Did you ever spend an hour writing a four or five word phrase or short instruction? During that time, you probably felt like an obsessive perfectionist—hunched over the computer trying to get it just right.
Now that there’s a term for this type of writing and recognition of how important it is, we can all feel a little more normal. I’m talking about microcopy, and it refers to the little instructions and phrases that we use in eLearning and web page interfaces to guide and assure users.
Importance of Microcopy
Microcopy can make or break your product. Without a short instruction, users might not know what to do next. With the wrong instruction, users get frustrated. For example, while working on a site the other day, I came across this instruction in the box to the above right, “click to expand.” I thought I was supposed to click on the words, “click to expand.” Actually, I was supposed to click on a link on the other side of the screen. Was I frustrated? I would have been, but I chanted Serenity Now.
In addition to providing instructions and wayfinding, microcopy can assure users that things are safe and secure. Notice my sign-up form in the upper right of the screen. Below the email field I wrote, “Your email address will never be shared with anyone.” This assures everyone who wants to sign up that their information will be safe and was definitely worth the 16 hours it took to write. Seriously.
Writing Quality Microcopy
Good microcopy gives your audience the information they need in a small space. Here’s what I’ve learned about writing short instructions and phrases.
Clarify your intention or objective. Although it’s only a few words, you do have to think things through. Clarify your objective and purpose so you know what you want your little phrase to do. If you want users to know a course has an audio component, it’s not going to be the same statement as when you tell them how to raise and lower the volume. Don’t let things get blurry. Stick to one clear point.
Get in the mind of the reader. Read your copy from the perspective of different users. For instance, read it from the viewpoint of someone who is not computer literate, doesn’t speak your language well or is not paying good attention. Make sure your statement or phrase can be understood from many different perspectives.
Be direct. Your goal is to be as informative as possible in a small space. Make your writing straightforward and precise. Do not waver from your intention.
Use an appropriate number of words. There’s a fine line between using too many words and being overly sparse. Write your copy in as few words as possible, but use enough words to ensure the meaning is clear.
For example, these very brief test instructions to the right, “Choose the best answer. Then click Submit.” are direct and to the point. It’s doubtful they could be misinterpreted
Don’t go overboard. When you identify your purpose, stick to it. Don’t attempt to explain too much. That can actually lead to confusion or misinterpretation.
Edit, revise, edit. Recheck your writing to revise and edit until it is perfect or you run out of budget.
Make it noticeable. Make sure readers can see your microcopy. Although it should fit in well with the surrounding interface, your words need to be noticed. Plan ahead to ensure there is enough space for placing the copy where it can be seen.
Consider adding personality. Sometimes it is appropriate to add humor and personality to microcopy. This can make an eLearning course or web site a friendlier experience. This isn’t always going to work, but when it does, unexpected humor is a novelty that most people enjoy.
Remember its value. Writing microcopy is a service to your audience. Through your little phrase, you are helping people get oriented, find their way, or feel assured. That’s important stuff so do it with care.
What are your tips for writing good microcopy? Please add them to the comments section below. Notice that the previous sentence is an example of microcopy.