News & Views

Opinion / The Copy Behind The Copy

by Contagious Contributor
Russell Norris, copy director at R/GA London, argues that UX copy is the most important of the marketing journey

‘Eat me.’

Long before these words became a 20th century insult, they were used to great effect in 19th century literature. When Alice crawled down a rabbit hole and found herself in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, she came across two unexpected items: a bottle labelled Drink Me and a cake marked Eat Me. Beautifully succinct, these two-word instructions instantly achieved multiple goals. They caught Alice’s attention. They spoke to her like a human being. They gave the passive objects they were attached to an active tone of voice. Most importantly, they told her exactly what to do next. You might say they were two excellent examples of UX copy, born well before their time.

But what exactly is UX copy? When we talk about UX, we’re almost always talking about design. We’re rarely talking about the microcopy: the labels on form fields, the commands on interfaces, the explanations in tooltips. That’s not writing, that’s typing, Truman Capote once scoffed about Jack Kerouac’s work, wanting to draw a line in the sand between writing that mattered and something that anyone with a typewriter could dash off.

Whatever your role – copywriter, designer, developer, producer – we’re all a bit guilty of this. Consciously or otherwise, we divide copy into camps. There’s the sexy stuff on the frontline, the writing that really gets written: campaigns, straplines, manifestos, scripts. It needs thought, composition and no small measure of art.

Then there’s the practical copy that sits behind the scenes. The functional instructions and user prompts that feel like they can be typed in later.

UX copy deserves a higher profile. It’s minimalist in nature but it’s arguably more important than anything that precedes it in the marketing journey. These are the words that sit right on the point of conversion, where transactions are made and customer data gets captured. Lose the user here and the loss makes a tangible difference.

This is never more true than the onboarding experience. If a first-time user can’t understand what to do next and why, they’ll quickly give up and go somewhere else. Remember the launch of Apple Music last year? People struggled to get past its confounding UI and Apple’s reputation for ultra-simplicity took a global hit.

To put it another way: UX copy is the copy behind the copy. It bridges the gap between front-end design and back-end technology – and you only see it if you choose to engage with a product. When you sign up for a service or pay for an app, so the assumption goes, the copy doesn’t need to persuade you anymore. You’ve already stepped through the looking glass and all that exists on the other side is a world of subsidiary function. And function, by definition, is there to get its job done: with no frills and usually no fun.

But form doesn’t have to follow function, as some brands have come to realise.

UX copy can be playful, as long as it stays clear and to the point. Roger Dodger is how MailChimp confirms a successful password change. This is not the web page you are looking for, says the Jedi on the 404 error page at GitHub. If it freshens up an otherwise stale message, there’s nothing wrong with outright humour like this.

CityMapper and Slack often go out of their way to get laughs. They take their release notes (AKA the copy that nobody reads) and turn them into something worth reading. From CityMapper’s bug fixes going all Pokémon: We want to be the very best. Like no one ever was. Gotta catch em all. To Slack’s updates going all meta: Fixed: An error that meant the first comment uploaded with an image was sometimes cut o. These jokes are textual Easter eggs. They reward the user who shows enough interest.

Humour is just one way to enhance microcopy. Your UX can be empathetic, if you’re a charity. Dependable, if you’re a bank. Effortless, if you’re a luxury retailer. Burberry’s mobile site makes high-end shopping a frictionless, anxiety-free experience: a real USP for the minority who buy £1,500 trench coats on impulse. On the flip side, your UX could be effortless for the majority. Google Chrome’s option to Paste and go after you copy a URL is a slick piece of usability and it couldn’t be articulated more clearly.

User experience can contain so many pathways that creativity gets lost in it. But this multiplicity is a distinct advantage; what other touchpoint gives you so many ways to express your voice, so frequently, on such a personal customer level? Small things eventually add up to big things. At its most powerful, microcopy gives you constant opportunities to fine-tune your brand. At its least powerful it becomes a one-way user manual, composed with a lack of interest that quickly transfers to the user.

The Back of the Internet by Salena Godden is a smart little poem that imagines how it might feel to step behind the glossy façade of the web. Things would probably be less impressive there. Uncared for and out of date:

I just went around the back of the internet.
I didn't like it and I shan't go back.
It was dimly lit by a pale dusty old sun
The air smelled of wires
old tooth fillings and burnt plastic.
There were no windows or doors.
It was a ghost land, a dried out sea bed,
a gritty desert and wasteland.

The copy behind the copy isn’t a wasteland just yet. But the less you pay attention to it, the more likely it is your customers will pay less attention to you. If Alice hadn’t been encouraged to eat her cake and swallow her drink, her Adventures in Wonderland wouldn’t even have started.