How we work with microcopy

By writing clear and concise microcopy, we make the brand’s personality shine through, while still making sure their product is easy to use.

Karina Raunholm
Oct 14, 2018 · 7 min read
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Illustrations by Marek Minor

Finding the tone of voice

A good way to start is to make some good and bad examples of the tone of voice. If you’re writing for a product that already exists, this task is simple. Just find the wording that doesn’t follow the tone of voice, and write examples that do.

Weighing every single word

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We recently designed and helped develop the new Vipps app — Norway’s most popular app for making payments. In that process, we also wrote and edited all the copy for the app. Their tone of voice had already been established before we started, summarised in three words:

  • Simple
  • Playful
  • Near

We needed a bit more before we started working on the nitty-gritty wording choices in the app. For this project, we made an extensive dictionary with words and sentences for what Vipps would or wouldn’t say. By discussing actual sentences and words, we showcased what simple, playful and near would mean for the microcopy in the app.

Examples from the dictionary

  • We say Create a new code, not Make a new 4 digit PIN code
  • We say Fee, not Transaction fee or Transaction cost

A dictionary is useful as a reference point for further development and design and is a part of an extended tone-of-voice guide. It’s also a great way to test a direction with the client early in the process. If there are issues with compliance or wording, it’s always better to solve them early on. If the product deals with money, it might be nice to elaborate on how to write different digits and currencies. For some clients, we make guidelines for how to use emojis, because even too much of a good thing is still too much.

Exploring the map and terrain

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In our experience, it’s always better when writers, designers, and developers work together on the concept and content from the start. It saves time and frustration when everybody is on the same page from the beginning.

What we need to map out:

  • The sections — home screen, different settings, and account or profile options.
  • The flows — with all the content of every screen, like title, body, buttons, fields, and placeholders.
  • And last but not least, every single success and error message. There’s always way more than anyone could possibly imagine.

Staying organised

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Keeping it all in one place is convenient whenever a designer needs to update the design files with the final copy, or a developer creates a new string. It also makes it possible for others to comment on the copy, or to do several explorations before landing on a final version.

When we’re stuck, we google

Google Trends is one of our favourites, especially to see what the general term is for a phrase or function. If both iOS and Android calls a function Settings, it’s probably not a good idea to change the wording, unless there’s a really good reason for it.

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Computer says pay with

Writing for apps and websites

Because it’s usually only possible to do one thing at a time in an app, we want to make sure that every screen makes sense, so users can complete what they set out to do. Understanding the infrastructure and constraints makes it easier to know when it’s necessary to add help or hints to let all the different flows, well, flow.

In the end, it’s all about the same thing. For both websites, apps, and all other digital products for that matter, we only want the copy that’s actually useful — not too much or too little. Good microcopy isn’t just icing on the cake or making the brand personality shine through: it’s about making the product easy to use.

Multiple languages and platforms

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We make the wireframes, prototypes and design in English, and use that as a base for further translations. We’ve recently explored Lokalise as a tool to set up the strings for translation, which works great for our needs. It makes it easy to get the copy into the app or product, without relying on manual labour by the developers.

Making sure the copy is useful

If we’re aiming full WCAG compatibility, we have to be extra diligent to make sure everything makes sense for everybody. Sometimes we write additional copy, like aria-labels, to make sure it works smoothly for people who use screen readers or other aids to use the product. We can still make human interfaces with a personality, but when it comes to accessibility, being clear and concise is much more important than being funny or minimalistic. Test it, and test it again

Our experience is that flows always feel slightly different when you’re in the actual app, compared to static design. We’ve figured out that what usually works best is to provide a lot of different alternatives and then test and adjust the copy — with both design and prototypes — until it’s just right.

References we love

Bakken & Bæck

Our stories

Thanks to Bakken & Bæck

Karina Raunholm

Written by

Writer and content designer. I design and carve concepts with words, and work as an independent writer and consultant at tekstuell.no. ✏️

Bakken & Bæck

Our stories

Karina Raunholm

Written by

Writer and content designer. I design and carve concepts with words, and work as an independent writer and consultant at tekstuell.no. ✏️

Bakken & Bæck

Our stories

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