Small Screens, Big Problems?

Vesa Purho
Research Analyst, Information Design, Nokia Networks

In spite of the speculations on the future of 3G mobile networks, the small handheld devices are here to stay at least for a few years. Therefore, we have to contend with the pressure of having technical documentation available through a mobile terminal, as well as on desktops and laptops.

After all, handheld devices have advantages over laptops. Handheld devices are much more comfortable to carry with you in the field, and they start up much quicker than laptops. With laptops, if you want to view just a small piece of reference information, you may have to wait for five minutes for the laptop to boot up, connect to the Internet, and download the documentation. Not to mention that when it’s raining, you may find it difficult to use a laptop on the top of a base station mast.

Small, handheld devices can view specific, usually reference type information, but, by nature, handheld devices have small screens, and although the resolution is getting better, the space available for text and figures is not growing much. If the screen space grew, the devices wouldn’t be handheld anymore. Consequently, you have to design your information very carefully so that it is usable in small screens. As Janice Redish noted in the Best Practices 2000 conference that when you write for the Internet, the text layout is also good on paper. However, handheld devices introduce some surprises, or should I call them challenges, which will prevent you from using your Internet source directly in small screens as well.

Many microbrowsers display information differently. For the Internet, we currently have to design mainly for two browsers (some may also take a third, the Norwegian Opera browser, into account), but a greater variety of microbrowsers exists for handheld devices, and the standards are not yet to the level of normal Internet browsers. For example, some browsers support tables and others don’t, and some browsers crop large pictures to fit the screen and don’t allow you to scroll, and other browsers do allow you to scroll. Furthermore, the current WML standard does not support any kind of list.

Thus, if you are designing your information for all kinds of handhelds and browsers, good user and information analysis is essential to decide what kind of layout elements you use. The safest bet is to use only plain text paragraphs, which will then require the use of conditional text areas only if you are single sourcing for paper and Internet as well, because you certainly don’t want to get rid of all the figures, tables, and lists in your normal output.

Note: This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia Networks.