Have you ever run into an error message that made you smile? Or a website prompt that was particularly clever or helpful?
Every time I read microcopy that shows personality, it reminds me there are real humans behind a website's or product's design. It kinda feels like I just shared a private joke with someone at the company.
Let me show you what I mean. Here's what Trello's login screen looks like:
Anything catch your eye? While some users may not get the movie reference (Matilda Wormwood from the movie Matilda went to Crunchem Elementary School), for those who do, this is a delightful example of nostalgia marketing. And the fun isn't over -- when you refresh Trello's login page, you'll find a different, equally clever email address belonging a fictional character. My next one was Dana Scully from The X-Files.
Snippets of text like these are called microcopy, which refers to the letters, words, phrases, or sentences in a software product or on a website that help instruct and guide the user. When executed well, they're both helpful and representative of the voice of your company -- whether that's lighthearted, formal, witty, or something else. More importantly, they can have a big impact on user experience.
I've always loved coming across delightful microcopy while using a product or surfing the web. But who exactly are the humans behind these little snippets of text? I want to know more about the people who dream up those little bits of microcopy; how they make sure to preserve the brand's voice; where they find their inspiration.
As it turns out, writing microcopy takes more than just good writing skills -- it requires a deep understanding of your target customer and a knack for translating product-speak into language that appeases and delights them. So to answer these questions and more, I sat down with Beth Dunn, HubSpot's UX writer and editor and the woman behind almost every bit of microcopy in our product.
Becoming the Voice of HubSpot
Although her first job at HubSpot was in customer support, transitioning to the role of UX Editor wasn't exactly out of the blue for Beth. Before HubSpot, she spent several years working for Random House Publishing as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor before earning her MBA -- and it was at Random House that she developed an eagle's eye for grammar and consistency errors, which quickly became useful to the HubSpot product team.
To Beth, the lack of consistency in the product's microcopy was just an obvious opportunity for improvement.
"We've always had a fast-moving product team made up of small, autonomous teams, which results in a certain amount of variability in our microcopy," Beth told me. "I started pointing out the need for there to be a style guide of microcopy and a point person who was ultimately responsible for consistency and quality of microcopy in the product."
Within two years, Beth had become that point person -- and HubSpot's first-ever manager of microcopy writing and editing. Whenever the product team starts working on a new feature, she's involved in the early-stage design process and helps sort out where the feature needs copy, help text, and so on. Some elements of copy are fairly standardized at this point, but Beth still writes the majority of non-standard microcopy and edits the rest of it. She also writes and edits microcopy in customer communications (such as automated emails and alerts) and on the main HubSpot website as needed.
Given that she joined the game so early, I wondered which came first: HubSpot's voice or Beth's?
"HubSpot's," said Beth. "The company has always had a sense of quirky fun: painting outside the lines, being a little bit irreverent," said Beth. "It's a part of both our internal company culture and our public-facing culture. The voice of our microcopy needed to reflect that, but in a way that was business appropriate." However, she adds, the "business appropriate" part was always a secondary concern: "We've always been less concerned with sounding like a serious, grown-up corporation than we are with just sounding like ourselves."
Take a look at this prompt text in Social Inbox, for example:
That message could have been strictly transactional, like "Write your tweet here." Instead, Beth invoked HubSpot's casual, playful, share-the-love tone. While a more formal voice is perfectly appropriate for some businesses, it's more consistent with HubSpot's voice to inject a little fun.
Teaching the Voice to Others
As the product team continues rolling out, revising, and retiring different features, Beth has found herself teaching others how to write in HubSpot's voice. One of her current initiatives is holding sessions to train developers and project leads. She created an internal style guide to ensure consistency in capitalization, hyphenation, and so on.
Passing on this wisdom to others on her team doesn't come without its challenges. She says her biggest obstacle is articulating where to draw the line between sassy and snarky. Sassiness is fine, as it aligns with HubSpot's playful, lighthearted tone. Here's an example of just the right dose of playfulness and sass from a page in HubSpot's product:
It's when you cross the line into snarky, Beth says, that "you're just being mean. You're using humor at someone else's expense." And the user is the last person you'd want to be mean to.
I asked Beth to give me an example of when she's had to police this line when editing others' microcopy.
"When you're writing microcopy for a warning or an error message, the inclination is to be funny and say something like, 'Not so fast!' or "Watch out!', and that's mostly okay," she told me. "But you have to be careful how you deploy humor in error messages because it's too easy to come across like they did something wrong." It's not always the fault of the user when an error occurs, she says, and it's important to shoulder the blame in your microcopy where needed. The last thing you want to do is come off like you think you're better or smarter than they are.
The key with error messages, she says, is to convey empathy and solidarity with the user. "There's always got to be a sense of us all being in it together." If you're not sure whether you're being clever and cute or just plain mean, Beth suggests running it by a colleague or two to get a quick gut check -- she does this all the time.
Writing doesn't always come easily to Beth. Just like every writer, she experiences idea droughts and writer's block. When this happens, she finds that just moving her fingers and starting to write stuff down -- "externalizing [her] inner monologue" -- helps a lot, even if the words don't mean anything.
"Action is the key -- sitting and staring at the screen gets me nowhere. I have to write first, and the ideas come from the physical act of writing."
Usually, she says she can get through a blockage just by starting to type. But if she's feeling particularly parched, she's got a few websites with similar voices to HubSpot's that she's bookmarked, and she'll spend half an hour or so reading them to get back into the right mindset. Her favorite? Go Fug Yourself, a fashion blog that assesses stars' outfits on the red carpet. While fashion blogs aren't in her usual repertoire, Beth says the writers behind GFY "never cross the line into just tearing someone apart; they're always funny and helpful and warm. It's never just plain mean-spiritedness." In other words, they're the perfect inspiration for HubSpot's microcopy -- and Beth says she reads them so much that their website comes up before Google's when she types a "g" into her search bar.
After all her years of experience in this role, writing in HubSpot's voice comes naturally to Beth, and it's clear she loves her job. Not only is this type of copywriting anonymous -- which she says is "better for my mental health" -- she has a lot of fun doing it.
"I get to giggle all day long. Sometimes I'll think, 'I can't believe I just got to publish a set of Princess Bride-themed release notes for our mobile app.' Who else gets to laugh as much in their job? It's ridiculous how much fun I have."
Some might even say it's inconceivable.