Dave De Yoreo, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.


The world is getting smaller.

It used to be that you’d have to find a phone-booth in order to reach out and touch someone. Now you only need to reach into your pocket for your cell phone. And while no one really knows what the next wireless killer application is going to be, simply making a phone call is going to be incidental to it.

For example, consider the story of Sue-Yin, a college student from Seoul, Korea. Each day on her way to school, Sue-Yin passes her cell phone over a wireless reader at a turnstile in the train station to pay her fare. During the ride, she flips open the screen and watches mobile TV. After the show, and on the same screen, she pages through an e-book until she arrives at school. She sends a flurry of text messages each day, snaps pictures of cute guys and sends them to friends, plays an online game in which she runs a virtual pet store—and she hasn’t even made a phone call yet. Sue-Yin says “I can hardly think of life without my handset.”

Sue-Yin, or someone just like her, will be your future customer. And she won’t settle for reading documentation on a CD plugged into a desk-bound PC or embedded in a work-bound application. She will want to read anything she wants to, whenever she wants to, and wherever she is. That means on a mobile phone, a video iPod, a handheld PC, or something not even invented yet.

The chart illustrates that access to information is becoming the most important thing wireless device owners say they want—and cell phones are evolving to meet the need.

Hand-held wireless devices such as the iPhone™, and devices that run mobile versions of Microsoft Windows™ with applications like Word™, Flash™, and Internet browsers are redefining what a cell phone is. They are evolving from merely portable telephones to smart phones, or mobile information terminals, as manufacturer Samsung calls them.

Before long, these devices may displace PCs as the chief method by which people access data and the Internet. That’s why Motorola Chief Executive Ed Zander refers to such phones as “the device formerly known as the cell phone.”

Mobile Web Sites

Many large companies have already created mobile versions of their regular web sites. The IBM mobile web site at http://wireless.ibm.com/us is a good example. If you compare the IBM mobile site to the regular IBM web site at http://www.ibm.com (both sites will display in a desktop browser), you will notice that the mobile site has only the following links: Contacts, Employee directory, Order Status, IBM Stock price, News, Pervasive computing, and Special offers. For technical writers, it is interesting to note that the regular corporate web site includes a Documentation link under a Support heading, while the mobile site does not.

There is both an opportunity and a challenge here for documentation professionals. The opportunity lies in the fact that these new devices require content—lots of content—and obviously, writers to create that content. The challenge is that these devices also require new ways of developing, re-purposing, optimizing, and presenting information to readers.

Optimizing Mobile Content

While creating or re-purposing documentation for handheld devices is a relatively new activity for technical writers, best practices are developing. When creating content for handheld devices, consider the following guidelines:

  • Choose the content cautiously.

    Publish only information that a user will access regularly or will need for a specific purpose. Documents such as quick reference guides, product feature lists, specification sheets, frequently asked questions, and simple tasks and procedures are good candidates.

  • Supply content in both HTML and PDF format.

    By supplying content in these two file formats, you can be sure that the greatest number of mobile users will be able to access your material.
    Note: WML is a third format that is suited for cell phones that do not have standard Internet browsers (Explorer or Safari). See WAP/WML Tutorial in the Resources section for information on WML.

  • Consider the design limitations of a small screen.

    One of the major differences, compared to a desktop or laptop computer, is the screen size. A common screen resolution for smart phones is 320 pixels across by 240 pixels down, which translates to about a 2.5 to 3 inch display area. Content should be tailored to fit the screen to minimize horizontal scrolling.

  • Think about the size and placement of graphics.

    Ensure that your graphics fit properly on a small screen. Also consider the user’s bandwidth consumption by using small graphics that load quickly. And, be aware that not all mobile viewing software can scale images to fit the screen, so you should try to avoid using images that are wider than the viewing area.

  • Reduce the length and complexity of text.

    Make pieces of text short and to the point, both to reduce the amount of scrolling required and to conserve bandwidth. If need be, develop a more nested hierarchy, rather than longer pages.

  • Satisfy the user’s need for instant information.

    Eliminate content that is not essential to fulfilling a mobile user’s immediate need. Complete technical details or information that is not required to solve a current problem or answer a question should not be presented. Direct the users to the full version of the documentation or web site if they need more detailed information.

  • Consider the differences in handheld device processing power, web browsers, text readers, and video capabilities.

    Use mainstream video formats—stick with AVI, Flash, or Windows Media Video (WMV). If you supply multiple text file formats, HTML and PDF for example, indicate which titles are HTML and which are PDF so users can easily access the document in the format their device supports.

Using SMS for Product Information

The Short Message Service (SMS) is another way to deliver content to wireless devices.

SMS is an automated messaging system that sends short (128 character limit) pre-defined text messages to wireless devices in response to a keyword. For example, if you send a text message containing the keyword weather and a city name to the number 466453 (Google), a text message containing a weather report for the city will be sent back to you.

Examples of how SMS can be used for product documentation include replying to a keyword with the date of the next product release or the next hotfix release. SMS can also reply with a website URL. The recipient can plug the URL into the device’s browser and obtain detailed information from the website, such as a full list of fixed bugs or a list of new product features.

For an example of a documentation-related SMS message, send the keyword CIDM to the number 41411 and you will receive a reply listing a hotfix date and a short list of bugs fixed.

Note: Your mobile device must support text messages, and extra phone charges may apply.

Mobile Content Resources

For more information on developing content for mobile devices and the SMS messaging system, see the following resources:

  • The white paper Optimizing Adobe PDF files for display on mobile devices, available at www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/pdfs/MobileReaderWhitePaper.pdf, provides guidelines for creating Adobe® PDF files optimized for mobile devices.
  • Optimizing Web Pages For Handheld Devices, by Marty Kacin and available at www.intranetjournal.com/features/avantgo/designtips.shtml, gives a good list of design tips for developing handheld content.
  • WAP/WML Tutorial by W3 Schools at http://www.w3schools.com/wap and Wireless Markup Language/WML Tutorial at http://www.developershome.com/wap/wml show you how to convert your HTML pages to WML format so that your information can be accessed from wireless clients like mobile phones.
  • Send and receive Google SMS text messages at http://www.google.com/mobile/sms/index.html
  • Set up your own free SMS account at http://www.textmarks.com and create and send your own SMS messages.
  • Download pictures, music, videos, docs, or any other file to your cell phone at http://beam-it-up-scotty.com. Upload your file, choose the compression settings, and beam-it-up-scotty sends you an SMS/text message with the download link. Most cell phones that support the 3gp format and the mp3 playback are supported.