11 FEB

Five Ways Not to Write Fun Microcopy

As copywriters, we’re constantly challenged to differentiate from the competition and create a distinct brand voice or personality. This now extends to website microcopy – after all, we should take every opportunity available to promote our brand and charm our customers. Shouldn’t we?

I believe we should. But as both a copywriter and web user, I also find many attempts at ‘fun’ microcopy really irritating.

(Microcopy, for the uninitiated, is the short text that guides users through your website’s sign-up form, checkout and other parts of the user interface. It doesn’t sell your services directly, but it can help to communicate your brand values. This is why social web-based services adopt that “Hey, friend!” tone of voice.)

Take the five examples below. Instead of saying “we’re really cool”, to me they say “we’re desperate for you to like us”. Instead of enhancing the user experience, I think they provide a pointless distraction. See if you agree.

1. Even good jokes get old quickly – Remember that a lot of your microcopy will be seen again and again by your website users. How funny will this example from Bandcamp be after you’ve read it twenty times?


2. User experience should come first – After reading this I was pretty certain I couldn’t take Goodreads sailing. Not 100% sure, but pretty certain. Never forget that your microcopy’s main purpose is to provide good user directions.


3. Does that informal tone really suit your brand? – “Hooray.” When your microcopy reflects the personality of your brand, it builds trust and reassures users. Microsoft’s chummy Hotmail re-brand instead felt like a copy of other social sites. The vulnerability of the service to hijackers undermined the ’everything’s rosy’ tone further, to the point where I stopped using Hotmail after 12 years.


4. Guide users, don’t bore them – The Great American Copywriters avoided quirky humour because they knew only a small section of any audience would appreciate it. Unless you’re targeting a niche you understand perfectly, your microcopy should avoid it too. This 404 page takes 60 words to get to the point and will provoke an ‘eh?’ from at least half of users.


5. Communicate clearly – Don’t make what confusing? This cheeky error message from Grooveshark comes across as over-familiar, and even a touch stroppy. And ironically, its meaning isn’t clear enough.


Avoid these mistakes and you’ll be closer to finding the tricky balance between fun and great usability. And if you can’t find that balance, put your users first and spare them the jokes – please.

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Written by Neil Wheatley

Neil Wheatley is a Sheffield-based freelance copywriter who writes for agencies and marketing depts across the UK. He isn’t this grumpy in person. Neil can be hired via his website. Read more posts by Neil Wheatley

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10 Comments

  1. RellyAB

    February 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    While I agree with the overall message, the thing with microcopy is if you take those words out of their context they inevitably look dumb.

    As an example, the Clearleft 404 page (number 4) works very well as a whole page, with nav directions and other assistance.

    I worked on that site in its last version and, while the 404 page was more Jeremy Keith’s work than mine, it has always been a page that demonstrates a little bit of Clearleft’ s personality *embedded* within a navigation that helps you get out of your bind very easily.

    • Neil Wheatley

      February 17, 2011 at 12:44 am

      Hi Relly

      I actually think the 404 copy is smart and well written. The point is that copy with such distinct personality rarely works for everyone in a large audience. I certainly wasn’t trying to criticise the quality of the writing itself.

      • Luke Burford

        March 09, 2011 at 11:16 pm

        I think Clearleft can *just* about get away with this, going on a presumption that people visiting their site are likely heavy web users and appreciate they are trying to make something slightly more interesting out of their 404 page.

        As you point out, if this was the 404 of a more typical web agency that, say, served primarily it’s local community, the response is definitely going to be ‘eh?’ I guess it’s about understanding the audience as with so many other things. Get that wrong and the results can be a bit tragic.

        The Grooveshark example is a good one. Basically telling people off for not using their app properly (i.e. the way they want you to, regardless of your own interpretation), seems a very back-to-front approach to usability to me.

        • Neil Wheatley

          March 16, 2011 at 11:43 pm

          Clearleft could even be saying indirectly that ‘if you like this humour, you’re the kind of customer we want’.

          In my experience though, web design customers are not usually heavy web users. They’re often just business owners who just want to make more money online.

      • Tim

        March 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

        Great article Neil, thanks.

        I also agree with your overall message. My problem with the 404 example is slightly different. I don’t think they do take sixty words to convey the message; I think they use three: “File Not Found”. The rest is for those who are in-the-know or care to read further?

        • Neil Wheatley

          March 16, 2011 at 11:31 pm

          The point made is about the value of those extra 60 words to the people who read them – but still, you’re absolutely right!

  2. Sarah

    February 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Great post. I’ve seen some really unique and fun micro-copy in my browsing adventures, but you make some good points about possibly going too far with it.

    For the most part, it’s nice to see a personal touch and sense of humor even on the really professional-type websites. It makes them feel very inviting. But, you certainly do have to be careful that those personal touches don’t actually interfere with the important stuff.

    P.S. I adore your site design. Awesome job!

    • Neil Wheatley

      February 17, 2011 at 12:46 am

      Thanks Sarah. Did you mean my website or this one? I like the bubbles!

  3. Dathan

    February 24, 2011 at 3:49 am

    It’s hard to read the error messages, the text in the images is too small and blurry. It would be better to quote the text in them or provide a high-res image in a lightbox. As for the message, those are great points. Thanks.

    • Neil Wheatley

      March 16, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      Sorry about that Dathan, a Lightbox gallery would indeed have been useful.

1 Ping

  1. Microcopy needs context. | Rel.ly

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