The impact of microcopy

The UX team have recently been helping to ensure an upgraded EASE offers an improved user experience. In this post I tell the story of how we redesigned the interface – focusing heavily on microcopy – and the outcomes of doing so.

Background

EASE is the University’s online sign-in service, used by students and staff to access restricted online resources. The service team’s main aims in upgrading the system were to incorporate new security features, adhere to the University’s brand guidelines (EdGEL) and to offer an enhanced user experience.

To ensure that the new version would be as usable as possible, we ran iterative rounds of usability testing. We started by testing the current version of EASE and used this insight to create a prototype with a completely new user interface. We then tested it, updated the design and tested again.

Here’s a video providing an overview of our involvement in the project:

What we observed

In the first collaborative playback session, the project team gathered to watch footage of the tests on the current version of EASE.

Together we observed users encountering a vast array of issues. Many of these issues stemmed from the fact that users were confused and reluctant to engage with large sections of guidance on the interface.

Read a blog post about how we run collaborative playback sessions

For example, we observed applicant users having difficulty understanding certain requirements of the registration form. Users were confused – they asked questions like ‘what is a memorable word?’ and ‘why should I opt in to provide an external email address?’ despite guidance being provided in large sections of copy on the right-hand side of the page.

Some users even said openly that they were put off by the copy on the screen, as seen in the clip below (note: permission has been obtained from the users featured in the clips used in this post):

We observed again and again that uncertain users were reluctant to read large sections of guidance text displayed across EASE. We determined that we needed to remove this text, but to do so we needed to establish the essential pieces of information required for users to complete tasks. We needed to focus on the impact of microcopy.

What is microcopy and why is it important?

‘Microcopy’ is the term used to describe the smaller segments of text on a user interface that directly relate to actions a user takes. Microcopy exists to guide users – examples include button labels, hints and error messages.

These pieces of text may be small, but they have a massive impact on user experience. Placing relevant, clear and simple information where it’s needed is the key to engaging users so they can complete tasks with satisfaction.

UX Myth #1: People read on the web

A phenomenon we’re more than familiar with in UX is that users generally don’t read websites in the same way they read books. UX authors Zoltán Gócza and Zoltán Kollin have created a list, based on research, of the most common UX Myths. Their number 1 myth? ‘People read on the web’.

People only read word-by-word on the web when they are really interested in the content. They usually skim the pages looking for highlighted keywords, meaningful headings, short paragraphs and scannable list. Since they’re in a hurry to find the very piece of information they’re looking for, they’ll skip what’s irrelevant for them. So don’t expect people to read content that seems neither easily scannable nor relevant for them, therefore long text blocks, unnecessary instructions, promotional writing and ‘smalltalk’ should be avoided on the web. (UX Myths, Gócza and Kollin, 2015)

Read the full lists of UX Myths

Why is it important?

Generally, people want to avoid wasting time and mental energy when carrying out mundane tasks on the web – such as registering for a university’s sign-in service.

Microcopy provides a means for users to complete these tasks without having to expend unnecessary amounts of cognitive energy.

When employed effectively, it offers users the guidance they need to complete tasks in a state of flow – an optimal state of effortless performance. This is what we aimed to achieve for EASE.

What we did

As I mentioned, testing the current version of EASE revealed many issues relating to copy on the user interface. The project team concluded that the only way forward was to remove most of it.

Our first prototype only incorporated copy that we thought was essential for users to complete tasks. We tested it and as expected, we didn’t get it spot on. Users were still encountering problems, but overall, they were completing tasks more efficiently.

We observed that users now had a clearer understanding of how to navigate through the interface and although they were sometimes unsure, they weren’t getting lost in excessive amounts of information that they couldn’t digest. It was a step in the right direction.

Stripping down on excessive amounts of unnecessary content and watching users interact with the bare minimum gave us the opportunity to harness the power of our microcopy as we were able to learn:

  • where instructions were unclear
  • whether or not the navigational flow was understood
  • the words and phrases that didn’t make sense to users

We carried our findings forward, paying close attention to our copy. I created the prototype using the wireframing tool Axure and uploaded it to a shared space.

This gave our team – some with copywriting experience and some without – a forum to have conversations about the copy on the interface.  Computing Officer Gavin Anderson, Web Architect Matt Adams, UX Manager Neil Allison and I collaborated, making changes to copy as we scrutinised aspects such as wording, placement and consistency.

Each of these aspects required close attention. If we wanted to provide a good user experience, we had to eliminate the chance of users having to guess what buttons do or what labels mean.

On the current EASE site, we observed users experiencing a lot of doubt over whether they were inputting the correct information into forms. Here’s an example of an area we chose to address based on a user experiencing doubt over what was required:

Overall outcome

Our research revealed that the excessive amount of unnecessary content on EASE had a negative impact on user experience and that the existing microcopy was clearly inadequate. Cleaning up the interface and focusing heavily on the microcopy had a very positive impact, as we observed through testing.

Our collaborative design iterations, focused on microcopy, and subsequent testing lead to the interface gradually becoming more intuitive, providing users with the results they expected.

When the project team gathered to watch our third and final playback session, we observed a clear improvement. Users were completing tasks more quickly and with a greater general sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Overall, it was an invaluable experience and the project team now feels confident that the new version of EASE will offer an improved experience for its users.

In my experience with iterative UX studies, I have found the project on the revamp of the EASE service to have provided the best example so far of how the process of testing, making changes/improvements and re-testing can lead from a service having had a number of evident flaws to one that, as far as I can tell from the test results, now works far more smoothly and simply. It showed perfectly how the reduction of content down to the absolute essentials means a service can be used more quickly, efficiently and successfully. Gavin Anderson – Computing Officer and member of the project team

Conclusion

In our efforts to upgrade the EASE system, paying close attention to the small segments of text on the user interface had a major impact.

As a User Researcher/Designer, I’ve observed first-hand that people don’t read on the web, but on this project I’ve learned that it’s not just a case of removing copy to improve user experience. It’s about realising where your copy is unnecessary, cutting it down and paying close attention to microcopy.

To do all this successfully we need to focus on users, because my main take-away is that when designing a user interface, we need to write for them, and not ourselves. It takes a bit consideration to get right, but when you do it really pays off.

Further learning

Chunking your content – Effective Digital Content

Get in touch

If you’d like to find out more or bring the UX Service on board to help you better understand your users, get in touch.

Contact the User Experience Service 

2 replies to “The impact of microcopy”

  1. Lizzie Cass-Maran says:

    Thanks Andrew, this is a great example of the importance of microcopy.

    I’ve linked to it from the video in ‘Effective Digital Content’ about microcopy – could you maybe also add a link in this post back to that? https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/Chunking+your+content+-+Effective+Digital+Content/1_ybr8qjxf

    Thanks

    1. Andrew Ferguson says:

      Thanks Lizzie, I’ve included a link in the Further learning section.

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