UX writing: The 5 W’s of microcopy

Abigael Donahue
Jan 6, 2020 · 5 min read
A black pencil on a white background
A black pencil on a white background
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Think of the words you see on your computer screen. Like the welcome message when you log in to an online account. Or the little words of reassurance when you enter your email address into an online form: Don’t worry. We won’t share your info with anyone. It’s our secret.

Those words matter.

They affect how people think and feel when interacting with a product. They also have the power to guide users through a product, teach them how things work, and even encourage them to try out new tools. These words in the user interface (UI) are one of the many aspects that contribute to the user experience (UX).

UX writing refers to creating these words. They’re often called microcopy.

While it may be considered a “new trend” in the world of tech, microcopy has actually been around since user interfaces existed. It just never got the attention it deserved until recent years.

But it’s still a new concept to most people. So let’s go over the 5 W’s of microcopy: who, what, where, when, and why.

1. Who writes microcopy?

UX writing is highly collaborative. It involves writers (of course), as well as researchers, designers, developers, strategists, and any others focused on creating a remarkable experience for users.

People with unique skills — skills that are often seen as “at odds” with each other — will thrive in UX writing: a technical artist, an analytical writer, or a strategic creative. UX writing is where the left brain meets the right.

Some companies have full-time UX writers, and others don’t. Instead, UX designers with a knack for writing can put their wordsmith skills to work. Let’s hear from some UX designers on how they create microcopy:

“In user research calls or conversations, I try to understand the language that users return to again and again. That language should be included in our applications. If users don’t understand a term used in the UI, it’s not the correct term for the context.”

— Rachael Petrie, Interaction Designer at Red Hat

“I have found it is often about asking questions about complex ideas with development teams until you can distill those ideas into succinct explanations for users. It’s the same process we use to build the UI in the first place!”

— Catherine Robson, Manager of UX Design at Red Hat

Just like colors, layout, and functionality, microcopy is very much part of the overall product experience.

2. What does microcopy sound like?

The style, voice, and tone of microcopy largely depends on the audience and the company’s brand. So there isn’t really a “one-size-fits-all” approach. There are, however, some general best practices, like:

  • Be clear, concise, and consistent.
  • Be helpful.
  • Be accessible.
  • Be human.

Check out more tips on PatternFly.

While microcopy sounds different depending on the context, one thing is for sure: It needs to be supported with reasoning — not just your personal opinion on what “sounds good.”

This reasoning could come in the form of user testing. UX designers often validate product designs with usability testing, and words are part of those designs. Feedback from users can improve the product design and the microcopy, which should both be taken into consideration before the final product is released.

User testing not an option? That’s okay. There are other ways to show the value of your microcopy.

For example, maybe your words align with accessibility best practices. Maybe your microcopy consists of familiar, commonly used words so that all users can understand. Or maybe, your microcopy encourages users to act — like when a simple microcopy tweak at Google increased user engagement by 17%.

3. Where is microcopy?

Microcopy comes in all different shapes and sizes. You might see microcopy in the form of error messages, welcome messages, form descriptions, menu labels, success/failure notifications, button text, and more. Any of these look familiar?

Messaging in Facebook’s status bar reading, “What’s on your mind?”
Messaging in Facebook’s status bar reading, “What’s on your mind?”
Messaging in Google’s search bar reading, “Search Google or type a URL”
Messaging in Google’s search bar reading, “Search Google or type a URL”
Spotify’s left sidebar menu with items reading “Home,” “Search,” Your Library,” and “Create Playlist”
Spotify’s left sidebar menu with items reading “Home,” “Search,” Your Library,” and “Create Playlist”

Microcopy. All of them.

4. When is microcopy created?

Before any designs are created, a UX writer works closely with a variety of people like researchers and designers to understand the user, the design process, and any other information that helps shape the user experience.

Also, writing can be another way to improve product design. If a design is too difficult to explain with words, then it might still need some work. This is similar to how UX developers can surface design issues. If a design is too difficult to build, it might need some tweaking.

UX writers can also be involved at other stages, if not all.

“Content support is helpful at all stages! In research and design, content expertise should inform all text on the UI. In dev if the UI changes on the fly, it helps to have content experts to support these changes!”

— Rachael Petrie, Interaction Designer at Red Hat

Long story short: UX writing can happen at any time, anywhere.

5. Why does microcopy matter?

Software users are people. They need a product that serves its purpose and makes life easier. They don’t want to feel frustrated, anxious, or scared. The right words — along with the right research, design, and development — can transform a product into an engaging, intuitive, and even fun experience.

On top of that, microcopy brings in money.

Seriously? How?

There are lots of ways!

  • Good microcopy makes it easier for users to complete actions, like make purchases or subscribe.
  • Good microcopy encourages users to try new areas of a product, increasing user activity and retention (and even leading to product upgrades).
  • Good microcopy can create an experience users love so much that they spread the word to their friends (word-of-mouth marketing = $$$).

The list goes on…

So the next time you see some wording in an app that makes you laugh, or answers your question, or gets you to where you need to be — take a moment to appreciate the writer behind it.

Do you have UX writing (or research, design, and development) tips of your own? If so, consider writing an article for us. The more voices, the better.

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