3 min read
min read
June 11, 2024

Why Little Words Matter: Write Microcopy for Digital Products with AI (+Free Checklist)

Why Little Words Matter: Write Microcopy for Digital Products with AI (+Free Checklist)

Table of contents

Your streaming subscription is on hold because the payment didn't go through.

Which message would you prefer to receive?

"Your account is on hold."

"Uh-oh! Looks like your payment didn't go through. Would you like to try again?"

Now, consider these two statistics —

  • We spend more than 4-5 hours every day twiddling our thumbs on mobile apps. (Roughly the same as a Succession marathon.)
  • An app loses 77% of its daily active users in the first three days after installation. (Almost as quickly as Friday morning turns to Sunday evening.)

This problem isn't just exclusive to apps. If you run a website, you might be racking your brain trying to figure out why users are bouncing off the page.

Where’s the disconnect? Why are customers dropping off so quickly?

Among the reasons, is the first impression, where microcontent fails to inform, delight, or motivate.

Microcopy may be tiny but it serves a big purpose: empathetic (micro) guidance for your users with a touch of brand personality.  

The question is — how exactly do you write microcopy that converts? In other words, how do you get your customers to stick around?

Welcome to your practical, no-nonsense guide to writing microcopy. You’ll learn where microcopy is commonly used, the principles of effective microcopy, and tips to psychologically motivate your customers with precise, evocative language.

What is microcopy?

Microcopy, or microcontent, is the small copy that your customers don’t choose to read, but have to read to get to where they want to go. 

They’re tiny little buggers: button labels, error messages, form instructions, placeholders, new feature announcements, in-app guidance, confirmation messages, etc. 

What does microcopy do?

This tiny text motivates your users to take action, guides them through your product from start to finish, and provides context about your system’s behavior. 

When these details are an afterthought in your writing process, you’ll see customers dropping off like bored flies.

This is because a new customer is like a tourist in your foreign system. If they find you to be a helpful and friendly guide, they’ll come away feeling positive about you and your brand. This also means that they’re more likely to return because they’ll remember how you made them feel.

Microcopy, therefore, is proactive and contextualized gentle guidance. 

Take a look at Booking.com’s landing page. We’d probably know what to do even if they hadn’t written the “Where are you going?” in the search bar field, but the goal isn’t to just have customers visit your website. It’s to enhance your customers’ experience of your product journey and plant signposts to reduce even the slightest bit of friction.

Booking.com landing page with arrows pointing to three examples of microcopy.

Where is microcopy commonly used?

Once you know where it lives, you’ll see it everywhere…

Why does microcopy matter?

When I was the Writing Lead for a mental health wellness app, we spent hours iterating on the same tiny words. Why? Because the better the in-app guidance was, the more likely users were to click through to the next screen. And if they clicked through all the way to the end, the more likely they were to become paid subscribers. 

A subset of UX writing, when done thoughtfully, it has the power to increase conversions by as much as 17.18%.

Microcopy plays three distinct functions for your digital products:

  1. A guide: What does the user need to do to complete or take an action? Where do they need to go? 
  2. A motivator: Can you convince users to take an action by educating and delighting them? Can you convince them of your credibility and authority?
  3. A comforter: Are you informing your users that their data is safe? That you won’t spam them? That you received their payment?

Guess what purpose Wordtune’s microcopy serves here:

Wordtune's microcopy on its landing page annotates and pointed to: "Try Wordtune for free. No credit card required."

Motivator: “I want to try a new AI writing assistant but I don’t want to pay or enter my credit card details. Oh wait, perfect!”

Low risk, high reward.

I imagine microcopy as the small paper cups of water strategically offered during a marathon at different points in the run. And the most refreshing sips are those that come just when you need them — in other words, they anticipate your needs

In fact, in exchange for contextualized interactions in which customers feel known and understood, 79% are willing to share relevant information about themselves. 

How to write powerful microcopy: A checklist

The task at hand isn’t easy — writing tiny text that informs, educates, guides, motivates, empathizes, comforts, and delights? How could you possibly fit this all into one digital product? 

The key, as with most writing, is research and practice. Rest easy. I’ve done the heavy lifting for you so you can copy-paste this checklist verbatim.

In my experience, there are three pillars of powerful microcopy

  • Decreasing cognitive load 
  • Communicating humanity through brand personality; and 
  • Building for your customers

Let's dive in!

I. Decreasing cognitive load

The cognitive load theory explains that our brains can only handle a limited amount of information at a time. And when instructional design is poorly architectured, we need to keep moving our attention to understand the context. This is the Split-Attention Effect and it could be overwhelming your customers who don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to move around your system without the promise of a surefire payout. 

Stick-figure man cramming "stuff to be learned" through the mouth of a bottle labeled "long-term memory."
Source: Scott H. Young

You want your customers to move through your product journey without expending too much brain power on deciphering guided instructions. 

1. Use simple, plain language 

We tend to conflate complexity of thought with complexity of language. 

But get this: even domain experts prefer information, especially new information, communicated concisely, simply, and plainly.

  • Remove redundancies (e.g., “advance warning”), wordy modifiers (e.g., “during the course of”), and hollow generalities (e.g., “we live in an ever-changing world”).
  • Avoid in-house company terminology or industry-specific jargon. You might know what Q1 or lorem ipsum means, but your customers might not. Ask yourself: Will an 8th-grader understand this? 

A great example is Notion’s prompt on a new document. Clear, instructive, and concise:

"Brinda's File" document on Notion with microcopy: "Write something, or press 'space' for AI, '/' for commands..."

Ironically, writing simple, tiny content is tougher than writing long-form content. Sometimes, all it takes is rewriting or switching one phrase to make a difference. If you're pressed for time, consider using a smart AI writing assistant like Wordtune to get it done lickety-split:

Wordtune rewrites microcopy in plain, simple language with the "Brand" feature.

2. Include numbers 

Non-concrete notions are hard to conceptualize, and therefore increase cognitive load.How many is “many satisfied customers”?

How fast is the “fast response rate”? 

These are abstract words, and to your users, “many” might mean 10 or 10,000. “Fast” might mean 5 or 15 seconds.

Quantify the numbers in your microcopy. “100,00+ satisfied customers” and “We respond within 24 hours” are more concrete, more credible — much better for eyetracking data

ConvertKit's website microcopy with an arrow pointing to "600k+ creators."

3. Be grammar-flexible

I’m a stickler for grammar but microcopy demands focus. When you have about 8-10 words or less (in the case of a button) to get your point across, it’s more important to convey relevant information than be a bastion for proper grammar usage. In the Material Design guidelines on writing, for instance, they advise that periods not be used for labels, hover text, bulleted lists, or dialog body text.

Do and Don't of using periods with microcopy example.

II. Communicate humanity through brand personality

I’ve been reading The Man Who Lied to His Laptop by Clifford Nass and Corina Yen, and in it, there are two fascinating findings: First, we treat our machines like people. We may deny this, but we expect them to conform to social norms, and form bonds with them. 

Second, even when we know that their flattery might be insincere, we believe them.

This information is gold for writing microcopy to comfort your users that your product has been built by humans for humans — that they’re not interacting with just a wall of code.

1. Humanize your content

On Bumble’s FAQ page, you’ll see this:

Bumble's FAQ page with an arrow pointing to "Need a hand?" copy.

Now, of course, the app is an algorithm, it doesn’t have hands. But the takeaway here is that by communicating with its users in language that they use in daily life with friends or family, the platform makes the communication personal; thereby, humanizing the brand. 

This is backed by cold, hard research: 69% of customers would move away from a brand if they feel it delivers non-personalized experiences. 

Speaking of cold and hard, is your copy feeling flat and robotic? Wordtune can humanize your content to forge a connection with your users!

Bonus tip: Implement a point system for scoring your microcopy based on the weightage of the elements. For example, the checkbox for plain language would carry more points than being grammar-flexible.

2. Ask instructive questions

Favor instructive and empathetic questions over directive statements. Asking questions, research shows, makes customers feel heard and understood, increasing positive impressions. Questions also tickle our brains, prompting a moment of self-discovery. 

If you anticipate the question the customer may have at the exact point in the journey, they might think, “Wow, this is perfect for me.” The psychology trick here is that we needn’t convince them directly. Let them do it themselves.

Spotify's search bar field, "What do you want to play?"

3. Reframe negative experiences into positive moments

Did you know that error messages can increase our cortisol levels? That they might actually cause us stress?

An error message in the user journey can make your customer feel frustrated, dejected, and even helpless. All negative emotions you want to avoid being associated with your brand.

But within this quandary is an opportunity — to turn a moment of frustration into a moment of delight. 

Stuff happens. Websites crash. Servers go down. The question is, how do you reframe it positively for your customers? This is your branding moment. This is where your brand personality sparkles.

  • Avoid using negative framing without a solution (e.g., “you've reached a dead end”)
  • Don't blame the user (e.g., “looks like you clicked on the wrong link”)
  • Explain what went wrong in human speak (e.g., “you might have entered an incorrect password”)

UXMas has a solid framework for error messages — the 4 Hs — human, helpful, humorous, and humble

Check out this one from Medium:

Medium's 404 error message page with an arrow pointing to the microcopy below.

It’s hopeful, asks me a question, and is just the right amount of self-deprecating. The result? I’m not mad at Medium. (And I did like one of the stories they suggested below.)

III. Build for your customers

You’ve got a lean, mean UX and are zooming past iterations for your product rollout. But have you stopped and considered whether you’re building with your customer in mind or what you would like to see?

1. Avoid combining first and second person

The funny thing about consistency is that you only notice it when it’s missing. When you’re designing buttons or welcome messages, don’t combine first and second person in the same text.

‘You’ is one of the five most persuasive words in the English language. 

In most cases, you want to address the user in the second person — with ‘you’ or ‘your’ as if the UI is talking to them directly. This removes the perceived barrier between a machine and a human and allows for more personalized experiences. 

Here, you’ll see that Google Meet’s pop-up is personal, gentle, and helpful:

Google Meet's pop-up over a muted mic with personalized microcopy: "Are you talking? Your mic is off..."

2. Eliminate these “cringe-worthy” words

In an amusing and hugely helpful study by Nielsen Norman Group, they found that there are five words and phrases in online copy that affect how customers perceive brands:

  • Utilize: Usually just a fancy word for ‘use’
  • End user: Either your customers won’t know what this in-house jargon means, or they’ll feel reduced to just another label
  • Enables: Another big word for ‘allow’ 
  • Very: For microcopy, intensifiers like ‘very,’ ‘really,’ ‘extremely,’ and ‘quite,’ rarely add meaning, and instead introduce more visual noise while also increasing the sentence length 
  • In today’s fast-paced world/We understand that: This is what they call ‘blah-blah text’

Kill them all.Or, replace them all with Wordtune’s smart thesaurus in just one click! 

3. Pay attention to inclusive language

We’re products of our environment. This means that our personal biases, gender, race, and culture may often bleed into our writing. The goal of inclusive microcopy is to create a welcoming UX that intentionally accommodates a multitude of groups, not just the ‘average user.’

  • Use gender-neutral language (e.g., “folks” > “ladies and gentlemen”)
  • Be sensitive about references to marginalized communities (e.g., “Select your gender identity or describe it yourself” > “Choose your gender: Male or Female”) 
  • Find alternatives to outdated stereotypes if you’re refreshing older copy (e.g., “an intuitive interface designed for busy professionals” > “so intuitive even an ADHD-er can use it!”)
  • Be mindful when addressing disabilities (e.g., “click here for accessibility options” > “click here if you’re blind or visually impaired”)

Ask yourself: Are the words you’ve chosen respectful? Or would they make people on the margins feel like they’re an inconvenience — or worse, a punchline?Then, run through the copy again.

4. Include social proof in numbers

You and your team know that your product has been tested into yonder and iterated to death. What can you provide as ‘proof’ to your customers that they’re making the right choice in choosing you?

This is where social proof comes in to build credibility and authority for your brand with as few as 5-10 words. 

We have a conformity bias, commonly known as the “bandwagon effect” or “herd mentality.” If a customer can visibly see that others have publicly endorsed your product, they’re more likely to become a part of your “herd.”

Dig into your numbers and find powerful statistics that communicate trust and credibility for your brand


Bonus tip: Test, test, test your microcopy. We often get too close to our work and lose our sense of objectivity. If you don’t have access to a control group, have your friends or colleagues read it over without giving them a primer.

Small words, big impact

The smallest of text can have a big impact — the difference between whether a user bounces off the page or sticks around to become a loyal brand advocate. 

Microcopy should first and foremost serve the user by providing context about your system, decreasing cognitive load, and communicating humanity.

The customers you serve aren't just data points or eyeballs on a screen. They're real people with real wants, needs, and emotions. Make them feel included and heard by anticipating their pain — always, always, put yourself in your customers’ digital shoes when writing for them. 

Take a magnifying glass to your microcopy with a smart AI writing assistant like Wordtune. Who knows? Your numbers might soar with a few simple rewrites.