Bill Gearhart, Comtech Services, Inc.
The challenges of writing for mobile make user and task analysis and minimalism more relevant than ever. The credo of “faster, smaller, always available” has shaped the communications world since vacuum tubes gave way to transistors, which gave way to microchips. While a 1920s radio is far removed from the latest iPhone, the designs of each are based on sound engineering principles. In a similar manner, advancements in technology have changed the form and function of content. Hard-copy user guides have yielded to online deliverables, which are now yielding to mobile. But the underlying principles of effective technical content have not changed. In fact, the effects of user and task analysis and minimalism are amplified by mobile technologies. User and task analysis and minimalism are essential for writers to set context for mobile customers, distill content to its essence, and convey that content effectively through mobile media.
What is Mobile?
We all know what mobile is, right? It seems like a simple question at first, but then the rapid changes of products and technologies raise issues that make mobile harder to define precisely. What is the defining characteristic of mobile? Is it screen size? Operating system? Connection mode?
In his Mobile User Assistance webinar series, Joe Welinske defines mobile as the intersection of these characteristics:
- Has a screen that’s less than 12 inches (30.5 cm) diagonally
- Runs iOS, Android, or Windows 8
- Connects to the web by SIM card or wifi
- Is part of an ecosystem of apps built to serve various user communities
But Welinske acknowledges that this is a working definition only. The market is constantly changing and evolving, and attempts to define it precisely are often fruitless. For example, emerging formats are blurring the lines between traditional PCs and tablets, and between tablets and phones. The internet of things—wearable devices, automobiles, household appliances, and tools—continues to redefine what we think of as mobile.
Challenges of Designing for Mobile
The top challenges teams face when designing technical content for mobile devices include setting context for users (a traditional issue centered around audience analysis), introducing users to new system controls and terminology (issues caused by rapidly developing and changing standards), and designing for a reduced screen size.
These challenges are not exclusive to mobile content. But because of user expectations and a highly competitive market, the consequences of addressing them poorly are swift and severe. Mobile customers demand apps and supporting content to be relevant, brief, and integrated with their workflow. Mobile content authors who profile their customers, perform user and task analysis, and apply the principles of minimalism can ensure their deliverables meet and exceed customer expectations.
Setting Context for Users
Many in the mobile app design community debate whether user assistance and supplemental technical content is necessary and appropriate at all. This group, frequently made up of consumer app developers, feels that apps should be small and targeted. With sufficient audience analysis and design, the apps provide sufficient context and don’t need any supplemental content. At the other end of the spectrum, a significant segment of the mobile app community feels it is appropriate to have robust apps that are feature-rich replacements of enterprise products, with all of the capabilities and resources put together in a mobile package.
Most traditional content developers who are moving to mobile deal with the latter category, providing information for enterprise apps that are specific to a technical domain. In this case, it is important to use the principles of user task analysis and minimalism to outline the content:
- Create personas to profile the target audienceThe vast majority of enterprise apps are used by existing customers who are already familiar with their technical domain and the features and functions of the enterprise product. Leverage research from the app team about the expertise and experience of the targeted user.
- Understand the tasks the personas perform with the appMost enterprise products are broken into multiple apps, with each app aimed at providing a specific capability. Aligning the most frequently performed tasks with each app will provide a starting point for the content.
- Prioritize the personas and the tasks within those personasNot all of the content provided for the enterprise content should be included. In most instances, the enterprise product has far too much content to be useful, and the move to mobile only amplifies that problem. Focus on the top persona, and the top three tasks for that persona.
- Identify the learning issues the personas will encounter when performing the top tasksAddress the learning issues from the perspective of the subject domain and the interaction with the app itself. What is needed most? In the case of mobile app versions of enterprise products, the learning issues are often around the first uses of the app, the mastery of controls, and the display of information.
Introducing Users to New System Controls and Terminology
Like any evolving technology, mobile has continually changing standards for controls and terminology. Describing and explaining touch controls can be problematic—different platforms use different control systems and demonstrating those control systems is labor-intensive. Wherever possible, leverage the existing platform demonstrations and tutorials to show the basics of how to move around. Those demonstrations often show literal representations of hands and devices for touch gestures and provide the appropriate terminology for the gesture. By linking to the default platform demonstrations, you can meet the needs of platform novices cost-effectively. Such demonstrations will be needed less and less as people become more familiar with different touch interfaces and as standards for touch actions become more widely adopted and understood.
For an introduction to the functionality of the app itself, consider brief animated guided tours and overlays to the interface. Every user has lots of questions in early stages of use of an app. Typically the questions about the app decline over time and repeated use. For enterprise apps, the most frequent questions are how will this app help me do my job? What benefits does it offer me? How do I do the things on the app that I do on the desktop product?
First use a case where good technical content can help the overall design. Guided tours and overlays can bridge the gap between the enterprise product and the app. Answering common questions for the most important personas at the very start can help you simplify the overall adoption and usefulness of the app. Work with your app development team to launch the tour automatically the first few times the app is accessed. Limit tours to 3-4 topics and give users the option to skip a topic. If the tour is critical to using the app, consider making the tour mandatory. If the tour is not critical, provide an option to take the tour later and instructions on how to find it. Allow users to leave at any time. Use breadcrumbs to show progress.
Designing for Reduced Screen Size
While the trend for enterprise apps is toward full functionality, the best apps don’t try to do too much. Effective content should take the same approach. With mobile, less is definitely more. Don’t simply reproduce an entire enterprise help system.
Begin by eliminating as much content as possible. Leverage the user and task analysis to focus on providing the information for the top three tasks of the top persona. Determine the learning issues of that persona. Ask yourself what they don’t know? What information do they need to make appropriate decisions? When do they need that information? What is the most concise method of displaying the content? Then create minimalist content in keeping with the answers.
The most effective mobile content is in the context of the app and keeps the user engaged with the app interface. The goal is to maintain engagement with the app—not to take users away to read information, but to display information to help the user reach their goals quickly. In minimalism, we think of this goal as respecting the user.
Effective mobile content is concise and very visual. Quick tips, menu cascades, and overlays provide valuable content while using a minimal amount of screen real estate. Mobile standards are evolving to include new methods of displaying information.
- Overlays, coachmarks, and pop-outs provide supplemental information without obscuring the app interface and interrupting the user’s workflow.
- Guided help is interactive assistance that helps users manipulate the app to achieve a specific goal. This interactive approach works best for complex, infrequent tasks.
- Content should be embedded directly into the interface through native app coding. This technique blurs the line between app development and content development.
Traps to Avoid
While the underlying principles used to develop content for mobile apps are the same as for other content, mobile offers less margin for error. Users expect to engage with apps to meet their goals, and don’t have the time and resources, not to mention screen real estate, to read more than a few sentences of supplemental content.
Writers must use the traditional principles of user and task analysis and minimalism to eliminate as much content as possible and resist the urge simply to deliver a large content set in a new format.