopy to show its human side

It's also vital in smoothing any friction points. If you think misunderstandings might occur, the right word in the right place can make dramatically reduce the chances of error.

Hangouts points out to users that their microphones are muted

It's not an exact science though. Good microcopy takes time to get right. Thought has to go into it, and iterations are to be expected, so don't be afraid to experiment to see how people respond. Microcopy is a perfect candidate for A/B testing.

Tiny text with a massive impact

It's not a new concept. Microcopy has been a tool for many years, we've just called it different things in different disciplines  - consider SEO, what are image alt tags and meta descriptions if not pieces of microcopy designed to aid users and act as signposts).

Done right, effective microcopy can improve engagement, increase conversion and make users happy.

In fact, when you think about it, the term "microcopy" is kind of disparaging for something that matters so much.