Winning trust with words

An intro to UX microcopy

Charlotte Sferruzza
Design @Onfido


In my product designer journey, copywriting has always been a challenge. I’ve worked on different types of products in different countries, using different languages, for different audiences. It’s not easy to adapt and get better at writing copy.

A year ago, I’ve started focusing on UX microcopy to be a better product designer.

I was starting my product design role at Onfido, working on our mobile SDKs. One of my regular challenges was finding the right words to guide our users in their identity verification process. I only had a few screens to help users achieve this process in the most efficient way. It’s particularly challenging in Onfido products because we deal with personal data. Each word counts when it comes to make users feel comfortable and win their trust.

Here are a few things I wish I knew when I started writing for products.

This article comes from a lunch & learn presentation I made at Onfido to introduce UX microcopy to all 😃

What is UX microcopy?

I’ll start by quoting Kinneret Yifrah:

“Microcopy is the words or phrases in the user interface that are directly related to the actions a user takes”

Microcopy provides users with motivation before the action, guidance during the action, and feedback when the action is done. It’s an essential part of an interface, because design is still about words.

Why is microcopy important?

It makes your product more usable

Good microcopy gives users all the keys to achieve what they wanted to achieve in the first place. It’s not about delight, it’s about using or leaving your product.

A good example of this is Veeam. Through their on-page survey, they noticed that a lot of users were asking for a price. But no one was clicking on their “Request a quote” button. They changed “Request a quote” to “Request pricing” and saw a 161.66% increase in clicks.

Before the copy change: no engagement
After the copy change: people finally get it

It makes your experience memorable

Users remember amazing experiences, terrible experience, and always forget about okay experiences.

A great UX microcopy creates a great conversation. Which creates a great experience.

Just like when you speak to a nice cashier who doesn’t only help you, but makes you feel good about yourself and even laugh a little bit. Users will remember this positive experience, and remember your product.

MailChimp gives this positive message after users launch a campaign

It differentiates your brand

Your brand has its own tone of voice that makes it different from your competitors. Differentiation doesn’t rely only on colours, logo and layout. It also comes with the words.

Citymapper has a friendly and fresh tone of voice

Conversational writing

We’ve all learnt that the way we speak and the way we write should be different. Written style is usually more formal. Spoken style is more familiar.

When it comes to writing for a product, finding the balance between written and spoken style is essential. We call it conversational writing but let’s be honest: it’s just how humans interact with each other.

You don’t speak to your best friend the same way you speak to your boss. You don’t write the same letter if it is for your grandma or to pay your taxes. Conversational writing is adapting the writing to the situation, the audience, but above all: sounding human.

I’ll quote Kinneret Yifrah again on her definition of conversational writing:

“Interfaces can and should be both written and spoken: both representative and pleasant; both professional and smiling; both respectful and relating as equals. Look around you, humans are like that too.”

If you’re already bored by this post, you can remember the main takeaway: when you write for a product, be human.

Find the right tone of voice

Usually, there is no right or wrong solution when writing microcopy, it just needs to fit in your product’s tone of voice. I won’t spend too much time on that topic — which deserves a dedicated post.

A few tips to help you define your product tone of voice:

  • If your product was a person, who would it be?
  • What are your audience relationship with your product? What are their needs, their problems, their hopes, their dreams, etc.
  • Listen to what your users say about your products. The words they use are the ones they want to see in your product.

This last tip is my favourite one. Listening to people and transcribing this in a product… it’s more or less what product design is about, right?

7 tips to write better microcopy

These are the tips I use every day.

1. Don’t write something you wouldn’t say out loud

Yes, it’s this tip again: keep it human. It’s the only thing you have to remember.

You want to write something on this interface? Grab your colleagues, tell them what you just wrote. If you would have never said it that way, it’s not human enough. It’s also a good way to check your tone of voice.

If you want your friends to close the map they have in the hands, you will say “Close the map”, not “Close map”. Don’t write “Close map” on your interface, the extra space you gain is not worth it. Please put those connecting words back where they belong!

2. Use active voice over passive voice

Your copy should be focusing on actions. In spoken English, we tend to use active voice more often. Apply that to your product.

This is a good advice for copywriting in English, but I found it hard to translate. When writing microcopy in French, I tend to use passive voice more often to avoid having to pick a gender or to choose between formal and non-formal style.

3. Talk about the value, not the method

It’s a useful tip for marketing copywriting as well. But let’s keep focused on the product. No more “click here” or “click next” label on a button. Don’t tell users what to do, but what they will achieve with that action. If your button is well designed, there is no need to tell users they can click on it. Instead, tell them what they will achieve with it (eg. “Manage your orders”).

4. Be helpful in your error messages

Error messages are frustrating. Don’t put jokes in them, that’s cruel.

If something doesn’t work, explain why and how it can be fixed. If it can’t be fixed, tell the user what to do. If you don’t know what happened, apologise and again, tell the user what to do. Don’t just let them hang there with nothing to do but pray.

5. Avoid jargon (and no acronyms, too)

Don’t make your users feel stupid by using jargon and acronyms they might not know. It’s ok to use the acronym SMS because we can assume that everybody knows what it is. It’s less ok to use CTA when you want to talk about a button. Just say the word button, see? It makes things more simple for you too.

You don’t sound smarter when you use complex words. You actually seem smarter when using simple words to explain complex concepts. Remember that for any of your conversations 🤓

6. Write the copy while designing the interface, not after

I’ve used lorem ipsum a lot. 5 years in design school, writing lorem ipsum almost every day. At a time I was even using Slipsum because I thought I was such a badass designer. I’m full of regrets.

Start writing when you design. Just like you start thinking about components and information hierarchy, start putting real text in your designs as early as possible.

Don’t accommodate your words to fit in the design, accommodate your design to fit in your words.

My new rule: never show wireframes to anyone if the text is not there. It doesn’t mean the copy needs to be perfect. It will show what pieces of information you want to tell and where. It’s then easier to improve and re-write that copy. It’s also incredibly hard to review a design when the text inside is latin… where has all the context gone?

Lorem ipsum, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

7. Keep it consistent

You started calling this adorable fur ball in your product a cat? Stick with it. Stay simple, use one word per idea throughout your interface. The context might affect it. But a cat is a cat.

In the end, as product designers, we just want to reduce the number of heart attacks because of popups like this:

Imagine what a great place the product world would be.

Writing for a product is hard. You need to think about the tone of voice, the context, the user’s journey, and so much more. This is why I try to use those tips as a checklist whenever I start designing a product.

Spending time thinking about microcopy will have a positive impact on your product and improve its UX. It will help users achieve their goal, make them feel confident, and eventually make them fall in love with your product.

❤️ Thank you to the great people who helped me make this post better: Alicia, Daniel, Minh, Sérgio and Vincent.