Microcopy needs context.

Josh Porter posted a link to a good post on ‘5 ways not to write fun microcopy‘ earlier. You should read it. In fact, go on and do that I’ll wait for you here …

… Done? Good. I certainly agree with the overall message but one particular example caught my eye: no.4 Clearleft‘s 404 page. Now some of you fair readers might know a couple of things about me already but here’s a recap:

1) A while back I worked on the Clearleft site copy (a lot of it has been changed, as with all sites). So I know that this has been their 404 page for a while, and Jeremy Keith was the original author (or quoter?)

2) I blather on about microcopy a lot and in one particular talk I highlight this as a good example of a 404 page.

So, obvious prejudices stated and aside, how could I interpret this page so differently from the other writer (who obviously has just as much experience with microcopy)?
And then it struck me. Context.

Whenever clients ask to look at my work, I send them to the links out in the wild – with the caveat that things change once stuff has gone live and sometimes you’ll have to play with a basket to see my error messages and microcopy in action. I find they just don’t work as well snagged and pasted into a portfolio.

That 404 page works well, because the message is just one part of a bigger construction. There is a main navigation and contact details and a client form all on that page, but you don’t know that if you just read the copy. As I say in that now infamous talk, kittens die feet first in shredders when you leave people without the ability to resolve the problem they have encountered. Take a look through the batshit slides, there are 404 page examples with haiku and, holy FSM, an alarm clock showing the time 4.04. But what makes them lame is there is no escape except the back button.

Clearleft’s 404 page isn’t really microcopy so much to me, although, arguably the “let us know” bit is. But overall it is a valid page, with purpose and instruction and most importantly a completely navigable way of getting the hell out of there. And alright, the message is a *little* obtuse but it isn’t harmful. And, well, Jeremy is a little obtuse šŸ˜‰

Anyway, this was one of those classic ‘comment that turns into blogpost ramble’ so for completeness, here is what I posted to the article in question.

While I agree with the overall message, the thing with microcopy is if you take those words out of their context they inevitably look dumb.

As an example, the Clearleft 404 page (number 4) works very well as a whole page, with nav directions and other assistance.

I worked on that site in its last version and, while the 404 page was more Jeremy Keith’s work than mine, it has always been a page that demonstrates a little bit of Clearleft’s personality *embedded* within a navigation that helps you get out of your bind very easily.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Annett, erin kissane, BrainTraffic, Rahel Anne Bailie, Daniel Eizans and others. Daniel Eizans said: RT @kissane: Excellent post on microcopy & context from @RellyAB: http://rel.ly/2011/02/15/contextandmicrocopy/ […]