A Brief History of Microcopy
The term ‘microcopy’ (if not the medium itself) was coined by Joshua Porter – a self-described ‘product designer and writer’ with a blog (bokardo.com) on Alexa’s top-100,000 leaderboard. Here’s how he defines it:
“That tiny copy (often shorter than a sentence) that helps clarify, explain, reduce commitment, or otherwise assuage someone performing (or considering) a task.”
In early incarnations, microcopy was mainly used to lead users through the process of navigating a website. It instructed them to ‘click’, ‘enter name’ or – at the most important junctures – to ‘submit’ or ‘purchase’. There were no bells and whistles.
But over time, a glimmer of tone crept in. The garden-variety ‘Click’ became ‘Click Here!’. The humble ‘submit’ button evolved into ‘Sign me up’. These online signposts started sounding more human, even if they weren’t exactly speaking in a branded tone of voice.
Some of the first all-out attempts at putting microcopy in tone happened on 404 pages. A few years ago, clicking on a bad link would strand uses on a page with lifeless notice – ‘404 Not Found’, or something to that effect. But today, just about every well-branded website ha a custom 404 page. In each case, the message remains the same – this page doesn’t exist on our website – but the tone varies.
Here are three examples from prominent 404 pages, running the gamut from matter-of-fact to lightly playful:
- Google: ‘404: That’s an error.’
- Airbnb: ‘Oops! We can’t seem to find the page you’re looking for.’
- Emirates: ‘Sorry. We’ve travelled the globe, but we can’t seem to find this page.’
The 404 page is the low-hanging fruit of microcopy – the easiest place to begin applying an in-brand voice. In fact, when QUO creates tone of voice guidelines for a brand, we often provide sample 404 copy to give an example of the tone in action. It’s a natural place to start.