The 20,000 foot view: mobile content in motion vs. conference presentations

MobileRoboHelpTechCommTechnical Communication SuiteTrends

This is my first blog written in flight (thanks to “gogo” WiFi on Delta.) Flying home from WritersUA conference in Memphis has given me time to interpret and revisit what I learned in the Peabody Hotel. Being up here “in the clouds” is a bit like being at a conference. Conferences are of great value. But we’re in a slightly rarefied atmosphere, we’re exposed to a limited group of smart people, and we have distance from our workplace.

Down there on the ground, back at work after a conference, sometimes things look different. I had an interesting reality check via a short conversation with the woman who sat next to me on the first flight segment. Naturally, we exchanged where we were coming from and going to (both headed home.) She was curious about the conference, not surprisingly, as she had been furiously answering emails and completing reports on her iPad via WiFi and saving all data to drop box.

What they want “down there on the ground”

This is in no way intended to minimize any of the messages presented at the conference; all of the presentations were top drawer. But many of the presenters were consultants or professionals who visit customer sites for some length of time, help discover and implement a solution, and then fly away. The customer stays behind, “down here on the ground” and continues on with work-a-day demands.

My seat mate works in healthcare for an organization that serves many levels of personnel at all stages of medical services and procedures. After I shared some great “in the cloud” visions of how we can strategize our content, streamline our workflows, pay more attention to mobile delivery, she summed up what people down here on the ground want and need.

“You know, all of the people I’m working with just want the information on their iPhones. And they want the information displayed in a way that they can get what and where they need in three clicks.”

I asked for clarification.

“Most of them have less than 7 minutes to read whatever, a policy or a procedure. And frequently they are walking down a hallway reading and navigating with one hand. They are losing patience with the amount of text they have to drill through to get what they need.”

From the cloud to the hand


That pretty much sums up all of our goals as content curators or communication professionals. All of the presentations at WritersUA somewhat touched on this woman’s succinct analysis. But in my mind, my seat mate “said it all.”

While writing this, still up here in the clouds, I’m thinking of much of what was shared at the conference, both in the meeting rooms, in our Adobe booth, and over lunch or at our rooftop cocktail reception. (You can see a photo album that visually summarizes much of the conference on my Facebook page.) Nearly every person I talked with was at least “thinking” about getting their content to mobile or in some cases were already publishing modest subsets of their “documentation” to a small handheld screen. Clearly, we are all still blazing a path in this area, and learning better ways as we go along.

An example of “arms length” documentation

And there are extreme examples. I am “well under control” type 2 Diabetic and just before the trip I bought a smaller, more portable blood test meter. (About the size of a small pickle.) The device came in suspiciously large box. Upon arrival at the hotel, I opened the box and found a “fat” wad of folded documentation. When I unfolded the “how to” instructions, I was surprised to find that it covered half of my bed, was printed on both sides, and was in English-only! For legal reasons I won’t identify the manufacturer.

The point is, I found documentation big enough to pass as a small table cloth, copyright 2011, for a device that basically involves pricking your finger and getting a drop of blood on the correct side of the stick and reading the numbers on the meter. This “mini” meter doesn’t give options for before/after meals, show averages, etc. It simply displays the current results.

Obviously there is room for content reduction beyond iPhones.

Squeezing a closet full of clothes into a suitcase

Tools exist that will swiftly transform existing content so that it will display on an iPhone or equivalent screen. But we can’t afford to simply republish traditional technical manuals in this fashion. That would be akin to packing for a trip and thinking that you can somehow squeeze all of the clothes in your closet into one fat, heavy carry-on bag. This seems like simple logic, but that is exactly what many of us are prone to do.

Getting the essentials to fit in a briefcase

As I mentioned in a recent blog about “Reshaping Content for the small screen,” most of us are faced with the inevitable; how to transform and reduce our legacy content into bite-sized chunks that can be accessed exactly as my seatmate described:

  • The “persona” you are writing for (or rewriting for) is forced into a short attention span. Not by social media, but by the number of minutes and footsteps available to click and pick possibly lifesaving information while the reader is in motion.
  • Your content consumer/reader will still use a larger display (iPad, laptop) later to get “the full enchilada” of information at a convenient time when more than 10 minutes in a chair is possible. But “information in motion is the key.”

There are a lot of terrific tools out there for transforming high volume, complex data into portable information, either as WebHelp, some form of HTML or ePubs. Adobe RoboHelp and Tech Comm Suite with FrameMaker driving RoboHelp (when appropriate) is clearly the best solution in my mind. But powerful tools are not enough. We have to completely rethink the way we create so that our content is optimized for maximum findability, navigation, and with high reader retention for a “body in motion.” To my knowledge, nobody has written a book on this yet.

Stay tuned for some means to achieve these goals to be covered in future blogs.

Mobile, RoboHelp, TechComm, Technical Communication Suite, Trends

Posted on 03-14-2012


  • By Scott Abel - 5:06 PM on March 22, 2012   Reply

    As usual, Max….great stuff!

  • By Dominique Dudouble - 11:19 PM on March 20, 2012   Reply

    Your remarks are prompting me to devise a better way for readers of a social science Journal which I produce to make better use of their reading time. So far the articles started with the main title (sometimes a subtitle) name of the author and bodytext (which can extend spread over 15-20 pages)
    I think I’ll insert a 4-5 lines abstract just before bodytext, so that hurried readers know beforehand if the article meets their expectations.
    (So far, abstracts are to be found at the end of the current issue, around page 380 or so… Fine with a printed version, but definitely not practical with a telephone or a tablet).
    For a journal, user experience is definitely different whether on a paper version or on a digital device, Layout should therefore be different.
    Thank you again for your reports, Maxwell

  • By JuleeBruce - 8:09 PM on March 20, 2012   Reply

    Great article Maxwell! This reallly hit home.

  • By Matthew MacDonald - 1:56 PM on March 20, 2012   Reply

    Thank you for posting this Maxwell. I’m currently in the middle of this exact issue driving a FM workflow onto mobile devices with theTC3.  Look forward to future blog postings – I’m interested especially in how interactive infographics or layered hierarchies can be integrated into a TC3 to mobile workflow….

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