Content, context, & copy for conversations.

Illustration: Madeline Rawlings

Illustration: Madeline Rawlings

By Jess Thoms

Microcopy for conversational interfaces.

I recently signed up to a service and received a confirmation email reading “Nice work for signing up!”. Nice work? For doing what? Clicking a button? Wouldn’t a simple “thank you” suffice?

I don’t want to feel like a website is condescending — especially in an onboarding interaction which is setting the tone for an entire product experience. Thoughtless microcopy is just that — thoughtless. Button text or error messages may not seem like an important, creative touchpoint for a website or app — but when it comes to conversational interfaces, microcopy is all you have to work with.

“It’s nothing but microcopy now.” - Ben Brown, co-founder of Howdy.

Microcopy is the small, bite sized pieces of text that are placed throughout a product. Grouping together words and phrases to make the user feel and act in a specific way, is part of effective microcopy. There’s an art to building copy principles that will guide a user through a complete, and engaging experience.

A friendly nudge in the right direction is the difference between conversion or frustration. Microcopy usually consists of email footers, labels, error explanations, button text, disclaimers, instructions and 404 pages.

In conversational interfaces — microcopy is everything.

Conversational copy.

In conversational interfaces like chatbots — an entire digital experience is reduced to a few lines of text. Conversations are driven and designed with microcopy, so leveraging these small pieces of real estate is crucial, in order to delight, inform, or engage users.

A vast amount of visual creative opportunities are already predetermined for bots, as they live within messaging apps like Messenger and Kik. The challenge then, is leveraging the opportunities for microcopy in bots in features such as buttons, card, subtitles, quick reply buttons, and the use of emoji’s and imagery for conversation.

Crafting the text for buttons in messaging apps might not seem significant. However, buttons are both a crucial UX device, and a branding opportunity. Buttons ask a user for input — either promising to store that response or provide feedback. Button text is an interaction gateway. The branding opportunity is ultimately in tone and word choice. Would the represented brand voice say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or rather ‘let’s do it!’ or ‘not right now’? Microcopy: the error messages, button text, and questions are the only representation of a brand in bots. Brand voice should trickle down into every touchpoint element, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

The challenge is designing rich conversational experiences that not only stretch creativity and methods of engagement — but also make sense. Users are still coming to terms with how to use bots; what the acceptable or standard use cases are, and what interactions will be commonplace with intelligent assistants. Effective microcopy alleviates the brain power needed to understand and interact with conversational user interfaces.

Microcopy in conversational interfaces needs to ooze charm, communicate user expectations, establish a bot’s limitations and goal, and then usher the user to that established end goal.

Context is queen.

If content is king, context is queen. Conversational context means a user expects to input something, receive an output, and be guided to where the conversation is headed. Building context in a conversation is critical, and needs to be communicated from the outset — in chatbots this is the onboarding experience.

Understand your user — is the bot’s job to reach a conversion quickly and effectively? Or is the whole bot experience crafted to engage long term as part of a larger creative campaign? Establishing these expectations from the outset is part of an effective onboarding experience. Clarify what the user is expected to give and receive in the conversation. Will the interaction be open ended or guided by button inputs? What is the bot’s end goal?

Most of the time when users are engaging with a bot — they have a goal in mind. Reaching that goal in the most efficient and delightful way is the role of microcopy. There is no room for misunderstanding — microcopy needs to communicate clearly and exactly what the user needs to do.

“Something happened.”

Error handling in bots refers to the fallback system for when a user enters the wrong input or asks for something outside the scope of a bot’s abilities. Error messages always need microcopy help.

The 404 pages of bots are the messages a user receives when the bot cannot answer correctly. These responses are largely disappointing and usually consist of “Sorry, I don’t understand”. However, the creative opportunity is to continue the conversation and assist the user with their needs in a way that doesn’t revert to sounding robotic.

The abundance of articles on error handling for customer service bots largely ignores the creative capability and use cases for conversational interfaces. Customer service and automation bots aren’t the only use cases for error handling. Carefully steering a user back to the conversational task at hand in any experience is a form of error handling.

In an open ended conversational experience — what does the bot say when it can’t answer a question?

It could say:

  • Sorry, I don’t understand.

Or it could respond with any of the below:

  • Interesting. What else do you want to talk about?
  • Can we talk about X?
  • Should we move on to X?
  • Ha! Well.. I can talk about X!

Which is the better experience? Error handling should not be one size fits all. If a bot’s fallback system consisted of the first response only — it would be boring and frustrating. With the second set of responses — all can be used in rotation — the user still feels to an extent that they are being heard.

Error handling has to be conversational in order to make the interaction more personal and human. Always remember to employ empathy, apologies, and offer solutions.

Success handling.

Success handling is just as important as error handling. Success messages surprise and delight users with hero moments in microcopy. Microcopy that provides user feedback is a moment of ‘success’ that keeps user in the loop and engaged. For example, a simple “Great! Got it.” after asking a user for input alleviates any concerns they may have, and confirms their response was recorded.

Microcopy exists to enhance the user experience. As visual elements are already taken care of, tone of voice and language is the only barrier between a confusing or complete user experience. Reward users with confirmations, positive tone, and simple, thankful feedback when they are flowing through the conversation correctly.

Microcopy is the entire experience.

Microcopy can’t fix everything — and shouldn’t be used as a bandaid implemented after the design process. Quality UX will employ microcopy into every interaction to make it simple and clear for the user to complete a conversation flow. Improving user experience involves clearly outlining the bot’s abilities, expectations of the user, and effective error handling with microcopy that keeps the user in the loop.

Effective bots will use a ‘pull’ model instead of pushing a marketing agenda. Therefore, language needs to be inviting and responsive -- not dull and sales driven. The best bots tell a story and employ techniques to engage users into a brand experience that is unique to conversational interfaces.


Jess Thoms