Resizing Content: How to rethink content for mobile devices

I wrote on this topic back in February, but expanded on the theme for a presentation to the San Francisco chapter of STC last week.

Although it may seem self-evident that a small screen requires shorter sentences, shorter word count, etc., some customers are trying to “squeeze” existing legacy content (created for full page display, replete with complex tables and multi-level nested lists) onto mobile devices.

This blog touches on a few highlights of the presentation, which is fairly self-evident in the slide share above.
Stc mobile device content consideration

Our ancient instinct to leave our “finger prints” on our content

As the 40,000 year old cave-man hand prints reveal, our instinct to “personalize” content has been around before the dawn of time. For decades in tech comm, we’ve been struggling with ways to get multiple authors to produce consistent content.

Once challenge to overcome is the subconscious urge to make “my chapters” better than yours.

Writing more succinct content isn’t difficult, it’s just different

Mobile content is much more effective (in tech comm) with a highly reduced vocabulary and sentences no longer than 20 words. Nested lists should probably never go more than 3 levels deep.

The challenge is that most of us have been writing for a decent sized computer screen or full sheets of paper for years, if not decades. Nature abhors a vacuum, and hour human instinct is to subconsciously “fill” white paper/screen space with words. In traditional technical documents this has led some of us to emphasize points in boxed text, tables and other forms of formatting, more than we should.

Less time, less content

In many instances, the version of documentation we publish to a mobile device may be a shorter, subset of a full set of documentation. Many times, our customers require an executive summary, or a “20,000 foot view” of the content they wish to consume in depth on a tablet, laptop or in PDF.

Conditional text, conditions in RoboHelp, or filtering by attributes in DITA are all tools that can lead to reduced content, when applied in a carefully planned manner.

Change your mind set, change your content

Over the years, many writers (of fiction or technical data) have used tricks to either overcome writer’s block, or to achieve a new viewpoint before writing on a new topic. We can use similar tricks to change our mindset before authoring shorter content destined for mobile devices.

The slides above include several exercises, from temporarily authoring in a template for mailing labels, to rearranging topics/concepts as moveable post-it stickers on a manilla folder.

Many of these exercises may strike you as silly, or “old school” at first glance, but there is a reason for all of them. When we are typing on a computer with a full screen, it is easy to slip into our “comfort zone” and start writing the way (verbose, too long) that we always did. The minds can retain more information when long paragraph are displayed in full on one page or on one screen. By definition, a mobile device is going to “slice and dice” paragraphs into multiple “thumb strokes” on an iPhone.

The use of physical media (yes, even a typewriter) in these exercises will cause you to (a) feel differently (b) think differently and (c) write differently. You only need to do these exercises a few times. They are intended as a catalyst to a new type of writing, not a way of life. Naturally, you will return to  creating all or most of your content on a computer, tablet, or possibly even a handheld device if your dictation SW if friendly enough.

Let us know what you think

Did any of these exercises work for you? Everyone is different, so the answer may be “no.” I’d be interested in new ideas and suggestions for achieving the same end. I’ll be presenting on a similar topic this Fall in Europe, and will give you credit if you allow me to include your original ideas in my slides.

I look forward to your feedback.

5 Responses to Resizing Content: How to rethink content for mobile devices

  1. Scott Abel says:

    Good work, as usual, Maxwell. This subject needs more and more attention drawn to it. Thanks for helping get the conversation started.

  2. I agree with all the points you made. I think it’s time though that authors realize you don’t have just a physical book or an ebook as your only options to deliver content to readers anymore. I’ve created a THIRD way through my iphone app. It’s called eMobo and it basically allows anyone to write a book and thousands of people will get it on their front screens of their iphones when you do. You need to keep your sentences short and sweet, kind of like a text novel per se, but in the end, you are generating interest for yourself as an author and in your other longer, more traditional works as well. This is in the spirit of your article and I feel the more people start using their phone for every part of their life, the more this type of writing will become useful to long-time authors. Check it out…the app is free, and lets get some stories written!

  3. Amazing presentation on an important subject. The thought process should percolate fast for more advantageous results. Thank you Maxwell. Will I be able to receive such information as and when released as mail? Please.

  4. What about applying the minimalism rules to documentation for mobiles?

    For additional information on _minimalism_ and technical documentation, check:

    (a) Hans van der Meij

    (b) Recap on Wikipedia:

    (c) Minimalism workshops:

    (d) Minimalism: why is it so popular ?

    (e) Providing mobile-compliant documentation (proposal)

    Thanks a lot for your attention,
    Marie-L. Flacke

  5. Dicko says:

    Thanks for this article. It will help me here at the University of Nigeria to be able to make the most of content-making for mobile devices.