#ICC12: Resizing Content for the Small Screen: Considerations

Much has been written or presented on the process of converting content for mobile devices and tablets. But little has been written about how we must change the way we write for delivery to a device that displays about one ninth of web or PDF content viewed on a single laptop screen.

This blog touches on a few of the points I shared in my Intelligent Content Conference 2012 (#ICC12) presentation, “Resizing Content for the Small Screen: Considerations for Single-Source Authoring for Tablet and Mobile Delivery.” Subsequent blogs and probably an enhanced conference presentation on this topic will follow. Since only two of my 34 PPT slides had been seen before, I was curious how the early riser audience would react. The participants did connect with the message; in fact a few of them missed breakfast staying for an overtime discussion.

From this …

To this

…. In just 5,000 years



Ironically, some of the earliest known business “documents” were composed and read on “tablets.” Some 5,000 years later, we have come full circle to tablets again, only this time they are digitally dynamic, capable of receiving up-to-the-minute correct data. Due to their small size and portability, Sumerian clay tablets held concise, to the point messages in Cuneiform. Now that we are delivering content that was written for another medium to our new, iPhone-sized “tablets”, we need to reexamine the length and relevance of what we intend to deliver.

If I were wearing my Adobe Evangelist hat and wanted to make a shameless sales pitch, I would write about the ease of swapping templates in FrameMaker and Tech Comm Suite to shape content to resemble a small screen while you write. Or comment about single-source publishing from FrameMaker via RoboHelp to a variety of ePub formats. But that’s not my mission today.

Remembering what you hear can “measure” what would effectively display on an iPhone

Colleges provide different tracks for Broadcast Journalism vs. Print Journalism. Why? Because TV or Radio news content must be substantially shorter than what is written for newspapers or magazines. (Substitute your favorite digital equivalents for the media mentioned in the previous sentence.)  Our brains can process and remember more points when visible text is present. When we process information that we hear with no supporting visible text, we can handle about one thought per sentence. And sentences must be shorter; no longer than normal speed speech with one breath. (Please don’t consider my verbal speech/speed and words per breath as a good model to follow!)

Why does this matter? Because most of us still compose content on a decent sized screen (laptop or iPad). While authoring, our brains can hold longer thoughts because we are seeing what we write rather than listening to what we say. (Huh?) Here’s proof. Most of us prepare our verbally delivered PowerPoint presentation notes via hefty paragraphs on a computer keyboard and screen. We subconsciously fall into word count and sentence length that favors print journalism. Unfortunately, any additional information beyond bullets on the PowerPoint slide is delivered verbally. The writer has used one part of his/her brain to create the content. The conference audience must strain to listen to lengthy, multi-point sentence with the “broadcast journalism” part of their brains.

Every breath you take, every thought you make

With the advent of affordable computers, desktop publishing, and everything that followed, a climate was create that favored “print journalism” writing style vs. concise, to-the-point broadcast journalism. This didn’t matter very much, until recently, because the most common delivery platform was a sheet of paper (PDF), or a web page, which usually equaled half a sheet of paper in terms of the amount of visual content.

Although typewriters (and eventually word processors) prevailed in the middle third of the 20th Century, there was a difference that made earlier business communications briefer. Dictation.


Since most executives did not know how to type, they recorded their “written” communications via Dictaphone or dictation.  Although the final output was accomplished via a typewriter, the original content was delivered verbally, with the author’s pauses for breath conveniently segregating one thought from another. Each breath usually translated into a period. Ironically, mid-Century dictation often generated content that had a better sentence/word count ratio for hand-held delivery than much of what we are writing in the second decade of the 21st Century.

Why do we need to change our writing style for hand held devices?

When we read text on a handheld device, if the text is bulleted, indented, or formatted like a typical “technical” document, we can see the equivalent of about two or three spoken sentences. As soon as we “thumb down” to the next page, most of the visual context vanishes. We can only remember so much. This may be the reason that advertisement screenshots for eReaders universally display paragraphs from novels, not indented, bulleted text from technical communications.

Although a great deal of content from blogs and social media is pithy enough for handhelds, oceans of technical instructions destined for your smartphone screen are nowhere near ready to fit the confines of the small screen. If you are presenting steps or key points in a numbered or bulleted list, at a minimum, each item should be less than an iPhone screenful. If that bulleted “thought” or point straddles three or four Smartphone screens, reader retention will dramatically shrink.

I had an epiphany about this point recently when I found an online white paper I had authored about 5 years ago. My thumb nearly fell off scrolling through just three bulleted items. The content was effectively written and formatted for a “full” screen, but I didn’t have the patience for my own thoughts presented in the confines of a handheld smartphone.

How can we break the cycle of “three breath” sentences?

So, how do we change our writing style? And how do we edit legacy content with skyscraper-high bullet items destined for the smaller screens? We can do this by using some basic principles of broadcast journalism and even “best practices” for the maximum number of bullets per PowerPoint slide.

An exercise to “breath life” into your content:

  • As an experiment, try verbally dictating a rough draft of one to two pages of content to yourself.
  • Use the recording device of your choice. Anything from a cassette recorder to the voice dictation feature of your smart phone will do.
  • Pick a topic that you’re comfortable with and just “go with it.” Make no attempt to speak perfectly or correct yourself.
  • Just deliver your message in simple narrative form. Sentence fragments are just fine; you are going to edit the final version anyway.
  • If you can’t stand the thought of retyping content, use digital voice dictation software that will capture your words with about 95% accuracy.

Once your recorded text is converted into visible text, you will discover that your sentences usually end at the time that you run out of breath. The content you create in this exercise will give you a good visual gauge for comfortable sentence length suited for the smallest screens. Ironically, content written in this fashion (even from your fingers, sans dictation, once you get the hang of it) is well suited for better reader retention on mid-sized to large screens, or even (gasp) full sheets of paper.

I’m not suggesting that you give up typing content from scratch, but if you try the this exercise two or three times, you will find it can substantially improve your writing style for mobile device delivery. Ironically, many bloggers have achieved a good balance of short sentences by typing blog drafts on handheld devices. A finicky, small glass keyboard will incent you to end your sentences earlier.

There are also many software plug-ins that will prompt or enforce short sentence length with a constrained vocabulary. You can visit http://www.smartny.com/ for one example. Although nearly all of these tools were designed to create lean English source content that translates into target languages less expensively, they also do something else. These tools force you to produce more compact, readable English that is better suited for hand-held device delivery. Several of these products plug directly into FrameMaker. And by the way, with current global economic trends, much of what you write will end up translated into other languages anyway, so why not optimize your content as it is created?

What is the main take-away point this time?

Most of us continue to grind out content where we are most comfortable; on a laptop keyboard with “big screen” page display which subconsciously beckons us to fill the white void with long, expressive sentences. (To avoid some obvious comments, I wrote this blog on a laptop; I did not dictate it, and I made no effort to optimize sentence length or line count for the small screen.) Most of my Intelligent Content Conference presentation covered simple steps that at first glance seem incredibly obvious and smack of common sense. But as my beloved grandmother repeatedly admonished me, “there is nothing less common than common sense.”

We are still in the early stages of a massive communications revolution that will soon place content creation into the hands or most of the world’s population. The most common “sheet of paper” for a first view of our “documentation” will soon be that tiny screen held in your hand. So, we need to shorten sentence and list length to fit this framework. (Content reduction via conditional text or filter by DITA attribute will be covered later.)

The future of technical content delivery

For the record, I am not predicting or recommending that handheld content will eliminate paper, PDFs or the next generation of web pages. But most of us will inevitably move into the habit of using hand helds to locate business critical information, obtain a summary version of essential facts, and digest a longer version later on a larger screen, or even paper.

No doubt geo-location, user profiles and past clicks will also help filter and shape much of what we see. Naturally video, 3-D diagrams that can be manipulated, text free icons and a host of other tools will help improve our effectiveness at capturing audience attention in the first 2 thumb strokes. But, we have a long way to go.

Future technical content deliverers

And think about it. How are our children being taught to write in school, right now as we read this? Is any effort being made to train them to compose text content in alternate, concise English well-suited for small screens and localization into other languages? Hopefully many subsequent blogs and creative, community-based collaboration between parents and teachers will improve the situation so that the next generation of communicators has appropriate skills for tomorrow’s job market. It will take more than Twitter and Facebook to hone those skills.

Old writing habits die hard. I have as much to learn and practice as anyone reading this blog and only take credit for being among the first to identify this problem. Later blogs will cover the other insights and exercises I shared in my #ICC12 presentation. This is just a taste.

29 Responses to #ICC12: Resizing Content for the Small Screen: Considerations

  1. Scott Abel says:

    Awesome, Max! Thanks for adding this “must-read” information to the discussion.

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      Thanks Scott. I look forward to other tips from readers who’ve tried other things that work as well.

  2. MamaRed says:

    Wow, excellent article Max. Definitely bookmarking this one and using it as a reference for the future. As much as it pains me to admit it, this was something that hadn’t crossed my mind!

    Thanks for putting such tremendous thought into it and sharing your wisdom.

    Many blessings
    (Jerilynne Knight)

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      MamaRed, coming from you that is a great compliment. I follow you regularly on Twitter. Your comments are always welcomed.

  3. John Smart says:

    Great synopsis – Concise English has become Controlled English – the new common language for tablets and mobile wireless devices. DITA has advanced the delivery mode to allow technical information to be delivered by the to 192 countries. China Mobile has more than 150 million customers. New frontiers emerge for small screens.

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      John, your observations are very helpful. I have always found your website (cited in the blog) to be a useful resource.

  4. I like this model, “Every breath you take, every thought you make.” As a technical communicator and a food blogger, I found my styles were different for each audience, but I am thinking my technical content can benefit from this shorten sentence and list length model. Thanks for sharing, amazing put-together.

  5. Maxwell, Your presentation was super. I’m glad that you’re following up on your blog. It’s ironic that you say “I made no effort to optimize sentence length or line count for the small screen” in this post–I did in fact read it on my iPhone. Thanks for all the ideas.

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      Thank you, Marcia. Ironically, I read the blog on my iPhone after posting and was surprised that almost all of the bullets fit on one screen. Comments and additional hints are welcomed from all.

  6. Rick Cabello says:

    Clive Barker once told me that he “paints to write”

    No one will be able to draw or photograph anything to replace any spoken or written language. But now that the “paperless era” promised us forty years ago has finally come, a movement to condense or concatenate what is written for “smart-phones” is not only needed within the forum of technical communication, it is already happening in the SMS and Facebook facets of popular culture.

    Kids today are “roflol” when they see or hear previous generations adopting widely accepted acronyms and “emoticons”. We should – must – look upon such things not to replace language but to promote communication.

    I believe your article promotes a healthy step in that new direction.

    Thank you, Max

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      Great insights, Rick. Thank you for sharing. Language / content / presentation will continue to be a moving target throughout our lives.

  7. lynda felder says:

    Thank you! I’m going to try this method of writing, by dictation, out on my students. I believe this style of writing involves more critical thinking, and that cuts down on excess blather. Also, when you listen to the sound of your own voice, you can better tell when you are chattering away without direction or beginning to sound pompous. Thanks again.

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      Lynda, please do come back and share the results you get from your students. We would all find that interesting.

  8. John Turnbull says:

    I was caught by the visual link from tablet business docs to small glass screens; but I love the more important link you describe between breath and line length. That’s why actors understand effective communication better than most technical writers, and chanting was “mass” communication in its time.

    Will our screens always be small? I’ve carried an 11×17 paper pad from time to time. I like to doodle (a whole other subject for the communicator). It was thin, light and flexible. When someone else invents the FlexiPad (with iDoodle), I’ll have a jacket that hides it under my arm.

    • Maxwell Hoffmann says:

      John, great feedback/insights. Technology has existed for over 10 years for a roll up scroll with full color, opaque display that would work in direct sunlight. I believe this alternative to LCD or eInk only works for 500 impressions. Hopefully it will enter our lives soon.

  9. John Turnbull says:

    Yes. I’ve been waiting for flexible electronic paper too. I want a battery life that lasts as long as a ball-point pen.

  10. In a lot of these discussions, I see a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the skills involved in professional writing. (Mediocre) English teachers may advise, say, not to use the same word twice on a page. English teachers are not writers, however. For the dedicated commercial or literary writer, “writing” does not begin with execution. It begins with diagnosis of the audience’s cognitive, emotional, and other needs. After that step, the writer chooses from an array of techniques to address those needs.

    So, no. We should not replace mediocre English teachers who impart a narrow set of techniques appropriate for academic papers with mediocre English teachers who impart a narrow set of techniques appropriate for mobile screens. We should teach people comprehensive writing skills in diagnosis and execution. The ergonomics and social context that accompanies the use of mobile devices are lower order skills.

  11. Maxwell Hoffmann says:

    NOTE: we welcome further comments. I will be in hospital for surgery Wed Feb 29 thru Fri March 2nd, and won’t be able to moderate/approve comments until the weekend. You may not see your comment appear until Sun March 4th. Please contribute your thoughts during my brief absence.

  12. Shanker K.Vee. says:

    Max, you’ve touched upon the emerging need of the Handheld devices. May be the application developers could share their experiences for our getting a glimpse of the situation. It’s a challenge to write simple sentences for Help without appearing prosaic. Sure, we need to practise to get the hang of it. We may not size up the challenge until we get our feet wet.

  13. Scott, what’s the best resource for best practices for mobile documentation?

  14. Pingback: Coming Soon to the Small Screen (revisited) « Word Power

  15. Maxwell, Your 7 am presentation on this topic at the Intelligent Content Conference was one of the best among many mind-blowingly excellent presentations. You inspired me to explore this topic further in my own blog (revisiting a post from a year ago).


    P.S. to Daniel Maddux: I don’t know of a “best resource for best practices for mobile documentation,” but I’ve been researching the topic for the last year. You can find the sources that I’ve found most helpful in the footnotes at the end of my blog post (see URL above).

  16. Pingback: Coming Soon to the Small Screen (revisited) | How to Write Everything

  17. That looks super riveting, if you don’t mind, I’m writing you a p.m. about all this. salutations!

  18. This looks super riveting, if you don’t mind, I’m sending you a p.m. about this. ciao!