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Book review - Microcopy

 ·  ☕ 5 min read

Overview

Title: Microcopy: The Complete Guide (2nd edition)

Author: Kinneret Yifrah, translated from Hebrew by Jacqui Licht

How I learned about it: A thread on /r/technicalwriting

Would I recommend: Maybe. It’s not a huge time commitment to read it, but a lot of the advice overlaps with other books I’ve read, most notably Forms that Work. This book has a lot more marketing-specific advice, so it depends if you’re interested in that or not. It’s a great reference to have around if you’re designing interfaces and writing your own copy for them.

Book structure

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. Voice and Tone - this part is about defining your brand and giving it a personality so that you can create a consistent “feel” to your microcopy
  2. Experience and Engagement - this part is a ton (and I mean a ton) of examples of microcopy from a huge array of websites, organized into chapters by types. It includes:
    • Sign up & password recovery
    • Newsletter signup
    • “Contact us” pages
    • Error messages
    • Success messages (these are important! you need to give users, who are often confused, confidence that they got things right)
    • “Empty states” (like a shopping cart with no items)
    • Placeholders (texts in fields in forms that go away when you focus the field / start typing)
    • Buttons
    • 404 error pages (this one has some really great examples)
    • Loading screens
  3. Usability - this section comes with a bunch more examples and talks about UI/UX issues, mostly helping users through forms and ensuring that a transaction completes once a user has decided to engage with a site. If this is the section you’re primarily interested in, you should read Forms that Work instead, and if this section interests you a lot, you should read Forms that Work in addition.

There are also 27 “tips” spread throughout the text. These tips have nothing to do with the organization; if anything, they’re more like asides. I was slightly confused by this at first, because they seemed in conflict with other numbered sections/points, but they’re standalone.

General comments

Initial impression

My first impression of this book was not positive. I found the title - the Complete Guide (second edition) - amusingly ironic, which didn’t have to be negative, but the font face and glossy paper - which meant that I couldn’t write any notes in the margin in pencil - annoyed me. (Actually, I found the font face continuously grating and didn’t get used to it throughout the entire book.)

With regards to the actual content, on page 24, which was the 8th page of actual written content (so very early on), I was directed to skip a bit forward and read “a series of questions about the brand and its target audience” which included “Which type of smartphone do they use - Galaxy or iPhone?” I was about ready to give up on this book altogether. It just seemed like a book with very little directly-actionable advice. But it had stellar reviews on Goodreads so I gave it a few more pages.

And then

And then on page 29, the author gives a list of over 100 concrete “values” such as “Accuracy,” “Liveliness,” “Spirituality,” and “Nostalgia” that all TOTALLY make sense as brand values and TOTALLY make sense as guiding principles for a coherent, cohesive voice and tone playbook that’s (relatively) unique to the particular brand. And then I was hooked.

The rest of the book continues to deliver a mixture of concrete advice and examples. The voice and tone section is mostly the former: your brand’s voice and tone should guide every piece of writing that is user-facing, including the most minor interface elements, and the second section gives a wealth of examples that you can draw on for inspiration or guiding principles.

Some specific useful examples, tips, and concepts

  • p. 29 - list of voice & tone values
  • p. 39 - Tip #5 - borrow copy directly from your users when defining your voice & tone guide
  • p. 95 - A really great newsletter sign-up example
  • p. 161 - Concept: Click triggers
  • p. 171 - Examples of branded 404 pages
  • p. 197 - Questions users might ask: What’s that? What does that do? Where can I find this? How do I use that?

One thing it gets wrong

There’s several mentions of users not trusting “sign in with social media” buttons, and the emphasis is on not wanting the site to post to social media without permission, or to read data from social media. However, in the past few years (the publication year of the second edition is 2019), I think the privacy concern is much more the other way around - users now don’t trust Facebook with their data from other sites!

Conclusion

After I got past the initial turn-off of “omg this is a marketing book,” Microcopy: The Complete Guide was a fun, engaging book that I’m very glad I read. It’s a great reference to keep around for inspiration for what to do or what to avoid when designing standard elements that every website has, and the author does a great job of teaching why in addition to showing what and how.

Similar UI/UX books include Forms that Work, which goes much more indepth about designing forms to be user-friendly, and Letting go of the Words, which talks more about the UX of writing copy and not so much about marketing. Both of these books also discuss more about the process of creating forms/copy/microcopy, including the use of personas and usability testing, instead of just the end result.

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River (RheingoldRiver) is a MediaWiki developer and the manager of Leaguepedia. She likes cats.


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