Improve User Experience with Language Design: microcopies for your digital interfaces

Alessandro Cappellotto
Web Marketing Consultant&Copywriter

Call me Ishmael.

It's the beginning of Moby Dick, but also a phrase that could describe those texts in the UX context that are treated as outcast characters. Just like Ishmael, the son of Abraham and of his slave, who was driven away into the desert.

In fact, in digital interfaces there are some words (register, sign in, cart, buy now, etc.), which too often are not given proper consideration. And yet, just like in Moby Dick, they emerge and tell an entire story.

Steve Krug talks extensively about the importance of words in Don't make me think, the seminal book on usability, which defines the key principles of web and mobile interaction, but does not gather this concept under a single label. Today the most common name for such texts is microcopy.

Microcopies are used to orient navigation and to efficiently guide users to perform an action. In a broader sense, microcopies are essential in the construction of the user experience. Their role is as fundamental as it is underestimated. Thanks to this awareness, professionals are now specializing in UX-writing, i.e. copywriting for usability.

Designing an interface doesn’t only mean the study of visual and interactive elements, as is often thought, but also of words: for this reason, Yvonne Bindi in her beautiful book refers to language design, thus including word choice among the elements for a good design.

Here are some little tips:

  • Sense can be distorted by details. Choosing the right words means caring for the smallest detail, including commas. "I'm going to eat grandma" is different from "I'm going to eat, grandma".
  • We don't read in a linear way on the web, but we proceed by scanning and selection. It's a predictive process: it’s like "harpooning" (Moby Dick again!) pieces of text, reading the words as images and then grasping their meaning thanks to relationship and context. This means that we process context before text: for example, if we see a "no smoking" red sign on a door we’ll think it states "no entering".

interna-language-design

  •  Closeness is contagious: the way words are put together can give rise to unexpected meanings, which we had not thought of. We can exploit this short-circuit to create new experiences of meaning.
  • It's a paradox, but working on simplicity is difficult: you have to create simple and readable structures by always putting yourself in the reader’s mind. That's why John Maeda's laws are very useful: 1) reduce 2) organize 3) save time 4) differentiate (also in this case, his book The laws of simplicity is an excellent reading).
  • The so-called CTAs, or call-to-actions, are one of the most important types of microcopies. They should not only be chosen with extreme care, but also be tested out.
  •  Words are read, but they are translated into voice. Writing BUY NOW may convey your sales anxiety to the reader, while the expression SEIZE THE OFFER may be more inviting. Again, it depends on the context. And it need testing.
  • Be concise. Synthesis does not necessarily coincide with brevity. Synthesis is synonymous with maximum effectiveness. Length is only a metric dimension. The right length of a text is the one that contains everything you need, in the clearest and most effective way possible. As a result, a long text can be concise, while a short text might be incomplete.
  • In addition to respecting conventions, which are the cornerstone of usability (using common and universally accepted formulas, such as the word Cart in an e-commerce), you should anticipate any resistances, doubts, objections a user could have: in response to the mental question and then what? They should be presented with the consequences of a choice, both in positive and negative. And in doing it, avoid being twisted: better to write do this instead of in order to do this, do this...
  • Instructions should be ordered in the correct time sequence, so that they can’t be misunderstood and only generate serene, fluent and frictionless experiences.

interna2-language-design-eng

Language design is part of Content Experience, i.e. the study of the ways in which content encourages users to interact with the brand. A slow site which pays little attention to playback quality, with a complex management of multimedia content due to different players feeding the channel, which lacks consistency of the brand image across different touchpoints, will perform poorly. 

A greater control can come from the use of AI to centralize and classify content on a single platform, avoiding duplication. As a result, only a single version of every piece of content will be distributed across all channels, from where - thanks to Content Intelligence - it is possible to trace content “consumption” by users. For example, from the data collected it is possible to infer which editorial characteristics of the CTAs (Call-to-action) encourage conversions the most. 

Q: Hi Alessandro, do you think AI can be a valid support in UX Writing and in Content Experience in general?

A: In my speech at Uquido Talks I quoted the opening words of Moby Dick, Call me Ishmael, because they contain a universe of meanings and inspirations for anyone interested in storytelling and interactions. What happens when Amazon Echo tells us Call me Alexa? What relationship story do these simple words contain? Who are we really talking to?

I haven't talked about voice interfaces, but the basic principle of a visual/written interface is the same as a vocal one: writing is voice, it should sound natural as a voice and almost create a suspension from reality. Whoever interacts with your interface should think I'm interacting with a person. More realistically, they should almost hear the voice of a person behind your written words, a person who guides them, understands them, accompanies them, helps them, informs them. An intelligent person.

Where AI will arrive we do not know, but whether it is applied to visual or vocal interfaces this should be the correct direction: providing support to the intelligence of men, not entirely taking their place.

Leaving aside philosophical, sociological (or even theological) reflections, I have a healthy distrust of AI when it is seen as the final answer. It works when it is at the service of human intelligence and does not elevate itself above it. Because it lacks feelings, and therefore it lacks a soul.

I like to say that to do sums today helps writing better. All the data and information coming from AI technologies are undoubtedly a useful support in this.