Why You Should Use Microcopy on Checkouts and Forms

Neil McKay
  • Forms are a primary method of communicating with your customers and microcopy can help the conversation.
  • Use microcopy to clarify precisely what information you need and why, and to provide support and encouragement.

Website visitors may abandon shopping carts and subscription forms when it takes too long to complete them. So, to keep your visitors on task, use microcopy to provide instructions, support, and encouragement to help guide them through the form filling process.

In an ideal world, instructions would be limited to the introduction to the form; the rest of the form should be so clear that the visitor can work their way through it without any problem.

The introduction should state precisely its intention, who it’s for and even how long it should take. And, clarify any information that needs gathering in order to fill it in and what happens when it’s completed. The rest of the form, i.e., the questions would be so well written and self-explanatory that the customer/subscriber would have no trouble at all in answering them. And, so there should be no need for additional instructions.

But, sometimes that’s easier said than done and you’ll need to include further instructions to keep your customers engaged. And, that’s essential when establishing a relationship with your customers over the internet, your forms being your primary method of communication.

So, view forms and form filling as a virtual conversation. The microcopy being a facilitator.

Therefore, if your form requires microcopy instructions, ensure that everyone in your entire audience will understand them.

Form-filling frustration

Forms and checkouts can cause major problems. We see it time and time again during user testing and our eye tracking research sessions when we record exactly how test participants interact with the forms they’re expected to fill in.

Generally, they struggle because the forms can be tedious to complete and the instructions aren’t clear enough, which raises further questions that lead to anxiety.

Google Analytics will also show where forms are creating problems because you will see a drop-off, and consider using form tracking and session recording tools to give further insights.

Try this test

Here’s a short exercise for you. Go to your website and do this. Look at all the instructions you use on your forms and rewrite them in everyday words.

How did that go? Was it difficult to avoid using marketing and technical language and were you surprised about how much or how little you had to do?

Did you find anything that wasn’t really required, and were all the instructions written well and in the appropriate place? Did you need to add more instructions? And, how much did you rewrite when you tried to read the instructions as a customer would?

The key to writing good instructions is to use familiar words that everyone in your target audience will understand. But, it’s not about dumbing down the content, it’s about message clarity.

Check your website vocabulary

Have you ever run your text through a vocabulary checker? Here’s a few vocabulary checking websites you can try: SpellCheckPlus, and Sentencechecker.

Run your text through any of the checkers and unfamiliar words will be highlighted. You can decide whether the highlighted words are appropriate for your audience, thereby turning the unfamiliar into the familiar.

But, it’s not just unfamiliar words. Familiar words can be confusing too when they have various meanings in different contexts.

You can also check the readability of your text by using a tool such as Readable. This will indicate its readability and, therefore, whether your customers will understand your text.

Get to the point

Effective microcopy instructions are direct and complete. The customer shouldn’t need to work anything out for themselves. And, keep instructional sentences short (microcopy doesn’t just mean the point size of the font) and positive, and use active voice—e.g., “Fill in this form for a free trial of our software”, “Sign up for our newsletter and get exclusive discounts”, etc.

Some say there is no need to include “please” in instructions, but in the UK we are inclined to do so when we tell/ask someone to do something. And, as your forms are attempting to have a conversation with your customers, then you may feel more comfortable saying please at the start of your interaction with them.

Just don’t overuse the word more than you would in a live conversation, otherwise you’ll appear insincere.

Different contexts, different examples

The eCommerce form below is straightforward and the instructional microcopy is clear, while there is room for improvement.

The asterisks indicate mandatory information and there is microcopy stating “*required fields”. But, the password field could benefit from a show password option to ensure that at least eight letters and numbers have been used.

The show password option would also render “*Retype password” field redundant—or the field could be prepopulated and a yes/no question could be used instead to confirm whether it’s correct.

It’s a good idea to tell people why you need an email address, particularly in this case where there is an option to opt out of receiving email updates, etc. A simple statement like “We need this to keep you updated about your order” should suffice.

And, clarifying from the outset whether the requirement is for a personal (free service) or business email will eliminate error messages and frustration.

The phone number field isn’t marked optional and there is no explanation why “mobile is preferred”. Microcopy could clarify the intention.

And another great idea for all forms and checkouts is to provide real-time, in-line validation so that mistakes are picked up immediately with microcopy, providing instant feedback and support instead of at the end of the form filling process.

Signing up for a magazine

The above two-column form is for a business-to-business print magazine and its online version. (Abi Hough’s article “Are you on good form” explains why single column is better.) The form does use top-aligned labels, which is a good thing.

But, as you can see, the introduction is fragmented due to using two different fonts; it should read as a complete sentence. It may help to explain “online portfolio” and controlling “email preferences”. This needs testing with representative people to see whether they understand these terms and how they react to them.

The microcopy welcoming the subscriber to a “community” serves no real purpose and gets in the way—they just want to sign up for a magazine and maybe access the online version too.

Basic information needs to be interpreted as personal information, so it may be better to call it so. And, there isn’t any microcopy stating what is mandatory information but there are asterisks marking some of the fields. If we assume that those are mandatory, then title and nickname are optional, so those could be removed.

The country selector is the traditional long, frustrating drop-down list, which could be replaced with an autocomplete field or using location-based smart defaults.

The need for an email address needs explaining (and confirmation of whether a business or personal address is needed). Password could be dealt with as in the earlier example.

The terms and conditions agreement microcopy links to the small print giving subscribers the option of reading it before checking the box.

Time to go to the trade show

This conference registration form is clearly labelled and all fields are marked as mandatory, so there’s no ambiguity. But, the design uses right-aligned labels, which is usually a convention for forms with lots of fields. The labels also have a significant amount of space between them and the input field to which they refer.

Reducing this space would allow a user to more easily associate the label and input and make it easier and quicker for them to fill out the form.

Also, the right-aligned block of text informing where the booking ID can be found needs dealing with. A simple remedy would be to replace it with microcopy such as “Where can I find my booking ID?” and have a pop-up listing where it is located.

The email confirmation could be dealt with much in the same way as passwords in the previous examples.

Test, test, test

Forms that convert well are easy to complete, a process that is helped by good microcopy. Writing microcopy requires you to think like a customer, ask the questions they are likely to ask when they come across something that needs explaining.

If well-written microcopy can answer those questions, so much the better. And, remember you can interact with them by providing real-time feedback to prevent errors causing frustration.

But, don’t leave it there. You should test it with people who are representative of your market. Watch their eye-tracking movements and listen to what they say.

From the data and their feedback, could you write better questions instead of relying on instructions? In other words, don’t use microcopy as a crutch to prop up your form. Then test again until the conversation through your form or checkout flows.