Brown Sauce

A simple lesson to help you write better microcopy

JD Graffam
Oct 25, 2016 · 3 min read
Original illustration by Travis Knight from Simple Focus.

Almost a decade ago, I was out at lunch sharing fries with my friend and colleague, Matthew Rooney. We were talking about a project we were working on together that involved writing microcopy for dozens of error states.

A big glob of ketchup fell on my new white shirt. I was embarrassed about making a pig of myself, and Matthew is incredibly polite, so he moved the conversation forward as I wiped away at the mess. He asked, “Have I ever told you my story about Brown Sauce and microcopy?”

Turns out, Brown Sauce is a thing they have in the United Kingdom. This was years before I had traveled to Europe, so I had no idea. Cafes across the UK have three condiments on the table: red sauce, white sauce, and brown sauce.

The red sauce is ketchup, the white sauce is mayonnaise, and brown sauce is, well, brown sauce. Matthew went on, “I’ve got no clue what’s in this brown sauce, but it’s delicious. You can put it on anything, including microcopy.”

Brown Sauce is labeled just what it is, there’s no fancy name for it. The label provides an accurate description of what is inside, so what purpose would further information serve? Brown Sauce is brown sauce. Duh.

When writing any type of copy, including microcopy, we should write so that we cannot possibly be misunderstood. This is a technical skill, and there’s a book about it, which you should read, called Writing with Precision: How to Write So That You Cannot Possibly Be Misunderstood.

Let’s say you’re designing an error condition for a password reset flow where your company has instituted more stringent password requirements. Being the conscientious UX designer that you are, you reference all the technical documentation, glance over the business requirements, and try to wrap your head around all of the use cases, contingencies, and business rules that this tiny snippet of text needs to address.

Certain operational procedures caused this error text to spring into existence, and you personally know way too much about the business and KPIs and brand pillars and technical specifications and now you’re simply stuck.

You struggle to boil all of those competing needs and objectives into an eloquent and succinct phrase. You could say it one way, but that doesn’t quite cover it. Or you could be witty, but it doesn’t quite make sense. You could try another phrase, but it’s not entirely accurate.

In the book Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath share how deep institutional knowledge makes it difficult to communicate value clearly.

And right now, you know too much to make this simple. You could write twenty pages of web content easier than you can write this microcopy.

You can’t figure out how to say what it needs to say in the clearest possible way, so you tap your colleague on the shoulder and say, “Hey, I need to figure out how to word this. It needs to basically say that your password is too short, it needs to be longer for security reasons.”

Here’s what you need to do: stop, take a deep breath, and type out, “Your password is too short, it needs to be longer for security reasons.”

That’s brown sauce.

JD Graffam

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I own two agencies and six software businesses that employ about 30 people. My household goes through as many diapers each day. I’ll be me; you be you.