Poetry by design: a brief but practical guide to writing microcopy
User experience 10 minute read 2 comments
Language and design are bound together, inseparable.
This is not going to be a long rant on how words and content can be the last thought on a product team’s mind. I’m a reformed copywriter after all, but no, I will not go there. I just won’t.
I’ll simply say that the use of language is integral to any successful user interface. Language can make or break the user experience, yet it can be easily forgotten in the mad rush of development. We’ve all been there.
What is UX microcopy?
UX microcopy is anything from error messages, hints to button text and form labels.
Microcopy fulfils many roles:
- Letting the user know what to do
- Explaining errors
- Building confidence
- Minimising uncertainty
- Setting expectations
- Alleviating worries
- Building the brand
- Making users happy
Good copy will enhance the user’s journey, and smooth the way for them to get their jobs done.
UX designer Amy Thibodeau puts it nicely when she compares microcopy to poetry. Poetry is about maximising meaning in a condensed manner. With space at a premium in our designs, every word should count. But unlike a lot of great poetry, microcopy must communicate clearly and directly, leaving no ambiguity. More Kendrick Lamar, less T.S. Eliott.
One of the results of really good microcopy is user confidence. This confidence can be shaken if there are spelling mistakes, strange phrasing or incomprehensible jargon. Microcopy is not about marketing or an opportunity to sell your suite of products. There is a time and place for this, but just not when you are notifying the user of an error.
If you are struggling with microcopy, employing a UX writer either full time or on contract is highly recommended. If resources are tight, and they usually are, you’ll have to dig in and do it yourself. It is better to face it now, than not at all.
To make this challenge a little less daunting, I present a few of my favourite recommendations for formatting and dealing with microcopy. This is a starting point for how content should feature in the design, with all of its complexities. It will also give your product and development team an appreciation of the hidden power of language and some well-needed guidance on how to wield it.
Every product experience is different, and not every rule will be relevant or applicable to your product.
Use short words and sentences. Avoid unnecessary modifiers. Red is unnecessary in Click this red button. Don’t be over elaborate for the sake of it.
Avoid vague or informal language.
No technical terms except if it’s related to the user’s world. We can just use Save instead of the robot sounding Save file to database.
Keep paragraphs short
My unscientific rule of thumb is that paragraphs should be no more than seven long (approximately 70 characters) lines. Nothing looks more daunting than a page full of dense paragraphs.
Spell out numbers
In body copy, spell out numbers up to nine. Use numerals after 10.
Do not overuse contractions such as aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, hasn’t, don’t, I’m, it’s, there’s and what’s. Contractions can make the text sound informal and feels easier to read, but it can also start to be a distraction and it looks messy.
The issue of sentence versus title case has been debated to death. The consensus as far as I can see is to use sentence case for most occasions. Sentence case is when you only capitalise the first letter of the first word in a title. It is more conversational, sounds less formal and is easier to read than title case as Long Sentences Set In Title Case Can be Very Uncomfortable To Scan.
Use sentence case for buttons and links such as Select a user and Create a new task.
Sentence case also has the added benefit of being easier for product teams to work with, as there are no formatting rules to remember, unlike title case.
Title case is when you capitalise the first letter of each word, except for certain small words such as conjunctions and prepositions. There is an argument that we can use title case for short pieces of text and for actions to give more visual weight. When two words are set in title case, it can be more aesthetically pleasing than sentence case. Title case can be appropriate in the right context.
As I mentioned above, too many words set in title case can look awkward. Three and under is a good number. It can be hard to process titles when the number of words is pushed to six or more.
Capitalising proper names and terms
Capitalise proper names, such as Evil Corp and Valley Cryogenics. Do not capitalise terms except if they are branded terms and specific functionality such as Design Home or Flying Enchilada.
Point of view
As always, the debate over whether to use Your and My rages on in countless forums and can become draining to follow. It comes down to what suits your brand and how social and collaborative the product is. There is an argument that using a personal pronoun is a way of making the user feel engaged.
Using the second person pronoun your in an interface implies that the product is talking with you. It makes the product feel like it’s a personal assistant. It’s helpful without being too demanding.
Most importantly, it should be used in a collaborative environment. Your is social. An example would be a project management app where a team is involved in creating tasks. Your is useful as it differentiates your tasks from all people’s tasks.
The first person pronoun My suggests that the product is an extension of the user. My gives the feeling of control and a sense of ownership, but as an individual. It is solipsistic. An example would be a tax return site. Since the user is not in an open and sharing mood while calculating their finances, My feels appropriate, especially where data is sensitive.
Another example is My profile, where you do not want to share any data with others. Here, the first person gives a better sense of security. It makes the user understand clearly that they are viewing there own information.
No point of view
Yes, you can do this too. There are no rules to say that your product has to speak at all. In my experience, it is not so important to label things Your or My. Use the proper noun or action, like, Suitcase instead of My suitcase for example. It sidesteps issues of long line lengths and visual clutter. Using the personal pronoun is unnecessary in most cases except for those I mentioned above, namely distinguishing your own data from that of a team.
We can often be unaware of falling into a negative tone, especially with error messaging by leading with sorry, you can’t do this. This negative tone can give a feeling of finality, effectively blaming the user for what has occurred.
We want the user to be empowered. If the user encounters an issue, we want them to feel that there is a solution.
One of the most useful communication theories that apply to writing is the Feedback Method by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.
There are four types of feedback we can give the user:
- ‘No’ – negative, destructive
- ‘No, because…’ – negative, constructive
- ‘Yes, but…’ – positive, destructive
- ‘Yes, and…’ – the appreciative response
Using constructive feedback
We can fashion positive messages for our users by using negative, constructive and positive, constructive in our sentences.
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This explains what you cannot do, but at least it tells you that there is a solution in a friendly manner.
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This is also good as it tells you in very positive terms what has happened and what you can now do.
Avoid destructive feedback
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This is unhelpful, depressing and might remind the user of their own mortality.
Active voice describes a sentence where the subject performs the action stated by the verb. Active sounds stronger than passive voice and can be easier to understand. Always use active voice in your writing.
Passive voice is when the focus is on the action, not the subject as the subject comes last. This has the effect of lessening the importance of who or what is performing the action. This can lead to weak sounding sentences.
Notification and error messaging
Use active voice when you need to signal who or what caused an action.
Thom Gunn created a task is better than The task was created by Thom Gunn.
Even though we stated that active voice is the ideal, passive voice has its place. Use passive voice when the action is more important than what caused (subject) the action.
Results not found is better than The search did not return any results.
Call to action
It is essential to get your call to action correct. You are prompting the user to take action. Social media scientist, Dan Zarrella discovered that verbs generated a higher click-through rate than noun and adjectives on the top social media platforms. His findings suggest that to be a proper call to action, the text should begin with a verb such as Download file and Refresh this page. Account is not a verb, so it’s not a call to action.
Let’s get slightly theoretical. There are two actors – the product and the user, which are involved when an interaction occurs on a call to action. The creators of the product want the user to take action and the user wants the product to do an action for them. Truly symbiotic.
Without getting into the grammatical concepts of conditional and interrogative moods, a perfect call to action is born when the text makes sense after both:
- what the product wants the user to do by asking Would you like to…?
- what the user wants the product to do by telling the product I would like to…
Button text: Add to basket
- Would you like to add to basket?
- I would like to add to basket
This works for both.
An example that does not work
Button text: Forgotten password?
- Would you like to forgotten password?
- I would like to forgotten password?
Both of these do not make any sense.
Notifications such as emails and alerts are an important part of product engagement. As well as conforming to consistent branding and messaging, they also need to be transparent in terms of intent.
Users need to tell where the notifications are from
They must know at a glance that the notification is from your product/company. In an email, the subject is the most important part of the email.
They need to tell that it’s real
It must look trustworthy. The company name must be front and centre. The From email address must be shown clearly and have the name of the company in it.
They need to know why they are receiving it
This should be part of the title and subject e.g. Task: You have been assigned a task.
They need to know what to do next
This is essential for to provide a trigger for engagement. A link, button or steps should be contained within the notification.
Thinking about microcopy from the very beginning of ideation through to the prototyping stages is essential in creating a unified design. Microcopy at its very best can create useful signposts for users travelling on their journey through your product, in a language they can understand and a tone they will respond positively to.
- The Guardian, Style Guide
- The University of Oxford, Style Guide
- Jonathan Richards, Grammar of Interactivity
- D. L. Cooperrider and D. Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, 2005
- Ask UXmatters, Your Versus My in User Interfaces
- Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone, Designing Social Interfaces
- John Saito, Making a case for letter case
- Dan Zarrella, Social Media Marketing Book
Feature image by Albert