Do people actually read on the web?
When Jakob Nielsen researched the topic back in 1997, he found out that only 16 percent of users read a webpage word-by-word, and this was more than 20 years ago. In web standards, it’s like going back to the stone age. As of January 2020, there are 65 times as many internet users compared to 1997.
We’re dealing with increasingly larger amounts of content. The attention spans of our users are becoming more and more scarce.
Should we really care about written content if people don’t read it?
Well, this isn’t exactly how it works. Have a look at this screenshot of the Momondo app, but with all the words blurred out:
As you can see, this isn’t too informative.
As designers, we should be using concise text that helps users achieve their goals. This kind of content in both web and mobile apps is called microcopy. In this article, we’re going to show you how interface copy can improve not only user experience but also increase conversion. A win-win situation, isn’t it?
So, let’s start from the basics:
What is microcopy?
The term microcopy was first coined in 2009 by Joshua Porter, an acclaimed interface designer and the former UX Director at Hubspot.
According to Porter, microcopy is “small yet powerful. [...] It’s the small copy that has the biggest impact.” He refers to short phrases and single words that are a part of the interface.
He realized the importance of those when working on an eCommerce project. Once the checkout form was released, Porter found out that many transactions couldn’t be finalized.
The reason? People weren’t entering their correct billing address.
The solution? A single sentence:
After Porter added a note to specify that the billing address has to be associated with the card, the number of errors decreased. This small yet effective touch significantly improved conversion rates.
This is a great classic example, yet there is much more to microcopy than just that. The author of the book Microcopy, Kinneret Yifrah, defines it as “the words or phrases in the user interface [...] the motivation before the action, instructions that accompany the action, and the feedback after the user has taken the action”. It’s not just about the technical guidelines. One of the most famous examples of microcopy comes from Facebook:
They could have left the field empty, or used something rather usual, like “Your status…” Instead, they decided to go with a more conversational tone. “What’s on your mind?” doesn’t just tell us what the field does – it also starts a dialogue. The copy asks the user to write something. It makes them feel that someone truly cares about their thoughts.
This single powerful sentence continues to encourage millions of people to share what’s on their mind and keep Facebook running.
Let’s have a look at some examples with numbers. Here’s how microcopy can visibly boost conversion on your website:
Microcopy examples: how good microcopy increases conversion rates
Visit Norway case study
Although product copy is supposed to be concise, sometimes extra context works wonders. Even a small additional line of microcopy can significantly increase conversion. A great example here is the Visit Norway website, developed by Making Waves, a software development company from Kraków, Poland.
The UX writers decided to play with the website copy and A/B test different solutions:
The concise description talks about the commitment and the mission behind the offers. Although it’s not necessary for navigating through the website, it has another crucial function. This short sentence increased the click-through rate by 26%. The UX writing team of Making Waves has described this case study in their webinar.
The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to try different approaches – you can never be sure what’s going to work best!
Pinterest case study
According to Forrester, an acclaimed market research institute, almost 90% of digital businesses invest in personalization. Many bigger brands also put a lot of effort into testing copy in their product. Personalized messages can make a significant impact on conversions, especially when we’re talking about large volumes of users.
Pinterest makes a great example of a brand with a structured approach to microcopy testing. They’ve created a dedicated testing platform, called Copytune.
This internal tool allows them to test copy variations in different languages, by setting up independent experiments for each language. For instance, what works best in English won’t necessarily be the optimal choice for Spanish. This is clearly visible when you have a look at the list of winning variations:
The Pinterest team has a clearly defined process for copy testing. In the Explore phase, they come up with a range of alternatives, even as much as 20 versions for a single line of copy. Next comes the Refine phase, during which the team tweaks different components of the winning variant. This allows them to see what exactly causes the success of this version. Here’s how it works:
There are so many details to adjust, from verbs and conjunctions to product variables and their order. After trying different options, it’s time to move on to the Combine phase. The team combines the most successful components into one phase to see if it will perform even better.
This approach can lead to significant increases in conversion rates. In one of the cases mentioned by Pinterest, the top variant from the exploration phase increased the open rates by just 1%. Adding other variables from the Combine phase led to an 11% gain, resulting in hundreds of thousand new Pinterest users weekly. As you can see, it may seem like a small rise, yet it translates to significant volumes.
The takeaway? Do your best to track different variables separately and then combine the most successful ones for optimal performance.
Of course, Pinterest is not the only company that has an internal system for testing copy. Netflix has an in-house solution called Project Shakespeare, a system first developed for globalization and now also used for testing.
Canva case study
Now we get to the bone of contention between UX writers. Is being concise and being creative mutually exclusive? Does one contradict the other, or maybe they can go hand-in-hand?
The answer usually lies in the target group. Have a look at this example from Canva, a web-based graphic design platform:
This picture is a comparison of two buttons from Canva’s onboarding email.
On the left, you can see the original button. “Start the free tutorial” is pretty dry. It tells you what’s going to happen and ensures you that the tutorial is free. Theoretically, you’ve got all the necessary information and you don’t need much more.
Canva’s team decided to get a little playful. They know their target group well: the tool is designed for the creative crowd. Even if the user is not an expert, they’re using Canva to unleash their potential. The second CTA strikes all the right chords. Even though it’s not as direct, it has one essential advantage: it’s focused on benefits. The ultimate goal of a Canva user is to create professional-looking designs without professional sills. This is exactly what “Unlock my design skills” stands for.
In this case, the benefit-focused approach proved to be successful. The second CTA improved the click-through rate by 28%.
Keep in mind that this strategy is not one-size-fits-all. While it may bring great results in many cases, it’s not suitable for all user groups. When you’re working on more technical, primarily B2B-focused products, you might want to be more concise than creative.
Again, the key is to learn about your users and test different approaches. We’ve mentioned Kinneret Yifrah’s Microcopy book before. In there, she briefly describes the core value behind effective microcopy:
“Your brand must have a clear and consistent character that was chosen and designed using a rational process. [...]
What is important is not to make assumptions in advance without completing a voice and tone design that specifies your vision, missions, values and target audience.”
The question is: how do you get started with all these things?
We’re more than happy to help.
How to write better microcopy
Ideally, you should be working with a dedicated UX writer. Of course, not everyone has the necessary resources. Many designers have to work as a one-man-band. Even if you can’t collaborate with a professional writer, you can still learn some best practices that will improve your writing:
Define the voice and tone
This is the starting point for every product, including websites. The voice remains consistent throughout the product. It’s the tone that changes depending on the context. This example from Mailchimp is a great illustration of how it works:
Before Mailchimp’s recent rebrand, this was the screen you saw when sending an email campaign. This can be a stressful moment (we’re talking large volumes and huge budgets here) so the tone is rather serious. The microcopy is a summary of the most important details, including the name of the campaign and the number of subscribers. It’s not the right place for jokes – it’s about being clear, concise and, above all, helpful.
Here’s what the user saw after sending the campaign:
High five, what a relief! This playful copy relieves the tension and confirms that everything went well.
Creating an extensive voice and tone guide can be a lot of work. Luckily, you can get started with some handy tools created by UX writing professionals. Strategic Writing for UX is a great book to get you started.
The author, Torrey Podmajersky, has described a simple yet effective method called voice chart. It’s a relatively small template you can use to define the most important details about your brand’s voice:
Filling in all the fields will leave you with a brief and actionable point of reference for future writing tasks.
Serve the users
Although microcopy can eventually increase conversion, its main purpose is to serve the user. It’s supposed to guide them through the interface and help them achieve their main goals.
Your users already know most of the old sales tricks. Why bother with outdated techniques when you can win them over with great customer experience instead? Help them get what they want and you’ll be on the right track.
Actually, you don’t have to just take our word for it. This approach is used by industry giants, including Google. They’ve got their own decalogue, known as Ten things we know to be true. The first truth speaks for itself: Focus on the user and all else will follow.
Start with the most important things
You’re probably already familiar with the F-pattern:
When we read (especially large volumes of text), we tend to focus on the first words. Of course, we can help users consume information with good design, yet it doesn’t change the fact that we often skim the text and only read the beginning.
This is why our UX copy should be frontloaded, even though it’s short. To be sure your users won’t miss the point, put the crucial information at the start. In most cases, it’s also better to start with a verb in the active voice. This way, the user will know instantly what they’re supposed to do.
See this example from Ahrefs, a prominent SEO tool:
The sentence starts with a verb (get) and the core value comes right after it – the tool allows you to analyze the backlink profile of a website. Remaining details are included in the second part of the sentence. This way, the message is more directed towards action and facilitates conversions.
Don’t forget the bigger picture
One last tip: don’t treat a piece of text as separate from the rest of the website design. Written content is a part of the user journey. All information is perceived in the context of the whole product.
This is why we encourage you to work with the content-first approach. When you have the content right from the start, you won’t feel like you’re squeezing information into the interface. Instead, the design will be there to support the content and create a smooth, balanced experience. Think of your value, of what you have to offer, and then build your product around it. Just like with Google’s philosophy, all else will follow, including the conversions. Don’t be afraid to test different pieces of copy and see which ones fit your audience best. A small fix can bring significant results. It’s also much cheaper than reinventing the wheel, so why not give it a try?