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The Construction of Instruction

If the world were made to my specifications, all your clients would be happy to pay for a web writer to craft every sentence into something as elegant as it was functional, and the client would have planned the content so that you had it just when you asked, but we both know that won’t happen every time. Sometimes you just know they are going to write the About page, two company blog pages and a Facebook fan page before resigning their position as chief content writer and you are going to end up filling in all the details that will otherwise just be Lorem Ipsum.

Welcome to the big world of microcopy:

A man walks into a bar. The bartender nods a greeting and watches as the man scans the bottles behind the bar.
“Er, you have a lot of gin here. Is there one you would recommend?”
“Yes sir.”
Long pause.
“… Never mind, I’ll have the one in the green bottle.”
“Certainly, sir. But you can’t buy it from this part of the bar. You need to go through the double doors there.”
“But they look like they lead into the kitchen.”
“Really, sir? Well, no, that’s where we allow customers to purchase gin.”
The man walks through the doors. On the other side he is greeted by the same bartender.
“Y-you!” he stammers but the reticent bartender is now all but silent.
Unnerved, the man points to a green bottle, “Er, I’d like to buy a shot of that please. With ice and tonic water.”
The bartender mixes the drink and puts it on the bar just out of the reach of the man and looks up.
“Um, do you take cards?” the man asks, ready to present his credit card.
The bartender goes to take the card to put it through the machine.
“Wait! How much was it – with sales tax and everything? Do you take a gratuity?”
The bartender simply shrugs.
The man eyes him for a moment and decides to try his luck at the bar next door.

In the Choose Your Own Adventure version of this story there are plenty of ways to stop the man giving up. You could let him buy the gin right where he was; you could make the price more obvious; you could signpost the place to buy gin. The mistakes made by the bar and bartender are painfully obvious. And yet, there are websites losing users everyday due to the same lack of clear instruction.

A smidgen of well written copy goes a long way to reassure the nervous prospect. Just imagine if our man walked into the bar and the bartender explained that although the bar was here, sales were conducted in the next room because people were not then able to overhear the man’s card details. Instead, he is left to fend for himself. Online, we kick customers through the anonymous double doors with a merry ‘Paypal will handle your transaction!’.

Recently I worked on a site where the default error message, to account for anything happening that the developers hadn’t accounted for, was ‘SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG!’. It might have been technically accurate but this is not how to inspire confidence in your customers that they can make a successful purchase through you. As everyone knows they can shop just fine, thank you very much, it is your site they will blame. Card declined? It’s the site. Didn’t know my email address has changed? It’s the site. Can’t log in? It’s the site.

Yes, yes. I know. None of these things are related to your site, or you the developer, but drop outs will be high and you’ll get imploring emails from your client asking you to wade knee deep into the site analytics to find a solution by testing 41 shades of blue because if it worked for Google…? Before you try a visual fix involving the Dulux paint chart breeding with a Pantone swatch, take an objective look at the information you are giving customers. How much are you assuming they know? How much are you relying on age-old labels and prompts without clarification?

Here’s a fun example for non-North Americans: ask your Granny to write out her billing address. If she looks at you blankly, tell her it is the address where the bank sends her statements. Imagine how many fewer instances of the wrong address there would be if we routinely added that information when people purchased from the UK? Instead, we rely on a language convention that hasn’t much common usage without explanation because, well, because we always have since the banks told us how we could take payments online.

So. Your client is busying themselves with writing the ultimate Facebook fan page about themselves and here you are left with creating a cohesive signup process or basket or purchase instructions. Here are five simple rules for bending puny humans to your will creating instructive instructions and constructive error messages that ultimately mean less hassle for you.

Plan what you want to say and plan it out as early as possible

This goes for all content. Walk a virtual mile in the shoes of your users. What specific help can you offer customers to actively encourage continuation and ensure a minimal amount of dropouts? Make space for that information. One of the most common web content mistakes is jamming too much into a space that has been defined by physical boundaries rather than planned out. If you manage it, the best you can hope for is that no-one notices it was a last-minute job. Mostly it reads like a bad game of Tetris with content sticking out all over the place.

Use your words

Microcopy often says a lot in a few words but without those words you could leave room for doubt. When doubt creeps in a customer wants reassurance just like Alice:

This time (Alice) found a little bottle… with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.

Value clarity over brevity. Or a little more prosaically, “If in doubt, spell it out.” Thanks, Jeremy!

Be prepared to help

‘Login failed: email/password combination is incorrect.’


‘Login failed: email/password combination is incorrect.
Are you typing in all capitals? Caps Lock may be on.
Have you changed your email address recently and not updated your account with us? Try your old email address first.
Can’t remember your password? We can help you reset it.’


Be direct and be informative

There is rarely a site that doesn’t suffer from some degree of jargon. Squash it early by setting a few guidelines about what language and tone of voice you will use to converse with your users. Be consistent. Equally, try to be as specific as possible when giving error messages or instructions and allay fears upfront.

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Combine copy and visual cues, learn from others and test new combinations

While visual design and copy can work independently, they work best together. New phrases and designs are being tested all the time so take a peek at for more ideas, then test some new ideas and add your own results. Have a look at the microcopy pool on Flickr for some wonderful examples of little words and pictures working together. And yes, you absolutely should join the group and post more examples.

A man walks into a bar. The bartender greets him in a friendly manner and asks him what he would like to drink.
“Gin and Tonic, please.”
“Yes sir, we have our house gin on offer but we also have a particularly good import here too.”
“The import, please.”
“How would you like it? With a slice of lemon? Over ice?”
“That’s £3.80. We accept cash, cards or you could open a tab.”
“Card please.”
“Certainly sir. Move just over here so that you can’t be observed. Now, please enter your pin number.”
“Thank you.”
“And here is your drink. Do let me know if there is a problem with it. I shall just be here at the bar. Enjoy.”


About the author

Relly Annett-Baker lives in the Home Counties with her husband, Paul Annett, and their two small sons. As a result, she thrives on the country air and can be guaranteed to stand on Lego at least once a day. Her principle employment is as live-in domestic staff for two cats but when not being purred into submission she is a content strategist and writer, runs dedicated workshops in-house with companies big and small and continues to procrastinate over the draft of her Five Simple Steps book ‘Content Creation for the Web’ due out in 2012. She’ll get right back to it just after she’s had another cup of tea and checked her RSS feed.

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