Learn how microcopy impacts the user experience—and what you can do about it.
Microcopy is a term used for the small pieces of content that appears on digital interfaces, from calls to action to disclaimers assuring users that their personal information won't be shared. While this might seem like the responsibility of marketers or content managers, these tiny pieces of text play a vital role in UX—and can make or break your user experience.
Good UX microcopy is clear, concise, and helpful, while bad microcopy can be confusing, misleading, or just plain annoying.
In this article, we'll discuss what microcopy is and how it fits into the UX design process. We'll also explore how designers can use UX writing to improve the quality of their work, and cover a few tips to help you start writing stronger microcopy.
Microcopy refers to the brief, yet helpful text that appears on websites, apps, and other digital interfaces. These sentences or phrases are normally quite short, and typically serve a very practical purpose: to tell users what to do next, answer common questions or concerns, and give more context to a situation.
Some examples of microcopy in UX design include:
Text on buttons
An error message
The field labels on a contact form
Finally, microcopy helps define your brand's story and how you want customers to see your product or business.
What Does Microcopy Do?
In A Pocket Guide to The Craft of Words, Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson define microcopy as:
The craft of words at a micro level, considering how words can satisfy a functional requirement by aiding and improving design interactions, enhancing interfaces for both function and delight, and helping a user on their journey.
By carefully crafting microcopy that is clear, concise, and helpful, you can make your product easier to use and more enjoyable for your users, improving the overall user experience of your product or website by:
Addressing common questions or concerns, so users are empowered to take control over their own experience, versus having to contact customer support or look elsewhere for information on how to complete task X, for example. By taking the time to write helpful microcopy, you can save your company time and money in the long run.
Clarifying consequences, so that users know exactly what will happen when they click the delete button, for example. (“This action cannot be undone.”)
Creating a brand-aligned experience, so that the user is treated to a cohesive experience from beginning to end.
Labeling features clearly, so users know exactly what functionality exists, for more aligned expectations.
Microcopy vs UX Writing: What's the Difference?
While microcopy is a small part of UX writing, the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between microcopy and UX writing.
Microcopy is a small piece of the puzzle that focuses on the specific words and phrases that are used in an interface. UX writing, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach to the overall tone and voice of a product, and often encompasses larger pieces of content throughout the product journey.
How Does Microcopy Fit Into the UX Design Process?
Microcopy should never be an afterthought. It isn't a clever bit of wording that can be written and added in a single step. Rather, it requires an awareness of and participation in the UX design process as a whole, from research to testing.
Here are some general examples of how it might look as you go through the main phases of a design iteration:
During the research phase, microcopy can be used to help define the tone and voice of your product. You might conduct research to learn what terms or phrases might be required to help solve content or experience gaps.
Design & Iteration
During both the low and high fidelity design phases, microcopy can be written for labels, calls to actions, and error messages. It can be fine-tuned alongside the design elements as you gain clarity on the final design solution.
Finally, during the testing phase, microcopy can be tested along with the rest of the interface to ensure that it’s effective and easy to understand.
How Does Microcopy Improve the User Experience?
Good UX microcopy can be used to address user concerns, explain functionality, and ultimately help users to have a better experience. Here are a few ways that these bits of copy can be used to enhance the user experience:
Microcopy answers the question: What does this do?
Designers can use microcopy to create clear and concise labels, calls to action, and error messages. The challenge often comes in trying to incorporate the bits of content in a way that makes sense within the overall layout and space of the design.
In this example of microcopy, you can see how the ClickUp team manages to maintain a healthy amount of whitespace in the task creation screen of the mobile app … despite the fact that ⅓ of the real estate is used up by the keyboard.
Microcopy answers the question: What action do I want to take?
Microcopy can be used to address common questions or concerns that users may have. By writing helpful microcopy, you can reduce customer support inquiries—saving your company valuable time and money.
In the screenshot below, you can see how MailChimp utilizes a short piece of copy on their pricing page to improve clarity. Since each pricing tier has a limit of subscribers and/or total email sends, MailChimp helpfully includes some copy beneath the yellow buttons that tells what happens if you exceed the limit on that particular tier.
This addition helps prevent irritated, confused customers who might otherwise wonder why they have unexpected charges or service disruptions after a particularly busy month of email sending.
Microcopy creates a brand-aligned experience
Finally, a UX designer can use friendly, helpful microcopy to build trust with users and create a positive impression of your brand.
The online shopping platform, Etsy, has established a warm, personal brand experience. In the example below, there are two standout ways that they reinforce this experience:
To incentivize users to shop some new product categories, they include a subheading:
"Curated collections hand-picked by Etsy editors"
Since modern shopping experiences tend to be ruled by algorithms, the personal touch (and appeal of an “insider’s view” of which products you should look at) is incredibly attractive.
But it's the wording on the "Leave a Review" popup in the bottom right corner of this example of microcopy that truly exemplifies the way that they manage to keep a small community vibe, despite having literally millions of items listed on the site:
"Leave a review to help [Shop Name] grow their business."
5 Quick Tips For Writing Good Microcopy
Good microcopy impacts every part of the user experience, from functional guidance to emotional vibes. Even if copywriting isn't your forte, there are a few guiding principles that can be used to help you incorporate copy that's impactful and supports the user experience. Here are a few tips to help you write good microcopy:
1. Aim for clear, concise phrasing
It can feel counterintuitive, but short, concise phrasing is often the most effective. When you write, avoid using jargon or long, complicated sentences.
2. Get to the point
Phrasing aside, most users will only read 18-20% of the words on a page (or interface screen). Rather than present walls of text—or nuanced messaging—get straight to the heart of what you’re trying to say.
This might take some testing to determine exactly what the “point” of an interaction is, whether you’re writing tooltips or a warning message.
3. Be helpful
When business goals trump user needs, it’s easy for dark patterns to start sneaking into your microcopy, since you might feel the need to “influence” the user to take a certain action. A more user-centric route is to focus on keeping your microcopy helpful, rather than salesy.
4. Use verbs to denote interactions
Interactive elements—like buttons or links—should always begin with an active verb. This not only incentivizes users to take action, but helps them understand the context of what will happen when they interact with the element.
For example, a button that merely says “sale” isn’t as clearly directive as one that says “shop the sale.”
5. Test & iterate, iterate, iterate
Just like your design work, no copy is ever truly “final.” You can maintain a data-driven approach to your UX microcopy with usability testing to determine the effectiveness of copy variations … and keeping an open line of communication with your company’s customer support team to hear what users continue to struggle with.
Microcopy is an essential part of a UX designer’s toolkit, and can be used to create more functional, helpful, and brand-aligned interfaces.
Great microcopy happens when it is included in the design process as a whole, rather than treated as an afterthought.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a UX writer, you can learn to write better microcopy by following some basic copywriting best practices.
Interested in the World of UX Design?
Whether you hope to ultimately build a career in UX content writing, specifically, or are simply looking for ways to establish a solid process on the visual design side of things, you can get started learning foundational design skills with UX Academy Foundations, where you’ll work on interface design projects and receive 1:1 mentorship with an experienced designer.