A Brief Guide to UX Writing, Microcopy, and Content Design

content designer's notebook with mockups

Discover how a simple change in words can help or hurt your bottom line. Here’s your brief Masterclass for UX Writing, Microcopy, and Content Design!

Microcopy (UX Copy) is the words and phrases within a user interface (or flow) that are directly related to the actions a user takes. In other words, it’s any piece of text that helps guide a user toward an end goal. Though it comes in many forms, microcopy predominantly consists of:

  • Motivation before an action
  • Instructions accompanying an action
  • Feedback after an action has taken place

In fact, the concept of microcopy is found everywhere, be it login forms, checkout pages, sign-up forms, or anything else. Even something as simple as a pop up for acquiring email leads or a real-time social proof that helps to convert user at the right moment is an example of a microcopy in action.

One of the best examples out in the wild is Airbnb’s famous “search box.” It’s nothing but a simple search bar that subtly points to the users to start searching by prompting them to “try (a city name).” Whether or not a user plans to go to the named city is moot, the idea is to incite participation among users and have them move ahead in the journey of making a reservation.

It’s all about engaging user experience and presenting the simplest options for users to move forward.

What you need to consider before writing UX copy?

Before writing UX copy, one must consider both the overall purpose of the page or UI in question and the objective of each individual phrase of a copy. The objective of a phrase of microcopy is often to:

  • Tell a user what something means
  • Tell a user what to do
  • Tell a user why to do something
  • Tell a user what will happen
  • Inform users when something’s been done incorrectly
  • Encourage users when something has been done correctly

These objectives are further elevated when considering purpose. If the objective of a potential phrase is to tell a user what will happen, then being specific to the purpose of the overall UI will not only help in finding the right words but in creating a human experience.

Consider the “uDine” example by copywriter Jack Zerby. uDine is a hypothetical service app that provides recipes to users. This app prides itself on connecting users to professional chefs who make recipes tailored to their specific dining wants and needs.

To sign up for uDine, users must provide their email, password, and phone number. One could simply design a signup form and ask for these requirements with merely five words: Signup, Email, Password, Phone, and Submit. This would completely fill the objective of the copy. Users, for the most part, should be able to understand the context and fill the form.

However, simple design as such does not take into account the purpose of the UI. The overall purpose is to connect users to professional chefs so that they too can make amazing meals. Therefore, microcopy should involve detailing different aspects of the service while also considering their initial objectives.

sign up form mockup

The form above considers both objective and purpose. Every box is given an extra line of context, helping instill trust in a user. Rather than merely phrasing the button as “submit,” the microcopy frontloads what’s to come with a purpose, letting users take control of the situation by having the app “Find [them] a Chef.”

But why does it matter?

Because users matter and they should be a priority. This means analyzing a user’s journey and weeding away the common objections and worries that stop them from moving along to conversion. By using the right phrases and common natural language, you can remove any objection that a user is facing.

Regretfully, the tiny sections like Error (404) pages or multiple Call-to-action button copy might seem a little unimportant during a website/app launch. However, these little points of action are so important to explain and “instruct” the users what to do next. As they say, one should never judge microcopy on its size, only judge it on its effectiveness.

For instance, a tiny “no spam, we promise” line at the bottom of an opt-in box removes the fear of spam from the user’s mind. This simple message also indicates how their personal data would be protected by you, giving them a final push to provide you their information. That’s how you create a positive and engaging experience for users. It also helps push a brand’s voice and tone, allowing for more personalization to a user’s experience.

What does good microcopy do?

As you can observe, microcopy, when executed well, increases usability – helping users seamlessly make their way down the funnel. It considers who users are; what they care about, their pain points, what they want to do, and what they want to know.

Most importantly, the ideal microcopy should provide a positive and engaging experience that validates users throughout their session.

In essence, good microcopy allows users to do the one thing they should be able to do; use.

Let’s change gears – Is UX writing, content strategy, and content design same?

These are not synonyms… and because they are relatively recent terms, there’s much confusion in everyone’s mind. Here’s a brief explanation.

  • UX Writing

    This term comes from the “clear and concise” text that is written to help and guide the user. So a UX writer is someone with the responsibility of creating the words and phrases that users read or hear when they use a digital product. Further, while UX writers use words that are product oriented, UX copywriters use the words that are slightly more sales oriented. UX writing and UX design in general mostly focuses on enhancing user satisfaction and usability of a product.

  • Content Strategy

    This is a slightly more technical term, and content strategists in general are UX writers with an understanding of analytical skills and user data. The core concept of the content strategy involves planning and strategizing content in general – and not just text. This includes high-level planning, reasoning, research, and management of content. That’s why content strategists work more closely with marketing teams creating style and voice guides that the entire product marketing team adheres to. Content strategists are also more technically inclined then UX writers because their role has a broader context.

  • Content Design

    Content design has everything to do with how the structure of text and copy appears on the page. Content designers would know how to interpret analytical skills; they must understand the audience concerns and understand what’s right for the audience at every stage of the user journey. A content designer is a perfect person to decide what the user needs at that particular stage. It can be a video, it can be a text message, or it can be an insurance policy calculator. It’s an inclusive role that involves intercommunication between departments. In most ways, content design is the “How of content.”

While content strategy helps you compete in the digital sphere…the content design helps your brand stand out in the market. While content strategy puts users on the map, content design helps them to reach the destination they want to go to.

Content design helps you stand out!

Quality content design helps you stand out by meeting their exact needs at the right time. Not only are you prompting them for the next logical action, but you’re also creating a good environment for the users that would like to come back to your brand again.

The content design also helps you establish a consistent brand voice across platforms. For instance, style guides help you speak the same language that users use in their day-to-day life. Depending upon their preferences you can create the kind of interaction they’re looking for – be it text, video, or podcast.

How do you design needs-based content?

  • Discovery & Research

    Discovery and research stage is an important phase if you’re planning to write the content as per the needs and demands of the end-user. So it’s vital to formulate elaborative discussions with content strategists, writers, marketers, developers, and other important stakeholders to reach a final consensus. If substantial user research is unavailable for some reason, it’s advisable to carry out some primary research over the internet. Probably look at the Amazon reviews, and explore niche forums to understand what exactly users need and expect.

  • Stories

    For a layperson, an Agile story is a tool borrowed from the world of Agile software development to capture an accurate description of a feature from the perspective of an end-user. In a way, it tells you what users want and why they want it. This is an important step that makes the user requirements clear to every stakeholder. So, it’s advisable to listen to stories from users and decide what users want (and prioritize their needs at first.) Consider what they need in the first place… and that’s the starting point.

  • QFT & Acceptance Criteria

    A question formulation technique or QFT is all about asking the right questions, the wrong question, in fact, every question there is. This means once you have all the stories and research material at your disposal, take it all together and ask as many questions as you can. Any question that you think is important and can become an objection or concern for the end-user should be addressed before you write the copy.  Don’t forget to prioritize the questions in the order that the user would need an answer for in the copy. So the QFT is an essential step once you have an assessment of what the users are looking for and what you can offer.

  • Write

    Once you’ve gone through all these steps, and understood what users are looking for, direct your brain to figure out the content. This is the time when you decide what kind of content is possible and the specific pieces of what actually matters. It’s all about thoughtfully implementing all ideas according to the ideal user journey.

The Wheelhouse DMG Checklist

Here’s a checklist made famous by Sarah Richards, the woman who coined the term “Content Design”. Obviously, you’re welcome to add your pointers as per your needs.
Is the content a part of your audience’s vocabulary?
Is it in the best format for the audience?
Is it what the audience actually needs from us?
Does user research back these decisions?
Here’s how you can be purposeful with content (as per the user wants and needs.)

The best way to empathize with users and attempt to understand their wants and needs is to adhere to the following 4 step process of inquiry:

Step One: Consider the user’s problem

  • Why are they here?
  • Why might they be having a problem, to begin with?
  • How can my language help solve any confusion a user may have in the UI?

Step Two: Distill the problem to base emotions

  • What are three one-word descriptors (i.e., anger, confusion, stress, joy) for a user’s feelings at the moment?

Step Three: Plan around those emotions to write copy

  • How can my words help?
  • How can I shape my response to consider the user’s feelings?
  • If I were feeling in such a way, how would I like to be addressed?

Step Four: Execute the copy

  • Is this the best possible phrasing to address the user at this stage of their experience?

Best Practices

All writing that is user-facing should both inform and delight users. We’ve coined the acronym VIBE to help with writing. Writing should always vibe with users. In essence, every piece of copy on a user’s journey should be:

  • V – Validating
  • I – Informative
  • B – Brand-centric
  • E – Engaging

As you can notice, being purposeful with content not only means understanding the purpose of a UI but also understanding and considering a user’s purpose. This is what helps create a human experience. To summarize,

  • Empathize with the user
  • Let the user be in control
  • Know that a user wants to understand and be understood
  • Above all, show the user you care

Tips for selling UX to clients (get the client buy-in)

Although user-centered mechanisms are slowly gaining traction, there are several cases wherein the clients are not ready to adopt something they’ve not tried before. Some clients are more data-driven and then their clients that are more conversational, creativity, or idea-driven.

What works, in this case, is to document every piece of UX research and findings and send it to the client. You can also include the conversations that their prospects have on social platforms, especially when you don’t have too many metrics to get the buy-in.

That’s how you can present a logical argument. Also, the best part about most digital marketing techniques is it can be tested… and there are lots of ways to do this. Just present the information to project the long-term viability and ROI to your clients. We’ve often found the best way to sell UX is to identify a quantifiable problem, and present it alongside a unique solution that is backed up with hard-core data – probably the best way for you to take the client in the stride.

Concluding Thoughts

Consider Google. The search giant realizes some of its users are only looking for something highly specific like the “temperature in their neighborhood.” So they’re looking for only one thing as an ideal outcome. That’s why when you try and search for current temperature (or time) in a specific city, Google offers you one single result for it. Plain and simple answer. Precisely what users are looking for. Now that’s a classic example of valuable content design.

screenshot of google search of temperature in seattle

This effectively means that user search intent is the most important factor. Everything you create should depend upon what the users are looking for, what’s on their mind, and where they want to reach eventually.

Hopefully, this post has proven useful for folks who do a lot of content writing, content production for their clients. You see, an effective microcopy takes time to get right… and there is no doubt that with the time you’d become much stronger at the microcopy game.

This is a fascinating topic, and if you have more questions, feel free to let us know in the comment section below.


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By Mario Martin del Campo