Challenges with digital products, Part 1: Microcopy

They say size isn’t everything, right? And when it comes to copy, they’re correct. Microcopy is often overlooked in the design process, yet it can make or break your product’s success.
Imagine trying to sell a digital product using its design alone. No words. Just design. Would you succeed?
It’s unlikely – your customers wouldn’t get far before getting lost.
But what if you were to do it the other way around, strip away all of your product’s design aspects, and attempt to sell using just your words?
It’s a whole different story, and actually, something businesses prove is possible all the time in email marketing.
Of course, design is a crucial part of the communication process but, no matter how flawless it is, it’s never a standalone element and no match for the impact we can have when we use design and copy together.
Copy and content are essential components in the success of every digital product. And yet, they’re often some of the last things product teams think about. Especially when it comes to small yet mighty microcopy.

What is microcopy?

Microcopy is just that; microscopic snippets of text. The ‘Get in touch’ text on your ‘Contact us’ page is microcopy. The navigation menu on your website? The ‘Buy now’ button on your sales page? Microcopy. In the digital space, microcopy is everywhere.
And yet, we don’t really pay attention to it, do we?
There’s a reason for that. Microcopy is easy to take for granted. It’s such a small part of the content strategy, after all. But when it comes to selling a digital product, microcopy could be your secret weapon.

Small message, big impact

It’s easier to understand the importance of microcopy when you see it done badly. One of the worst offenders is the way it’s often used in website navigation.
Picture a typical navigation menu. One link is labelled ‘Products’. For users, it’s clear what they’re going to see when they click through. Another says ‘Services’. Again, users know what to expect. A third says ‘Other’.
So what’s lying underneath? Information about your business? Or maybe an introduction to your team? For all your users know, it could be cute pictures of puppies, or a list of your favourite BBQ recipes. And if your users aren’t clear on what they’re going to see, they’re not going to waste time clicking through.
Product teams should be looking to leverage the power of microcopy and turn generic content into conversion-worthy text.

Why microcopy matters

Still not sold on how important microcopy is to your digital product? Maybe these benefits will sway you...

1. Microcopy makes your product easy to navigate

Think about how you navigate digital products yourself. You don’t sit and read through everything. I don’t either. And neither do most people. The average user only reads between 20 and 30% of the copy on a page.
Most of us scan for information relevant to us. Microcopy is a ‘tour guide’ for your digital product, helping people get them to where they need to be as quickly as possible - before they click away.

2. Microcopy surprises and delights

Microcopy is an underused opportunity to stand out and throw some personality out there that differentiates you from your competitors.
Anyone can have a button that says ‘Download’, but only you can have a button that incorporates your brand message. Revolut is a fantastic example here. In the Revolut app, you can’t ‘Order card’, but you can ‘Order shiny new card’. Just two little words transform the whole experience.
Likewise, microcopy can be a fun way to reinforce any action your user takes. For example, in the design plugin Zeplin, when you upload a file, it doesn’t say “File transferred”, it says, “You’ve just tickled the backend”.
It’s a small touch but a memorable one and it keeps people coming back.
Slack’s microcopy – and overall user experience – is one of the reasons it’s become so popular, even though it’s basically just a simple messaging app.

3. Microcopy builds trust

For users, navigating a digital product – especially one new to them – can be confusing. Especially that dreaded moment where they enter payment details, click to confirm, and then… nothing happens.
Microcopy can offer a level of reassurance here. A simple piece of text such as “Working on it” is all that’s needed to keep their trust. And, as we all know, trust is vital for building customer relationships.

4. Microcopy converts

Like good user experiences, good microcopy is almost invisible. But when it’s missing, it costs you leads and sales.
For example, those tiny reassuring pieces of text such as “Cancel any time” or “Try for free” or “No credit card required” are easy to overlook but are both examples of microcopy that reduces risk, encourages action, and converts.

How to excel at microcopy

Succeeding in microcopy means knowing your brand and tone of voice. It means having a distinct personality that people will connect with, being clear on how you speak and what type of language you use, like Revolut’s ‘new shiny cards’.
But as the backlash against cringey ‘wackaging’ (wacky food packaging) shows, microcopy has to be authentic and appropriate. As Sophy Grimshaw puts it; “Let's please stop before "store in a cool, dry place" becomes "I love it in the cupboard!".
The ‘trick’ – if you can call it that – is to find the right balance between building brand confidence and offering clarity. But that’s easier said than done when you have less than five words to play with.
This is as difficult as it sounds, and this is what makes it one of the biggest challenges in digital products.
The growing number of job adverts for UX writers is a testament to this.
Product teams are realising that this isn’t something they can get the company copywriters or content marketers to take a stab at. It’s a niche skill.

Case Study: Uber

One of my personal favourite pieces of microcopy can be found in the Uber app. It says ‘Where to?’ instead of ‘Enter destination’. I’m sure millions of people have never thought twice about it. And that’s the point. Good microcopy shouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. But it should enhance the experience.
That’s exactly what these two simple words achieve. ‘Enter destination’ is very transactional. It’s about getting to a selected geographical point. ‘Where to?’ is much more open and somewhat adventurous. It’s more of a friendly ‘So, where are we going today then?’, much like something a taxi driver would say.

Make microcopy a superstar

Microcopy is too important to be an afterthought. It’s not something that you hand over to your mate in content marketing and ask them to throw something together just before you launch your product. It should be an inherent part of the overall design process.
Everybody wants their app to be the ‘Uber of this’ or the ‘Uber of that’, and they’re failing. What they don’t always realise is that Uber is investing a lot in powerful microcopy that’s integral to its success.

Next up: Elevating products with delight

Microcopy can be used to surprise, delight and convert your users. But so can design, animation, motion and sound.
In an upcoming article, we’ll explore how going the extra mile with ‘moments of delight’ can take your digital product (from websites to apps!) from average to awesome.