Vesa Purho
Research Analyst, Information Design, Nokia

A year ago (March 2001 CIDM e-newsletter), I wrote about the challenges in writing information to be read using a handheld device. I thought it was time to see what has happened since then and provide some tips on what you can do to prepare for mobile access now even though you may not be sure if you ever will provide such a service.

I want to stress that I am not talking about an application created for a handheld device like a mobile banking or an address finding solution, but I’m talking about a case where you want to enable the users of your product to read the documentation, or parts of it, using a mobile device so that they don’t have to carry heavy books or a clumsy laptop with them.

During the last year, the main change that happened was the selection of XHTML Basic ( instead of WML as the language to be used in the future microbrowsers in mobile phones. XHTML Basic is a stripped down version of XHTML 1.0 aimed for small devices so it does not support, for example, frames, scripts, or the style element. WAP is still the protocol that is used for the connection but instead of downloading WML documents, XHTML pages are used.

XHTML has more support for textual elements than WML. You can, for example, have bulleted and numbered lists, which were not available in WML 1.x. You can also use Cascading Stylesheets to modify how information is presented on screen.

XHTML Basic is the basic language that the major microbrowser vendors use, but they can also add their own extensions such as support of JavaScript or some other functionality that is not supported by other browsers. So the challenge of designing information for more than one, or even two, different browsers still exists although there are some lowest common denominators.

During the last year, we have also seen the first mobile phones with colour display that also have high enough resolution and contrast to make the text easy to read. They now allow for better use of graphics in the documents.

The physical screen size itself has not changed much and perhaps never will as the requirements for mobility set certain limits to the screen size and therefore elements like tables will always be problematic if the same information can be viewed on a large screen and on a small screen.

So what can you do to make your information ready for mobile access?

  • In your XHTML, use as many basic elements as possible and use Cascading Stylesheets to create the presentation in the devices. You can then show the information differently in different devices without having to touch the source text. All you need to do is to create a new stylesheet for each device.
  • If you are writing your original text in XML or SGML, use as semantic DTDs as possible. Consider, for example, using a specific structure for information that you could present as a table such as a parameter and its explanation. This way you can transform the structure into a table for big screens and into a list with links for small screens.
  • Decide carefully, by doing a proper user and task analysis, what information is actually needed through mobile access if you are asked to create this kind of service. It is usually not feasible to provide all information through mobile access but only some. For example, the information needed in planning an installation of a server is usually such that when the information is needed, the person has access to a PC. On the other hand, the information needed while doing troubleshooting at a remote location could be such that users would benefit from mobile access.

It is also good to keep in mind the statement made by Ahmed Zimran and Mark Hurst in the Wireless Customer Experience white paper: “To succeed, a wireless service must provide a customer experience that is better than existing alternatives.” Although they talk about applications, the same can be applied to documentation browsing as well. A mobile device can provide a better experience because it is easy to carry with you and connecting to a mobile Web site can be faster than using a laptop and so the user is able to access the information quickly. It will take awhile, or it may never happen, that a mobile screen and keyboard provide a better user experience in terms of ease-of-use than a laptop. So a successful mobile access service must be based on the need for fast access of relatively short pieces of information and people not wanting to carry laptops with them or not having them in the first place.

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