Packing a Punch with Microcopy

Someone recently asked me if I’d ever written microcopy. I wasn’t familiar with the term. But as I learned more about it, it turned out I had written quite a bit of microcopy; I just hadn’t called it by that name.

Microcopy refers to short snippets of text which guide the user, in context, as they complete a task. In a post on bokardo.com, Joshua Porter describes it as “small yet powerful copy. It ’s fast, light, and deadly. It’s a short sentence, a phrase, a few words. A single word. It’s the small copy that has the biggest impact.”

Most often, microcopy is used to

  • instruct (“Enter your credit card billing address below.”)
  • inform (“You can change your choice later on the Preferences tab.”)
  • reassure (“We will NEVER give your email address to anyone else. Period.”)
  • warn (“If you leave the Name field blank, others will not be able to search for you by name.”)

Joshua Porter and Connie Malamed both assert that microcopy can make or break a design. In my experience, that’s not an exaggeration. An earlier post gave some examples of microcopy gone bad, with consequences ranging from confusion to late rent payments.

So how do you write effective microcopy? Consider these guidelines:

  • See things from the users’ perspective. What will they wonder about? Be concerned about? What mistakes are they likely to make?
  • Make it as short as possible while still being absolutely clear.
  • Make it noticeable. Microcopy doesn’t do any good if it falls in the user’s blind spot.
  • Test it on users. Something that might be perfectly clear to you may be obscure to your users.

Getting the microcopy right will go a long way toward getting the design right.

Sending the Right Message

When interface text works well, it’s unobtrusive; it sends the right message instead of getting in the way of the message.

Recently I attended a conference which provided an app for attendees. Among other things, the app allowed me to add other conference-goers as “friends.”

When I tapped the Friends icon to add my first friend, I got a screen that said, “You currently have no friends.” It made me smile because it sounded like some kind of backwards fortune from a fortune cookie. While I knew what was meant, a better alternative would have been, “You have not added any conference attendees as friends,” or “Your conference friend list is currently empty.”

That’s a fairly light-weight example: the end result was nothing more serious than humor.

Here’s another example from the same app, a little more problematic. When updates were available for the app, users got a message on a red background:

The arrow at the end of the message appears to be pointing to the left border of the gear icon, which of course doesn’t make sense. I initially thought that the arrow was just off a little and I needed to tap the gear icon. However, I discovered I had to tap the large red icon on the far right.

Of course it wasn’t too hard to figure out what I was supposed to do. But every time I saw the message, the inaccurate text drew attention to itself and distracted me, however momentarily, from completing the task at hand.

This example is intriguing because the designer was apparently trying to compensate for the inaccurate UI text by making the correct icon large and red, rather than solving the underlying problem. But the problem could have been solved fairly easily:

Inaccurate or unclear interface text isn’t always so harmless. An apartment complex where I once lived gave renters the option to schedule recurring online rent payments. Great convenience, right? So I signed up. When my rental contract came up for renewal some months later, I logged on to the site to make sure the new amount was shown (yeah, they’d raised the rent). I saw a screen like this (fake amounts, of course):

The title—Current Monthly Charges and Monthly Auto-Pay—led me to believe I was looking at my monthly auto-pay. The new amount was correct, so I logged off, confident that my rent would be paid on time.

Several days later, I found a demand for payment taped to my door.

I logged back in to the site, looked at the screen, and it still took me a few minutes and some playing around to figure out what was going on. Apparently when my contract was renewed, my old auto-pay was deleted. But the screen gave no indication of a cancelled auto-pay. It wasn’t until I clicked Schedule Monthly Auto-Pay that I was taken to a screen informing me that no auto-pay was set up.

When I examined the screen more closely, I realized the auto-pay columns were blank, and the sum in the Auto-Pay Amount column amount was zero. But I had focused on the section heading and rent amount, which were correct, so I didn’t realize there was a problem.

The simple addition of the text shown below would minimize the chance of error (and save a lot of hassle for renters):

Clear, accurate interface text can make the difference between a design that works and one that doesn’t.

Why I Love My Kindle App

You know a reading app has a great design when you find yourself wanting to use its features when you read a paper book. Here are my top five reasons for loving my Kindle app:

  1. Pinch and zoom text. A simple motion lets me increase or decrease the text size, depending on my needs. (In contrast, another reading app I use makes me navigate to a setup screen to choose the font size.)
  1. Choice of background colors (but not too many). I can have black on white, black on sepia, or white on black. My favorite is black on sepia. I like having limited options rather than having to worry about pink on green, for example.
  1. Search. Finding a passage or quote couldn’t be easier. This feature comes in handy at our neighborhood book club meetings.
  1. Highlighting. I don’t particularly like marking up my paper books—it can get messy, and it’s hard to erase if I change my mind. But the Kindle app gives me the freedom to mark a passage with a subtle highlight, knowing I can undo it at any time.
  1. Integrated dictionary. Brilliant! I love being able to long-tap a word and get an immediate definition. It makes my reading more meaningful and improves my vocabulary. This is by far my favorite feature, and yes, I find myself wanting to tap words in my paper books.

I don’t just consider the Kindle app user-friendly; it exceeds my expectations for a great user experience.