Is it possible for digital products to communicate with users in a non-robotic manner?

Think about the digital products and services you love. They all have one thing in common: Humanlike communication skills that make you smile from time to time. This is an indication of two things: How passionate the designers of the product were and how the products that aim to make us feel good, can easily stand out from their competitors.

In the field of information technology, the reality is no secret: The primary element that determines the quality of the user experience is the communication that a product or service establishes with its users. In the case of digital products and services, UI copy is the focus of this approach, which points to a completely different type of communication from brand or marketing communication. This subject has been frequently mentioned in recent years as the concept of microcopy, which has become prominent thanks to investments from Google, Dropbox, Slack, Uber, Facebook, and many other global companies.

What is Microcopy?

Short, clear, guiding, and occasionally humorous interface texts. It is one of the main components of user experience design, content design, or UX writing as it is known in the US. Microcopies enable users to interact with a product or service.

Kinneret Yifrah, the founder of the Israeli-based microcopy studio Nemala and author of the book titles Microcopy: The Complete Guide, simply identifies microcopy as follows: 

“Microcopy is the words or phrases in the user interface that are directly related to the actions a user takes. It may be content that the user encounters before, during, and after taking action on a digital interface. For example; onboarding content, button texts, content in registration and login forms, error messages and error prompts, messages directed to sign up for email, user tips, confirmation messages, and much more.”

When you open a new document on Dropbox Paper, it welcomes you with humorous microcopy examples that allow you to connect emotionally with the product.

Why is it essential for a digital product to communicate with users?

The microcopy, which plays a role in every aspect of user experience, is one of the key elements which ensure the user experiences a seamless flow. What makes it so important is that new technologies that enter the market have increased the expectations for interfaces that almost everyone can intuitively use. Therefore, microcopy, which has the potential to cause frustration or confusion in users, also has the power to make your product indispensable. Through a well-designed microcopy, a product can communicate with users in a more humanlike, understandable, and motivating to take action.

Why is it vital for a digital product to interact with its users in a humanlike manner?

The answer to this question is given by Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University in his book: The Man Who Lied to His Laptop – a collection of more than 100 experiments that explored the relationship between people and computers. According to one of the striking findings of the research, as users, we expect digital interfaces to act according to human social norms. So much so that we are surprisingly disappointed when this expectation does not materialize. It can even break our hearts. What’s more, we can be very angry with the digital interfaces that communicate with us in a technical language specific to machines. After all, until a few years ago when we saw an error message, we would try to solve it by hitting the computer tower. So how does microcopy prevent these heartbreaks?

Digital products and services with personality

According to the archetype theory developed by Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology; the archetypes, which define the personality structure of human beings, are universal themes that exist in our subconscious, independent of language and culture. Each of us makes contact with other people through these themes that determine our personality and behavior. Brand personality studies based on this theory simply tell us the same thing: People relate to the products you offer to them through the archetypes that determine your brand and therefore, the personality of your product. As a result, what allows users to embrace your product is the personality of the product before its features. So how does a product have a personality?

Whether the content is text, voice, visual, or all of them; each interface content needs a personality. This is when microcopy (and the UX Writer as it is) comes in handy. Let’s return to our question: How can a product have a personality? Up to this point, what is clear is that product to have a personality is possible through a humanlike communication with users. And what is human communication?

Spoken vs. Written English

Not until a few years ago, there was an apparent distinction between the language we used in written communication and the language we used in oral communication. As we all know, the written language is much more formal: We often build longer and more complex sentences, which are usually composed of words that we do not use in face to face communication. The language we use in speaking is much more dynamic: we prefer short sentences of common words that people can easily understand. In other words, speaking is much more concise, simple, and more fluid.

The internet, which has changed many things in our lives, has blurred the sharp distinction between these two languages. Because the words we express in writing on the internet are often part of a dialogue. Digital products and services that evolve with internet technologies actually establish a dialogue with their users. They ask users some questions, and as users, we either fill up a form or click on a button. It is a written dialogue rather than written communication. Erika Hall, the author of the book Conversational Design, summarizes it this way: “The traditional categorization between the language of writing and the spoken language has collapsed, and a third option has emerged; conversational writing.”

Relationship of conversational writing and microcopy

Conversational writing is a written communication form, primarily mimics a conversation. Of course, this is not a real dialogue, but a product with this approach naturally speaks directly to the user. As with talking face to face, it establishes a short, concise, and sometimes humorous communication. It uses everyday words that make speech fluent.

Let’s explain this with an example: If you like a song on Spotify and then undo it, the following message appears: “Let’s pretend that never happened.”

This example may bring up the question of whether conversational writing is suitable for more complex systems. Complex systems mean; products and services such as ERP, CRM, function-oriented interfaces, or digital interfaces of banks and insurance companies that communicate in a more professional tone.

Let’s continue with another example: SAP, a well-established company that has built many complex systems so far, in recent years, has begun to write in conversational writing and as a result, began to communicate with its users as humans rather than machines.

What used to be “the new backend service has been written into the application settings and requires manual activation.” has become “You have switched to a new backend service. Go to app settings and tap Activate.” and thanks to this change, it has become easier to understand and follow. We can see that the basic approach of SAP has evolved into a language that speaks directly to the user by using you/us instead of a passive structure. The technical expression “(it) requires manual activation” becomes brief and straightforward “tap Activate“.

Professional system users need the guidance that facilitates the lives of digital interfaces, which they interact with, just like any other user, without having to communicate with a more complex language than they already are. In other words, in all circumstances, you should help users better understand your product more easily. And this is possible through humanitarian, understandable, motivating and sometimes humorous communication.

What does a better microcopy add to your business?

A better microcopy gives the users very few reasons to leave your product and gives more reasons to take action. This implies a scenario where fewer users stop using your product, and more and more of them continue to use your product. In other words, it means more customers, more successful transactions, higher conversion rates, and naturally more revenue. Not to mention the fact that your users trust your brand more.

Conclusion

Ten years ago, smartphones were hardly ever in our lives. Today, chatbots and IoT devices are a natural part of our daily lives. As these technologies become widespread, the need for a product or service to communicate with its users is going to become more prominent. It is a priority for all of us (especially product and service designers) to better understand and implement the microcopy’s place in the user experience design processes.

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