Use microcopy to remove customer friction

“Click here”— the two most common words on the internet, second only to “Buy now”. Here’s the problem, though: Online consumers have evolved. Our audiences are more jaded, more distracted, more cynical. They need firmer, more compelling nudges and stronger reassurances, or they’ll just ignore us and our messaging.

We need to eliminate the friction of the online sales process for them. The problem is, instead of thinking like a customer, most brands think like brands. We want people to buy our stuff, sign up for our newsletters, contact us, so our microcopy says:

  • Buy now
  • Sign up
  • Contact us

Meh. We need smarter, friction-free microcopy. Yet, as you’ll soon discover, there’s a fine line between clever and contrived.

Hold up a second

Wondering what the hell microcopy is? Here’s a definition:

Microcopy is the text you see on websites, apps and products that tells users what to do, provides context, addresses concerns, and hopefully improves the brand experience. It’s the small pieces of copy on buttons, error messages, tooltips, and “Thank you”’ pages. It’s also the POPI and cookie popups (that we all hate), the alt text on images, the labels on forms, the notes inside empty fields, and the extra-fine print.

As you can imagine, microcopy is the part of any project that tends to be under-estimated — or even neglected. I mean, most people skim-read online content. But, when they want to know what they have to do, they require clear instructions. What’s more, great microcopy can boost retention and conversion rates. So…

#1. Think of human behaviour

Awareness is, as it’s said, the first step. Before writing a single word, think about the user flow — where your users go, in what sequence, when, why, with what outcome in mind — and the potential friction points that may exist along that path.

When you have users’ needs, goals, and journey front of mind, you can guide them. You can use a sentence, label or call-to-action to help them get somewhere, instead of allowing them to hit a possible dead end.

For example, a user may not click if they’re unsure what’s on the other side of the button. Perhaps there’s a worry that they might be charged immediately. If that’s a possibility, you could use your microcopy to reassure them: “No payment yet!”

In addition, when you include generous and clear “Success” and “Error” messages”, you confirm for the user that actions were completed or interactions failed. This valuable feedback expertly comforts them. Try, however, to avoid faceless microcopy such as “The transaction was completed”, “Registration was successful”, or “Order received.”

#2. Be smart with the nudge

Microcopy should be actionable, because most users need a slight, indirect push. For your little clusters of text to be a real driving force, include action words (active verbs) such as try, search, type, explore, enter, filter.

You’ll see lots of learn more, read on, get info, download, submit, connect etc. These are common, and they work, but they’re not going to make anyone’s brain all fizzy and happy. For that, you need to show the benefit, not the commitment.

“Buy it now” and “Sign up for our newsletter” are “hard asks”, says The Startup’s Jano le Roux. They ask for weighty commitments. People don’t want to commit (and why should they?) so, instead of highlighting the commitment, highlight the benefit of the commitment. Like Apple does in the featured image above.

Saving on the newest iPhone sounds a lot easier than buying the newest iPhone. Everyone wants to save; not everyone wants to buy. This very subtle difference in framing can remove a lot of friction in the user’s mind.

#3. Write like you talk

You knew I was going to include this, right? Don’t I always? That’s because conversational copy draws people in.

Great microcopy should feel like you’re talking to a friend, like there’s rapport being built and trust being earned, and it’s important to keep it on-brand.

You might start a sentence with a conjunction, such as “And” or “But”. You might use sentence fragments or ask questions (“Don’t I always?”). Beware of getting carried away, however. Charm doesn’t guarantee effectiveness, especially when it comes to the parts of the user journey that require more care, sensitivity or strategy.

#4. Name with intention

As copywriters and communicators, it’s often our job to name things. This can be something quite small, such as giving a label to a form field, or something big, such as naming an entirely new feature. Often, we’re asked to give opinions on clients’ name ideas. I frequently have to dissuade clients from website menu items such as “Dream on” (Packages), “Fly away” (Flights) or “Inspo” (Photo Gallery). While microcopy should have personality, it shouldn’t be too clever. Its goal is guidance, not amusement.

Either way, it’s important to remember that the names we give things — even little things — have power. Plus, the more description we need to provide for the user, the higher the mental effort required to understand what we’re talking about. This is why you should always test your microscopy with actual users, to measure its clarity and ensure that it resonates with users, not just with you and your team.

A clever example

Digital product manager Nicolás J Engler designed a button with a changing label. When the user clicks on it, the label changes from “submit” to “sending”. This small but thoughtful change lets the user know that the system is working in the background to process whatever they submitted. Once the process is complete, the label changes from “sending” to “done”, too.

In short (ha ha!), microcopy can help us to guide users, engage them, cue them into functionality, and create pleasant experiences for them. But, if we are to move people with our tiny words, each one must work as hard as it possibly can.

This article by Tiffany Markman originally appeared on MarkLives on 3rd November 2022.