Killing me softly: why your micro-copy makes or breaks your digital experience

There might be a very small reason holding your digital services back from making cost savings or generating revenue for your organisation, while also causing damage to your brand: micro-copy.

What is micro-copy?

Micro-copy is the small bits of transactional content which help people to understand how to use your digital services or website, what they need to do next in any process, how to provide information to you, or let’s them know what went wrong. It can provide guidance and reassurance or leave users feeling perplexed and frustrated. It can be technical, or in your tone of voice and more than likely its the bit of online comms which gets the least attention from teams but has a big impact on your users.

The label of a field in a form? Micro-copy. The words on the button you want someone to press? Yep, micro-copy. The error message they see when something goes wrong? You know it, micro-copy.

This stuff is everywhere and is the infrastructure which keeps people moving and feeling good online, and just like in real life when the infrastructure falls short the impact can be huge and felt hard meaning unhappy users abandoning the task, and damage to your brand which could be avoided.

Does micro-copy really matter?

The short answer is yes, more than you know.

The longer answer is perhaps best illustrated by example – and I really encourage you to go and see this for yourself by spending time with the real people using your real services. Doing that is an eye-opener and even if you know your digital journey’s every pixel intimately I guarantee you will learn something new by watching and listening to someone trying to genuinely use it. I always do.

Recently I was helping someone apply for a Council job. They are by their own admission fairly non-technical but they are able to access and use either a laptop or a tablet. Something like completing a job application should be pretty straight forward – the steps in the process may come in slightly differing orders but once you’ve gone through one job application you sort of know what to expect from them all. Until micro-copy adds in confusion or uncertainty (or in the worst case, both).

In this example it happened immediately – the citizen portal and the recruitment portal of the organisation in question were poorly signposted to find, and even more poorly described and delineated for the user. Did you sign up for one, or both, to apply for a job. A hurdle to be cleared. And then you’re asked for a Username to log in but the field is labelled Email Address.

If you assumed your email address is your username well done on being among the more confident of internet users – but don’t assume all your users feel the same. It may seem minor but it sets the tone for the experience and clear and consistent micro-copy would have helped the process here. Remember this user has now been wrong-footed at the entry point to a form where better copy (and if we’re honest better design) could have helped the candidate complete it feeling as excited about the job and working for your organisation as they did when they saw the job ad.

Talking their language

In Comms the need to get rid of jargon is a battle well fought, the cause of clear content and plain English one which has long been upheld. But often this doesn’t extend to the functional copy around a website or digital service – and not realising you’re getting these wrong can leave you stumped as to why more people aren’t completing the form or service, or are doing so in such an unhappy way.

Jargon can often sneak back in as form design is left to a supplier or more technically focused team, and still it seems a rarity in the vast majority of public service that these are researched or tested with real people for teams to learn and improve from, or even just to surface assumptions about language and tone.

Errors can’t always be avoided but no-one needs to see an error message which says, “IP address conflict with another system on the network” because it means nothing to the average person. They don’t know what went wrong, or what to do about it, or what it means to them and the process they are trying to follow. They aren’t feeling anything good about seeing it. A little bit of time spent on the message here and a bump would have been smoothed – they user might still have had to do something differently but at least they know what and why with a better message.

The Government Digital Service has lots of guidance not only on form design but on the copy which goes around something transactional – if you haven’t looked through it yet (or recently) it’s well worth casting your eye over and comparing to the processes you’re pushing people toward on your own site.

Is micro-copy a comms problem?

These short bits of copy which help users get around, understand what to do, or what went wrong not only keep the transaction flowing but tell a story about your brand and how your organisation views and interacts with people. Even if you initially think the tactical creation of them is outside of Comms, the implicit opportunity to represent your brand through them is one not to be dismissed.

But what of the practical task of writing? Creating great micro-copy is a separate discipline which crosses over with Comms, Digital Design and User Research roles. Not only does it involve being able to craft the message in this very short form, but needs an understanding of the interaction behaviour and psychology of users, plus the ability to pick apart data to keep iterating the copy.

It might be that within your organisation Communications have responsibility for the website and digital services but micro-copy is baked into the product and not something which can be easily changed. This is a problem you need to take up with your supplier as to the user it’s absolutely not a valid reason for delivering a poor experience.

It might be that Communications aren’t responsible but can advise and support the team that is to understand how to create better micro-copy. Or it might be that you need a specialist.

Whatever drags down the experience and usability of your services impacts on your Communications efforts to send people to those services and can support or damage your brand. And ultimately these ‘noticed when they don’t work’ little bits of content may be holding back your organisation’s ability to make cost savings or generate revenue – and that is everyone’s problem and responsibility to try and solve.

Need a hand?

If you need a hand with anything do get in touch. I’m happy to take a look at what you’re currently doing, share my experience to help you build something new, or come in and share some of my knowledge and skills with you and your team. You can get in touch with me here and find out who else I’ve helped recently here

You can find the next dates for the Vital Facebook Skills workshops I run with Dan Slee here – I cover what you need to know about Facebook Ads plus we give you the low down on the algorithm, creating great content, engaging in Groups, the purpose of Pages, and knowing when to engage. 

Please follow and like: