Imagine you have a dental appointment and you arrive early. To kill the time, you might skim a copy of Newsweek that’s sitting in the waiting room. Or, if you are like millions of people with a smartphone, you might start perusing your e-mail, surfing the Internet, or seeing what’s new on Facebook.
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen completed research that shows consumers are using mobile phones as time killers, perfect for when you have five minutes to spare. The same study also showed that people are impatient with anything that’s perceived as “verbosity.”
In a typical newspaper article, it’s not uncommon for a reporter to interview two to four sources when writing about a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. When consumers are reading the hurricane story on a mobile phone, they perceive those extra viewpoints as extraneous.
What does all this mean for technical writers? If you’re writing any content that will be appear on a mobile phone, consumers want writers to get to the point quickly.
It seems that people want less and less content. Years ago, Nielsen recommended that if you write 500 words for a printed document, prune that same message to 250 words when it’s read online. This latest study seems to suggest that we should be even more ruthless when it comes to summarizing our main messages.
It’s not surprising that people want key messages, not lengthy, nuanced exposition. Many North Americans are feeling inundated with information, suffering from “infobesity” (see my earlier article about the topic). Many North Americans also struggle with literacy—Canada has an illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the whole, a proportion that mirrors that of the U.S. We’re also distracted. It’s not uncommon to be “spending time” with someone when they’re furtively staring down at their iPhone or Blackberry.
Like it or loathe it, more and more people are using smartphones to get their information. If you’re writing online assistance for mobile users, you need to summarize your messages down to bite-sized chunks. Joe Welinske, the president of WritersUA, recently wrote a series of webinars about mobile user assistance. In his book Developing User Assistance For Mobile Apps, Welinske writes, “The single most important thing I have learned in my work with mobile apps is that bringing over Help designs from desktop applications is a really bad idea.”
So when you’re authoring content for a mobile environment, be ruthless with your editing. Imagine you are writing for Twitter.
Here’s the full article about Nielsen’s research.