Getting Microcopy to do the Heavy Lifting in Your Help Documentation

I think we can all agree that articulation is one of the corner stones of good help documentation. Explaining how things work requires a great deal of clarity, structure and the extraordinary ability to break complex ideas and actions down to simple, applicable steps.


On the Importance of Intuitive Guiding

One of our most essential tools when structuring a guide is intuitiveness. We lean heavily on commonly used terms to make an explanation more approachable. “It’s like X”, is how we often clarify a clouded notion.


Intuitiveness is defined by how familiar an experience is to a user and how little learning they have to commit to, in order to acquire this skill/know-how. Writer John Pavlus put it best:


A pen is “intuitive” because you’ve used a zillion pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and stick-shaped inscriptor-tools in your life. A computer mouse is “intuitive” for the same reason (if you were born in or after my generation). If you grew up 500 years ago in an agrarian society, you might think a plow or a scythe was pretty damned intuitive. Would you know what the $#*& to do with a plow if I put it in your hands right now? “



Small, Concise, Deadly: Microcopy

A good example for using intuitiveness to make software more accessible can be found in microcopy. Microcopy is the small words or short sentences we use on buttons, calls to action, error messages and really to help the users navigate through the interface.


An example of intuitiveness in microcopy is use of the word ‘Delete’.



When you think about it, Twitter could have used any one of the following words to describe this action: Erase, Eliminate, Remove, and more. But they didn’t. They used the word ‘Delete’, because that is what hundreds of billions of Microsoft Windows users over the past few decades have learnt means “get rid of this item”. Asking users to “Erase” the tweet would have caused confusion and disorder, leading to misuse of Twitter, user frustration, abandonment and… we all know the rest of this sad tale.


Microcopy is one of the greatest challenges in writing support documentation and designing user experience, because it is usually located in small areas – buttons, text fields, pop ups and lightboxes, forms and the likes. The challenge is not only finding the shortest way to say things, but to do that using the terms that appeal to the users’ intuitiveness in the most accurate way.


Another great challenge in microcopy: it needs to be transparent to the user. Like any top-shelf user experience, the users don’t need to feel its presence, fight with it or allocate any resources to it – it is merely there to facilitate the software, the flow, the idea or the process.


 What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Intuitive’

Good intuitive microcopy needs to be based on an assortment of digital experiences that cumulate over time and synthesize a sensible best-practice outcome.


A great example for that is Slack’s password creation guidelines: “your password can’t be things like…”


slack microcopy


That is hardly proper English or formal syntax – a more premium or official brand would have chosen to word this bit of microcopy more conservatively: “Please refrain from using easy or generic passwords that may be easier to hack. For example: password, 123456…” etc.


As it were, the microcopy speaks directly to Slack’s users and target audience.


Let’s break it down:

  • Slack users are comfortable with a friendly, informal tone that implies familiarity
  • They know what “things like password” means (a lazy generic password that may be easy to remember, but also easy to hack)
  • They probably know they shouldn’t be creating a lazy generic password and this is just a reminder


All this wealth of information about the user is concealed in the microcopy, which is how the platform converses with the user. Which is to say, the folks in Slack who designed this screen know their users and found a way to interact with them in a natural tone, leveraging intuitiveness to improve their user engagement.


The Powerful Driving Force of Calls to Action

Help documentation is written almost entirely in terms of calls to action. All manuals are, as they are in essence a step-by-step guide to helping the user achieve a new feat, whether it is creating a new lead in a CRM or replacing a flat tire. Microcopy works exactly the same – it is by nature the interface’s way of taking users by the hand and walking them through digital terrain.


But this is much easier said than done. The trick with effective microcopy is that it not only needs to be concise, but also consist of CTAs that drive to action. Words and terms that speak directly to the user, in second person, and motivate them to take the action you need them to.


CTAs have great power that turns an idea into an action and hesitation into a feasible notion. Notice how Microsoft Word use CTAs not only in their guides, but also in their menu items:


Microcopy in Interactive Tools

On interactive help platforms, calls to action are even more critical, because they are literally a part of the interface. Buttons actually drive to action and are not just a guide. In many cases they either substitute the interface or else they are instrumental in making the interface accessible to the user. They ARE the actions. The good news – interactive help tools are more flexible than static text, making it easier to integrate buttons and highlight critical CTAs to the user.


If good microcopy should be transparent, microcopy on interactive help software needs to be so transparent it’s practically invisible. While static guides offer the leisure of going back and forth, finding your place, marking places and so forth – interactive help software keeps the user engaged at all times and as such, the guide can’t afford to distract the user or knock them out of “the zone” with inaccurate microcopy.


Some examples on how we harness the power of driving CTA’s on Iridize’s own guides:



Tapping into the traditional, familiar formatting of static help documentation, we decided not to fix it if it was’t broken: we easily mark the CTA word (Click) in Bold while the menu item is highlighted in Italics. We noticed that users respond more agreeably to visual patterns they are familiar with, so that is what we give them.


Another use of microcopy: helping the user orient themselves in the process by offering them a ‘Step x of xx’ indication.



In this case, we decided to take a page from the book of John Saito, microcopy maverick at Dropbox, who points out the importance of a “my” point of view in user interfaces. In the tooltip below, we combined a drive to action with a “Show Me”, allowing the user to take control of the guide by telling Iridize what it wants the guide to do. With 2 tiny words we planted the seed of the user’s relationship with the guide, which is essential to an effective training session.



Microcopy is a critical part of users’ interaction with the software. It can be harnessed to encourage engagement, build trust, relay the software’s character and above all – cultivate the sub-conscious feeling that the interface (meaning, the software) cares about the user or at least has their best interest at heart. Writing microcopy for help documentation can be an opportunity to be a more proactive and full-picture kind of technical writer.


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Noa is Iridize's Head of Content. With a background in digital strategy planning and database management, Noa translates Iridize's vision, stories and data into words. Digital learning and user experience are a particular passion of hers.